George Orwell’s Insights Into Customer Service, Customer Experience, and Customer-Centricity

What Is The Weak Point Of Many Organisations?

In a few days I had grasped the main principles on which the hotel was run …….

What keeps a hotel going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work, beastly and silly though it is. If a man idles, the others soon find him out, and conspire against him to get him sacked…… everyone in the hotel had his sense of honour, and when the press of work came we were all ready for a grand concerted effort to get through it….

This is the good side of hotel work. In a hotel a huge and complicated machine is kept running by an inadequate staff, because every man has a well defined job and does it scrupulously. But there is a weak point, and it is this – that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the customer pays for. The customer pays, as he sees it, for good service; the employee is paid, as he sees it, for the boulot – meaning, as a rule, an imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in the things that matter.

Take cleanliness for example. The dirt in the Hotel X, as soon as it penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting ….. the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches….. The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognised cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brass work regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case had no time for it. We were simply carrying out our duties; and our first duty was punctuality, we saved time by being dirty.

In the kitchen the dirt was worse….. he [French cook] is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness..… When a steak is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumbs round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks it again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist …. then presses it lovingly into place with is fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning…..

Dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is sacrificed to punctuality and smartness. The hotel employee is too busy getting food ready to remember that it is meant to be eaten. A meal is simply ‘une commande’ to him, just as a man dying of cancer is simply ‘a case’ to the doctor. A customer orders ….. a piece of toast. Somebody pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, ‘This toast is to be eaten – I must make it eatable’? All he knows is that it must look right and must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead onto the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off… And so it was with everything…..

Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly. For the most part the materials of the food were very bad, through the cooks knew how to serve it up in style. The meat was at best ordinary, and as to the vegetables, no good housekeeper would have looked at them in the market …… The tea and coffee were of inferior sorts, and the jam was synthetic stuff out of vast unlabelled tins ……. There was a rule that employees must pay for anything they spoiled, and in consequence damaged things were seldom thrown away. Once the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our service lift, where it fell into a litter of broken bread, torn paper and so forth to the bottom. We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up again. Upstairs there were dirty tales of once-used sheets not being washed, but simply damped, ironed and put back on the beds. The patron was as mean to us as to the customers ….. And the staff lavatory was worthy of Central Asia, and there was no place to wash one’s hands, except sinks used for washing crockery.

In spite of all this the Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris, and the customer paid startling prices. The ordinary charge for a night’s lodging, not including breakfast, was two hundred francs …. If a customer had a title, or was reputed to be a millionaire, all his charges went up automatically…..

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

What is that the astute change agent can learn here?

I don’t know. Here is my take on the matter of leadership and organisational change – including shifting organisations to be more responsive and aligned to customer needs:

The context is decisive

– Werner Erhard

The underlying structure of anything determines its behaviour

– Robert Fritz

I urge those of you who strive to be effective in effecting change need to master and obey these insights. Most of us don’t – even if we get these distinctions we don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, or the passion to do that which is necessary. Which explains why it is that most organisational change efforts yield disappointing harvests.  And why most ‘customer-centric’ change efforts fail to yield an organisation that shows up as customer-centric.  Perhaps genuine customer-centricity is unnecessary – maybe it is a matter of faking it like the patron and employees of the Hotel X were faking it.  Perhaps not – today just about everyone has digital media and access to social media. You decide.

I dedicate this post to James Lawther who reached out to me when reaching out occurred as a most welcome kindness.  James called me back to the conversation that occurs in this blog.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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