In The Age Of Technology Do People Still Matter?

Why Not Replace People With Technology?

In the second half of the 90s I was involved in consulting in the area of shared services.  Being a sidekick I got to witness the sales pitch.  What was the sales pitch?  No human beings.  Everything in the back office was subject to business rules. The business rules could be codified, programmed and back office work could be automated.  No human necessary. Nirvana: 24/7/365 nirvana of efficiency guaranteed to deliver the same outcome each and every time.

Today, I notice the same love of technology as regards the front office: where the customer meets the enterprise.  In this age of technology do people still matter?  Do we need sales people given that content marketing will generate the interest, product demos can be put on the web, and the ‘inside sales’ people can take the orders?  Do we need to have any people in marketing given that big data will generate the insights, decision engines will contain the heuristics, market resource management systems will hold the marketing assets, and marketing automation will take care of the execution of marketing campaigns?  Do we need people in the call-centres taking calls given the extensive self-help that can be enabled through digital channels and every customer would prefer to interact via Twitter?  Do we need people in the stores? Why not rebuild the stores so that they resemble a combination of a website and a vending machine?

What Do These Two Women Say On The Matter?

Allow me to share a conversation that I overheard the other day between two women.  Before I do that let me set some context.  Waitrose is supermarket chain in the UK and it is owned by The John Lewis Partnership.  The John Lewis Partnership has been and continues to do well despite tough times for retailers. Tesco used to be the darling of the CRM press and used to be the dominant supermarket chain. It has not been doing so well since austerity hit.  Morrisons is the fourth largest chain of supermarkets in the UK.

As promised here is the gist of the conversation (between two women) that I overheard at the weekend:

Mrs A: “Waitrose is known for their great customer service and rightly so. It’s easy to find someone to help you. And when you ask for help in finding something, the Waitrose person walks you across the store and takes you right to the item you are looking for.  They are so helpful.”

Mrs B. “I was in Waitrose this week and wasn’t sure what ingredients I needed for eggs Benedict; I haven’t cooked them before. So I asked for help. The Waitrose man didn’t know either but he told me that he would find out. I saw him walk to one of his colleagues. Then he came back and told me what I needed and how to cook eggs Benedict. He was so helpful: he made my problem his own. That’s such good service.”

Mrs B. “The staff in Morrisons don’t walk with you to the item you are looking for. Yet, I always find them  warm, friendly and helpful.”

Mrs A. “I don’t like Tesco. It is hard to find people in the store to help you. And when you do find someone to help they tell you where you can find the item, point towards it, and then leave you to it. They don’t walk with you and show you where it is.  They don’t care – not at all like the Waitrose people.”

Mrs B. “I used to do all my shopping at Tesco. Then Tesco got greedy – pushing up prices and cutting down on the customer service. Now, I shop for the basics at Morrisons and the rest from Waitrose.”  

My Take On The Situation 

I’ll leave you decide whether people matter or not in the age of technology.  For myself, I am clear that humans are simply more at ease in dealing with other human beings. And there is no substitute for great customer service – the way that the folks in Waitrose (and John Lewis) stores interact with their customers, and amongst themselves.

Before you rush off to revamp your customer service remember that one ingredient does not a dish make.  A great dish always consist of the insightful application of a recipe – and the recipe requires a mix of ingredients, in the right measure, and sequence, cooked for just the right amount of time.  How does one generate such insight? Through experience: on the battlefield of life.  What is the recipe?  The business philosophy and organisational design: what matters, who matters, the operating principles, how conflict is handled, how rewards are shared, how people are structured into groups, and how interactions-relationships-differences-conflicts are handled…

Please note: I am not in the business of giving advice (in this blog). So you shouldn’t take anything in this blog as constituting advice. In this blog I find myself involved in sharing my thinking and experience.  That is all. Then you make of it what you make of it.

John Lewis: masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness?

What makes John Lewis so special?

John Lewis is one of the few retailers that is doing great in the UK.  My eldest son (who is studying business and passionate about retail) got to spend one week working in the menswear department of John Lewis.  During a car journey I asked him about his experience.  He told me that he enjoyed working at John Lewis and was looking into an apprenticeship.

I asked him what made John Lewis given that he already “runs” the local charity store on Saturdays and has been selling since he was 8 years old.  This is what he told me:

  •  “John Lewis is professional – they do things right“;
  • “I like the people who I worked with“;
  • “Papa, a lot of them have worked there [John Lewis store] for a long time – they love it“;
  • “One of the main people has worked there for 34 years!  He told me that he came for his interview via horse carriage!”
  • “He knows everything about John Lewis and the products they sell“;
  • “He knows instantly what size, colour and clothes will suit the customer!“; and
  • “He is great with customers – they like him.”

I am clear that John Lewis has created a unique context and thus a unique relational bond between the key players in John Lewis: the brand, management, staff and customers. Which is why one person has worked at the John Lewis store for 34 years and knows the business, the products and customers inside out.  And why so many of the staff have been with John Lewis for many years.

How has John Lewis brought about this state of affairs?  By not treating their employees as ‘disposal’ objects/resources which is what almost all other employers do.  Do you know that John Lewis is actually called the John Lewis Partnership.  Who are the partners?  The 69,000 permanent employees!  Yes, the John Lewis Partnership is an employee owned partnership through design/constitution.  Here is what the Guide to Employee Ownership says:

“The John Lewis Partnership has a visionary and successful way of doing business, putting the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does. It’s the embodiment of an ideal, the outcome of nearly a century of endeavour to create a different sort of company, owned by Partners dedicated to serving customers with flair and fairness.

All 69,000 permanent employees are Partners who own John Lewis department stores, Waitrose supermarkets, an online and catalogue business, johnlewis.com, and a direct services company, Greenbee.com, with a turnover of nearly £7bn last year. Partners share in the benefits and profit of a business that puts them first.

When the founder, John Spedan Lewis, set up the Partnership, he was careful to create a governance system, set out in the company’s Constitution, that would be both commercial, allowing the business to move quickly to stay ahead in a competitive industry, and democratic, giving every Partner a voice in the business they co-own. His combination of commercial acumen and corporate conscience has helped to make the company succeed.

John Lewis Partnership shares are held in Trust. The beneficiaries of that Trust are the employees of the company, the Partners. They share the profit and have oversight of management decisions through a number of democratic bodies.”

When the employer and the employees show up and operate from a ’employees/employers are disposable’ context, what shows up?

We live in a ‘disposable’ world best epitomised by Apple: the hottest new Apple product is only hot for a year or so then it is ‘thrown out’ and the next hottest thing is bought.  That may be a great relationship as regards objects/resources.  Is this type of orientation/relationship appropriate when it comes to the relationship between the organisation and its employees?  Does a ‘disposable relationship’ lead to a good/great customer experience and contribute to organisational effectiveness?

I say that in normal economic times, the employees are alienated from their work and there is high turnover.  Staff rarely stay long enough to get the organisation: what it stands for, where it is headed, who the key players are, how work gets done etc.  Nor does their brief ‘tenure’ in their role/post allow them to develop the product expertise and the softer customer interaction skills.

What is the impact on the customer experience?  From the customer’s view the employees show up a ‘not having a clue about the products they are selling’ and lacking in basic ‘human to human communication skills’.  At best the customer is left with an ‘adequate/bland/indifferent’ experience.  This kind of experience is good enough as long as there is no real competition.  Else, it is the route to failure – it just takes a little time (that reminds me of a song).

What is the impact of that on organisational effectiveness?  It degrades organisational effectiveness in several ways:

First, it takes some time/effort/cost to recruit new staff and give them even the basic training.

Second, the employees are not invested in their roles nor in the organisation so do not come up with ideas and/or take action to: improve that which is not working well;  improve that which is working ok and could be better; retire that which is not necessary; and come up with that which is necessary and is missing.

Third, these kind of organisations are ‘held together’ by a small number of ‘long timers’ who are the ones who know how the system works and who work the system to get things done.  When they leave – and they do eventually leave as their passion/determination wears out – their knowledge/expertise/passion/dedication walks out with them.  And a big gap is left in the organisation.  Result?  The workability and performance of the organisation suffers.

Fourth, management is so busy dealing with staff related concerns – recruitment, training, interpersonal squabbles, control , exit – that the managers rarely have/make the time to do anything other than put fires out.  And create more policies and practices to further restrict/control the degree of freedom that employees have.  Why?  Because employees have shown that they are not up to the job.

What do I say?

Tell me what matters most to you, what are you really passionate about, what are you genuinely committed to?

If it is the workability and performance of your organisation over the longer term then I say take a good look at The John Lewis Partnership.  I also say throughly read/grapple with the ideas Dave Logan et al share in their book Tribal Leadership and move your organisation to a Level 4 organisation.  Why? Because I am a clear that the John Lewis Partnership is an embodiment of the Level 4 organisation and Dave Logan et al show you how to move the people in your organisation through the different levels.  The bad news?  The fundamental transformation starts with the CEO and his leadership team.

If you are committed to ‘command & control’ and ’employees as disposable resources’ then I say carry on a you are.   And beware that in doing so you are sitting atop a fragile organisation that will break with the next big/unexpected.   I will explore the subject of ‘fragility’ and ‘Antifragility’ in a follow up post.

What do you say?