Friday, December 21, 2012

Recognising Value in a Services Economy

Services are a many splendored thing. The more you standardize, the less it can dazzle you. The more you make common, the more you find it predictable and in your control as producer. Mac Donald’s is one example of standard mascots, colours, the logo et al. So also is CafĂ© Coffee day today.

The reason I write this today is this – Some brands differentiate to market a service for a premium that the client cannot justify. In fact, several brands tend to latch on like in a lobby to fetch that premium with no semblance of reliability or accuracy with the supposed standard of service.

There have been waves of assessment for example, that were sold as certification in the differentiation effort. The PCMM or People Capability Maturity Model from Carnegie Mellon was one such. Assessors for the Software Engineering Institute know for the most part that they assess to a scheme of practices and goals, seeking consistency between documents of intent – policies and procedures and documents of practice – of reviews and measurements.   There is not even an attempt to check for the validity of terms on these documents. E.g. the word competency could mean a technical skill in one organisation and a behavioural outcome in another and the Assessor will give no guarantee for the internal consistency of the term for the assessment he or she is given responsibility for! They would give sublime rationalisations to the effect that they rather focus on the spirit of the assessment than the content of the effort of the assessee.

Of late, several such apparent ‘standards’ pass commercial decision points with poor criteria for discernment. A floor effect is reached, when there are a plethora of firms that brand their commercially paid ‘certifications’. ISO for Quality is one such. Legally mandated compliances are of course in service of a different master.

Service is valued when it is authentic, spontaneously delivered and available when demanded.

Would you care for a bank office whose internal walls contain hoardings of minimum service time for various service requests are violated ad nauseam? At times, you can see through the inconvenient compromise that management and unions arrive at to take away from their own inventiveness and service capability, even as you stand in line for tasting their stated predictability.

Would you like to pay premia for culturally irrelevant norms, that you feel are imposed, merely because they sold the feature, even before the service is consumed?

How about an ICA or ICF credentialed coach, when there is no legal requirement in your own country to license coaches for your development? Even without a GATT regime for such services, several who need coaching will be deprived of service merely because the service is not affordable. It is like medical bills that get inflated to amortize costs of equipment that have only a remote influence on the patient’s survival.

And then there is the case for OD certification, when even in the lands of their origin, there is no eligibility criterion for professional qualifications to practice OD. In my experience, many Indian firms may fail to appoint Personnel Officers in line with the factories Act, 1948, despite the hundreds of courses recognised by the government for this purpose.

In order to standardise delivery, I have seen ‘trainers’ of sales, service and leadership behaviors, recite the same joke, at the precise calendar time of the day, as if there were no differences between their circadian rhythms or neural structures.  You can imagine how they relate to their customers, assuming that every customer was Henry Ford’s prototype of the Model T purchaser. Service providers continue to have their cognitive flaws when taking lessons from analogies, metaphors, and unrelated service sectors.

My concern here is as you may have guessed by now. How can we enable buyers to take decisions in their context without feeling cheated before or after they pay for their services?  Such points of mention may actually provide for derivative lessons which can make for enjoyment of benefits that were not even thought of before you decided to buy a service. E.g. Specifying the value for validity in Assessment Centers may be one thing in research, but another in experiencing it. Linking Assessment Centers with relevant talent management processes over relevant time periods goes with the purchasing decision. If you did not buy it for predictive validity, why pay so much? Here are some guidelines you may like for decisions.

1.       Conserve Resources : In a world that needs to make more from the little we have, we have only our brains to separate value from non-value. Beware of opportunists who take more from you than you need to pay. Conserve your financial resources, and pay for what is essential. E.g. There is no need to pander to ‘business class’ travel or ‘chopper-transfers’ merely to manage your service provider’s comfort. Also, when paying for time, factor overall time of solutioning for which you make investment and not merely by rate of consulting fees per day, for example. There is no point in negotiating fees for an employee survey per employee response, for example, if the outcomes from analysis are weeks and months away from the last response!
2.       Ecologically Sound : While at first this may be seen as a mention in aid of sustainable eco-systems, I refer here the effect of intention. When you buy, screen for the seller’s intention. If it harms people, even in a non-tactile, non-contractual way, assert your value for a non-threatening service. This ecological soundness is about well being of people with whom the buyer interacts most with. It is about avoiding willful or designed damage as collateral for the service being consumed. For example, if you have a personality test coupled with a job analytic procedure, and you do not have a plan to redeploy conventional talent in the recrutiment process into newer roles, you've not been ecologically sound, although you've gained on accuracy and timeliness of your new service provider. 
3.       Listen Deeply for Value: Many quality providers out there do not have financial muscle to numb you in a media blitzkrieg. When you engage potential service providers before deciding your purchase, have long conversations at first and then long conversation pauses. Clarify your logic for buying even more to arrive at what value you are actually paying for. At times, you will be able to justify the premium you pay. Most often, you will know how much you can save. Assumptions for your purchase are often clearer and the commitment to solution much sounder after such a process. This will reduce wasteful consumption of irrelevant purchases, and in fact make your organisation more 'lean' than those who operate Zero-base annual budgets with transitory 'efficiencies'. 
4.       Discern Customisation : When your service provider gets finicky about what comes with the package,  it is a foreteller of the mind-set you will have to put up with. In software terms, it is evident in length of field-names, and in revenue terms, it is about payment schedules for heavy investments. The more the service is tailored to your context, the more the service has been designed with intent to serve the above guidelines – conserve overall resources, systemic or organic connect with your context, and proximity to your economic value chain.

Often, when the above is factored in service, need for legislative or risk cover in insurance goes down. You get an experience of credibility, higher than the vacuous exposition of competence. What you realise in the process is a confidence in your own needs, and a clarity on value for purposes you engage in.

Buzzwords like globalisation, ‘international’ standards, and MNCs have their sway in times of change. That, like someone mentioned, should not take away from the wealth in your own home. We can do with less clutter on the inside and more collaboration on the outside for sure. In our eagerness to co-operate with models from distant contexts, we may in fact have lost our capacity to collaborate. If this post were not of value to you, do let me know. How can we be more reconciled to such choices in the service economy if we are not willing to explore how much more we have within ourselves? 

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