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Don’t make employees part of the machine. Customers don’t like it.


Airports are designed for shoppers and planes, not passengers. I went through Zurich Airport recently. Like most big airports, the way from security control to the gate weaves through and past many shops.

You move with comfort, but not speed. That’s because airports’ priorities are to maximise retail spending and landing fees, not to make sure you get to your gate quickly.

The same can be said of digitalization. For the last few years, the design talk has focused technology and better efficiency. But if we put more data and information at the front-end of your organisation, and we automatically change the people and power dynamics at work. Many executives have ignored this dynamic. Their digitalization initiatives are designed to bring in new technology, not to make customers happy.

Last month, my internet connection kept breaking up – only for 20 seconds or so, four or five times a day. It was irritating because it happened randomly. A quick search in the online forums showed I wasn’t alone. The response from the helpline: unplug your router for 10 seconds, then re-connect it. This was not solving customers’ problems, but I wouldn’t be surprised if (internally) each customer incident was recorded as “resolved successfully”. The employees reach their performance targets, the customers can’t reach anyone.

The key to fantastic digitalization is clarity about what your customers really want, then to use technology and people to achieve this aim. Customers want a consistent, reliable connection to the internet. Deliver that and they will stay. Moreover, they will recommend your service, which is 12 times more effective than any other form of marketing. (That’s efficiency and sales growth in itself.)

Internally, digitalization initiatives have to give employees the power to use the technology to give customers answers. Helpline employees want to serve and delight customers. They’re not interested in dealing with arbitrary internal targets. Employees want to go home, having used skills and knowledge to help customers quickly get a want they want.

Trying to implement change plans that make employees part of the machine is an idea that never ends happily. New processes are best when they build in flexibility and discretion for employees to decide.

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