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Thursday 29 January 2009

The beauty – and ugliness – of systems

by Emily Coltman of AskM

Most businesses, and departments, have systems in place for carrying out their day-to-day operations.

For example, in a finance department, there’ll be systems for creating sales invoices, for posting and paying purchase invoices, for producing the monthly management accounts, etc. etc.
The finance department might not deal directly with the business’s customers. Certainly, when I worked in the finance department at Whitbread’s head office, we didn’t speak to the people who bought beer at Whitbread pubs, the external customers. Our “customers” were the other departments at head office – procurement, marketing, sales and so on. We had internal customers.
Whether you deal with internal or external customers, here are some thoughts on how systems can help – or hinder – you.

Do the unexpected and create a wow

Michael Gerber, in his book The E-Myth Revisited, describes a visit to a hotel where systems were used to make the customer’s experience truly memorable.

He had dinner followed by coffee in the hotel restaurant one evening, and thought nothing of it when the waiter asked what his favourite brand of coffee was… until he woke up the following morning astonished and delighted to find that room service had brought him a pot of his favourite coffee.
The hotel had taken a very simple way to show the customer that it cared enough about him to listen to what he said and act on it. To make this possible, the hotel had a system that the waiters in the restaurant should ask what the resident’s favourite brand of coffee was, and write it down for room service.

Not difficult.

Rigidity ruins systems

A rigid system, on the other hand, can totally spoil good customer service.
What if Michael Gerber had preferred tea, rather than coffee, in the morning? Would he have been able to tell room service, or would they simply have followed the system to the letter and brought him coffee? Or would one member of the room service team have brought him tea and then another turned up with coffee?

Many doctors’ surgeries have appointment systems, and they try to book all patients in for appointments, rather than having patients arrive on an ad-hoc basis. But there are times when patients – particularly children – may need to see a doctor urgently.

There was one occasion when I went into the doctor’s surgery doubled up with period pains. That’s not a serious enough condition to take to A&E, but I still needed strong prescription painkillers pronto. The receptionist, obviously trying to book me in for an appointment, said “Can’t it wait?”
My answer was, “Well, look at me! Do I look as though it can wait?!”

The rigidity of the appointment system left the surgery looking as though it didn’t care that a patient was in considerable pain. Would you want to go to that surgery?

All I can say is, I’m thankful that I don’t have to any more, after moving to the opposite end of England!

Some systems must stay rigid

Some systems, however, must be rigid, robust and always adhered to, to ensure not only customer care but basic customer safety.

The passenger ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off Zeebrugge in 1987 with the loss of nearly 200 lives, because the ship went to sea with its bow doors open, allowing water in.
The assistant bo’sun should have shut those doors before the ship sailed – but he had fallen asleep.

That system wasn’t nearly robust enough. The safety of the ship and hundreds of passengers should never have been allowed to rest on one man.

A senior officer should have been responsible for doing a full safety check of the vessel before she sailed and reporting any breaches to the captain. Or better still, the ferry company should have installed an audible alarm system to warn the captain that the doors were open. Best of all would have been a mechanism preventing the ship’s engines from starting if the doors weren’t securely shut.

And the system for making sure all staff had adequate breaks and sufficient rest may well also either have been broken or non-existent.

The laxity of those systems sends the message that the ferry company didn’t care enough about its customers or its crew – half of whom died when the ship capsized – to do something as basic as making sure they were as safe as possible.

Some systems must be inflexible. Make sure you – and all the team - know which ones these are.

Most systems should be flexible

Most of your systems, other than those which affect health and safety, will need to be flexed sometimes.

And your staff need to be trained to know which systems they are allowed to flex, when to flex a system, and how far - and when to keep to it.

This may mean you need to train your staff above and beyond the immediate requirements of their job.

The receptionist at the doctor’s surgery I mentioned earlier, should have been trained to recognise visible signs of pain in a patient (which is above and beyond what a receptionist usually does) and to say to that patient, “Would you like to see a doctor or nurse as soon as possible?”, rather than keeping rigidly to the appointments system.

That tells the patient that the surgery staff care enough about her to make sure she’s made comfortable as soon as possible. But if a doctor finds him- or herself confronted with a hypochondriac patient on a regular basis, then the receptionist needs to be alerted to make sure the appointments system is followed to the letter with that patient.

Let your staff use their initiative

As well as knowing when to flex a system, your staff will need to be able to think on their feet and work out solutions.Suppose Michael Gerber had asked room service for blackcurrant tea for breakfast, but the hotel didn’t keep a stock of blackcurrant tea? And no customer had ever asked the hotel to provide something it didn’t keep?

The team member with initiative would tell him, “We don’t have any of that, but I’ll do my best to get some by tomorrow morning. If I can’t get blackcurrant tea, what’s your second choice, please, sir?”, and would then either go themselves, or send someone reliable, to the nearest supermarket to buy blackcurrant teabags.

That way, the hotel wouldn’t risk disappointing the customer if the supermarket had run out of blackcurrant teabags, and would know what to serve him in that case, but would be doing its best to provide what the customer wanted. Underpromise and overdeliver is always better than the other way round!

But the team member with no initiative would say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have blackcurrant tea”.
That would be a good opportunity to show the customer that the hotel cared, and create a wow, gone down the tubes. Bad move.

When the system has been flexed, create another system

As I’ve just outlined, staff should be encouraged to use their initiative and flex systems to solve customers’ problems.

When a team member has shown initiative and solved a problem – write down that solution and turn it into a system for when that problem crops up again. And reward the team member.
In the example from above, once Michael Gerber has had his blackcurrant tea, the room service team should write out a system for buying out-of-the-ordinary breakfast drinks for customers, and make sure all the team members are trained to follow that system.

Then, when another customer comes along and asks for Nesquik with his breakfast, the team member on duty will know what to do. Otherwise, if the team member on duty at that time is the one with no initiative, the hotel will lose the opportunity to wow that customer.


Having the right systems in place provides opportunities to create a wow.
It’s important to know which systems must be strictly adhered to and which can be flexed, and to let your staff use their initiative in situations where the system doesn’t yet reach.
And when that’s happened, create another system.

Emily Coltman is a qualified Chartered Accountant who, after several years in practice, now runs her own business making bespoke screen-capture videos.


  1. Great article! You make an interesting point about the difference between rigid and flexible systems. While I do agree with you that some systems do need to be more rigid, having a flexible system and encouraging staff to use their initiative is very important when providing customer care. In this case, not only does the company seem to benefit in general, but the staff must also often feel increased motivation when working in a flexible system that promotes trust and responsibility.

  2. I ceased to be amazed at how illogical many "systems" are deployed. Too often, it seems, a major goal of the system is the removal of opportunity to apply logic to the current conditions. Somehow the thinking follows "The system is a robot so the users ought to be considered to be the same". This suggests that the employee is considered too stupid to apply judgement.

    Did anyone notice how many passengers on the "Miracle in the Hudson" were NOT wearing life jackets? Each passenger had one under their seat in a nice little pouch. When you are running for the door, who cares about a pouch. Where was that system?

    Let's assume employees can think under normal opearating circumstances, drill them for emergency procedures and always remember the customer can take their business elsewhere.

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Mark - I take your fair point that some systems end up removing the need for employees to be anything other than robots. However, I'd argue that there does need to be a certain amount of uniformity for "this is how we do it here", e.g. answering the phone.

    Would you prefer to see no systems at all other than emergency ones?

    Emily Coltman