Because of the work I do, I meet quite a lot of people who have set up their own businesses or who have made the perhaps more difficult step of turning a small business into a medium-sized one. When I ask them what the major obstacles are, most have the obligatory rant about government bureaucracy and the inland revenue. As I’ve said before, there is something almost tribal about this. You can’t be a proper business man or business woman unless you moan about the tax office.
However, for most of those I have spoken to over the years, the aggro they have had with government departments is nothing compared to the runaround they have been given by the large private sector monoliths and, more specifically, the banks and utility companies. On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, government minister David Willetts suggested that cartels are operating in both these sectors. This will come as no surprise to those business owners who have had to deal with them. There may be a variety of suppliers but they all seem to adopt the same industry standards, with systems and processes that can’t (or won’t) adapt to customer needs.
As well as the banks, who seem to be universally detested by those in medium-sized businesses, particular vitriol is reserved for telecoms and broadband suppliers. This is interesting because, although there are dozens of suppliers, they have tended to behave in a monopolistic way. The same expensive help-lines, the same inability to go directly to second line support after having logged your original problem. And the same barriers to prevent customers changing suppliers. There might have been several players in the market but, to the customers banging their heads on their desks, it felt as though they were all in cahoots. It took a couple of rounds of regulation to get any improvement in the service.
A couple of years ago, Simon Caulkin noted that, while the Cold War might be over, Soviet-style centralised planning is alive and kicking in the private sector oligopolies. In service organisations, retaining control and reducing complexity means, as far as possible, designing out the customer. As John Seddon says, designing out the customer leads to ‘failure demand’. But, if all your competitors do things in the same way, then why worry? The customers can only go to another supplier which will subject them to the same treatment. Most, therefore, will just grin and bear it. The smaller businesses, without the financial muscle to exert any influence, usually just seethe in silence.