January 13, 2010
What can good customer service accomplish for us? It can chase the competition out of our backyard.
As you all are aware Maset LLC believes that every organization and every employee should be continuously working towards providing Total Customer Satisfaction to all of the customers, stakeholders and employees. The following article is a priceless example of where the philosophy of providing Total Customer Satisfaction is being used successfully in a war situation.
As we begin 2010 please join me in hoping that our worldwide recovery continues and we all have a healthy, peaceful and prosperous year.
The Weapon of Customer Service
By: Scott Alamanach
A look at customer service and its more violent little brother, counterinsurgency.
Sometimes when studying something that has become too familiar to us, we can gain valuable new insights by looking at it from a radically different perspective. Much has been written, for example, about how important customer service is for business—so much, in fact, that it becomes easy to lose sight of the startlingly different forms that customer service can actually take. We can learn something important if we recognize the close relationship between customer service and its more violent little brother, counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency is the set of operations, both military and nonmilitary, that are conducted in support of a government that is under attack from an insurgency. An insurgency is an organized and violent attempt to destroy the legitimacy of a government. Insurgency and counterinsurgency are very different in practice; while insurgency depends heavily on guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency depends on what we can recognize as customer service.
To understand the customer service component of counterinsurgency, we need to understand a little bit about logistics. Whether an army is large and powerful or small and poor, it really does march on its stomach. An army's logistical tail is far more important to its success than its strength of arms. Without logistics, an army simply cannot move.
Antiquity gives us a fine example of this in the case of the Ten Thousand, an army of Greek mercenaries that managed to get themselves stranded deep inside Persia, a thousand miles from home. Xenophon recounted their story in his book Anabasis. This mercenary army had been hired by Cyrus the Younger, brother of Artexerxes II, to support Cyrus' Persian army in his bid to overthrow his brother. The Greeks fought in phalanx formation, which was far more effective than the helter-skelter melee fighting that the Persians were accustomed to. The Persians fell to the Greeks anywhere the two met. Unfortunately, in their great final battle, Cyrus was cut down just before he reached his brother, and his Persian army disintegrated. The Greek mercenaries found themselves alone in a hostile country, and had to fight their way out.
The thousand-mile march that followed demonstrates clearly the importance of logistics for any army. As the Greeks battled their way out of the country, their greatest challenge was not the harrying Persian army, but rather the need for food, warmth, supplies, and rest. No army lives without such things. The Ten Thousand acquired them through trade, forage, and raids. In modern times, a conventional army is provisioned via ship and airlift. The modern guerrilla has no ships, his solution to the problem of logistics is the local population. Theorists of guerrilla warfare, from Lawrence of Arabia to Mao Tse Tung, have all emphasized the importance of gaining popular support. With the support of the people, the guerrilla can vanish from the battlefield and resupply himself at his leisure. Without the support of the people, the guerrilla can do nothing.
Counterinsurgency works by attacking the insurgent's logistics. Deny the insurgent his popular support, and you will deny him the ability to move and fight. The counterinsurgent does this by providing superior civil service. Mundane things like trash collection, good roads, a working court system for settling disputes, and so on are the offensive weapons of a counterinsurgency. The ordinary man needs these things, and though he might not hold with the insurgents' ideals, he will find some common ground with the insurgents if they can provide him with better services. Counterinsurgency is a war of service.
Let's look at a real example of how this can work. In Afghanistan, south of the city of Kandahar, there is a dry and empty stretch of sand dunes hundreds of miles across. This is the Registan Desert, as empty and pristine a land as you will ever see. The Registan has no roads, few settlements, and minimal wildlife. There are some birds and a few species of insects, but that is about all. On the other hand, some hearty bands of nomads have found means for eking out their survival here. The Baluchi and Kuchi people have roamed the Registan for centuries.
Site of Faqir Well. The middle of nowhere.
These nomads have been supported by a thin web of hand-dug wells, such as Faqir Well, some 50 miles from the Pakistan border. A severe drought a decade ago caused the collapse of this well, disrupting life for the nomads and driving people north into the district of Panjwaye. The sudden influx of displaced nomads into the small towns of Panjwaye strained the infrastructure there, and created a tinder box of desperation and ill will.
Original well. 300 years ago the square well shaft was lined with interlocking wooden beams. Extreme drought ten years ago caused a cave-in halfway down the shaft.
Our company was approached by elders of the Baluchi tribe about the possibility of rebuilding Faqir Well. This was a big task; though well reconstruction was right up our alley, the Registan was outside our client's area of focus. It was also one of the most difficult environments on earth, due to its exceptional remoteness;
the elders themselves had traveled three days just to reach us. On the other hand, Panjwaye was within our focus area, and if one project in Registan could relieve pressure off of Panjwaye, then there was an argument to be made for it. Also, with nomad families living in Panjwaye, there was no one in the Registan to keep out the riffraff. That area of desert had become a haven for smugglers and Taliban.
Getting there. The Registan is also known as "The Red Desert" due to the tint of its sand. There are no roads, and any trip into its interior is a serious expedition
It would have been easy to tell the elders that we could not help them, that what they were asking was outside our scope. The corporate equivalent of this would be when we turn away a customer because what he is asking is outside of our company's market niche. In both counterinsurgency and customer service what we need to ask ourselves is, "What kind of world do I want to live in?" Do we want the Taliban camped out in the Registan In our case, we decided we did not. We discussed the matter with our client and with the Afghan government, and it was decided that rebuilding Faqir Well would, on the balance, be to our advantage. Some funds were assigned and we got to work.
"Work" meant a series of exceptionally difficult trips deep into the desert. With no roads through the Registan, any trip to Faqir meant at least seven hours of bouncing across rough dirt trails. Heavy equipment could not make the trip, and there were no stores or suppliers of any kind; construction materials, tools, food, fuel, and water all had to be carried in from Kandahar. The well was 108 meters deep as originally constructed, and our project deepened it to 123 meters. All digging had to be by hand, and the well shaft was then lined with new brick masonry. We had considered building a brick kiln on the site, but this was found to be unworkable, and so every brick had to be hauled from Kandahar by tractor. Construction took six months.
Working camp. Existing straw huts had been built long ago as shelter for nomads using the well. These were commandeered for use as a work camp.
All this activity did not go unnoticed by Registan's sparse population. Of the Western aid and development companies operating in southern Afghanistan, few of them succeed in completing their projects, and virtually none of them venture into the Registan. Our team was the first group of Westerners in at least a hundred years—and possibly the only Westerners ever—to visit Faqir Well. (I am probably the first American ever to set eyes on the place.) That we had come in person, and that we had succeeded in such a difficult and important project, did great things for the prestige of the elders who had first contacted us. Those men had proven to their own community that they could deliver aid that was otherwise passing the Registan by.
The finished well. In addition to deepening the original well, concrete cisterns and troughs were installed to aid in the watering of livestock. An unlocked storage room contains spare cables, buckets, and other supplies. These items are available to anyone who can reach the well.
The full impact of our service to this community did not become clear until after we had finished everything and submitted our final report to our client. Our program was winding down when elders from three additional Registan tribes turned up at our offices. They knew about our success at Faqir, and now they wanted us to come build wells for them. This is how counterinsurgency, and good customer service, is supposed to work. The population was turning to us for help, which meant they were not turning to the Taliban. Moreover, these were senior elders of remote Registan tribes. These were powerful men who had little concern for the Afghan government, or Kandahar, or Westerners, and yet they were seeking us out. That they were speaking to us at all, let alone that they were the ones initiating the discussion, was a major achievement. Our program was finishing, and so we could no longer help them. What we could do was direct them to the Afghan government, the entity we had wanted to connect these communities to all along. It is now the government's responsibility to pick up the reins of service and continue what has been started.
What can good customer service accomplish for us? It can chase the competition out of our backyard. It can prompt us to take on an odd project in a remote part of the market, resulting in a huge rush of new customers. It can take us to places that no one in our industry has ever seen before, and allow us to leave our mark on that place. Such effects go far beyond the closing of a single deal; they influence the very geography of our market. Customer service gives us a say in the shaping of our world.
This article first appeared in "Quality Digest Daily" an electronic publication from Quality Digest (www.qualitydigest.com).
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