As citizens of the world we have become accustomed to making a mental differentiation between personal, individual commitments to those made by organizations. It is not, I believe, because we expect less of organizations, it is rather that we have learned from bitter experience, that organizations are not subject to the same moral and ethical behaviour we would expect from our fellow-men and women. This is, in some respect, awkward as what is an organization if not a collection of individuals, all (more or less) like you and me – faceless individuals, but still people with families, belief systems and ethical values not different to ours.

There is a wonderful saying by Aldous Huxley that “One of the many reasons for the bewildering and tragic character of human existence is the fact that social organization is at once necessary and fatal. Men are forever creating such organizations for their own convenience and forever finding themselves the victims of their home-made monsters.”

There is a profound message behind this quote as it suggests that, on one hand we are (at least the majority of us) members of some organization, while on the other hand we are the victims of such organizations. Put differently, while our livelihood is dependent on our association with Organizaion A, our quality of life could be severely affected by the behaviour of Organization B. At the same time, should you be employed by Organization B, you might be personally affected by the behaviour and business dealings of Organizaiton A and thus I might be ethically responsible for any wrong doing propagated by my organization.

One of the ways in which organizations express their concern to their customers is a Customer Charter. It, usually, represents their value system within the context of their interaction with you, the customer. it outlines their commitment to serve you in the best possible way, outlining how your welfare is top on their priority list.

I have always thought there is something sinister about Customer Charters as they are inherently misleading and a priori incomplete. Commercial organizations are not about customer service as their raison d’être is to maximize share holders’ value. So when a customer charter makes performance and accessibility promises, what it really is saying is that the organization will honour it’s word on the condition that it will not negatively affect shareholders’ value.

The following commitment is made in the Customer Charter of an Australian Insurance company called AAMI:

We will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Simply call us on ….”

What does this actually mean? Does it only mean that the company’s switch board will take my call 24 hours a day? What does it tell me about the call wait time, would they answer and respond to my call within 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes? And when I rang AAMI yesterday and was kept on hold for 65 minutes! – does this constitute availability of “24 hours a day, seven days a week“?

And what about the following commitment?

we will contact you…during the course of the claim to keep you informed

This is yet another empty commitment as in practice it does not specify what “during the course of the claim” actually means. Does it mean daily, weekly, once off only?

So, without elaborating on this point any further, it is clear that an organizational commitment to its customers is only as good as the contractual Service Level Agreement the organization is willing to commit to, including financial penalties should they not meet their prescribed obligations.

The lesson to me as a consumer is simple. Next time a service provider waves their customer charter in front of me, attempting to show their beautiful customer oriented culture and attitude, I’ll ask them the following two questions:

  1. What is your SLA on these commitments? and,
  2. What penalty would you pay should you not be able to meet them?

Think about it!

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  13. Hey Shim,

    Just catching up on my reading here.

    Your “commitments” exampel bring to mind my dislike of mission statements. “We will be the best (blah, blah, blah) in the world” is usually an empty statement (or commitment). Whoever wrote it probably did not mean it, and the company did not commit to it. It just seemed to be the right thing to write at the time. I’d rather write nothing.


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