Up until about three decades ago, companies generally subscribed to an orthodoxy which held that customers were pretty much an unavoidable nuisance they had to tolerate instead of valuable contributors to the success of business. This dim view was reflected in the saying “Let the customer be damned!”, which was well known at the time.
From the 1980s onwards, the advent of Total Quality Management (TQM) and other modern approaches to running a business shook up corporate thinking about the role of the customer. These concepts, to which many Barbadians have had considerable exposure, placed the customer at the centre of business.
“Let the customer be damned!” gave way to “The customer is king” and other similar mantras.
These management concepts were guided by a recognition that businesses really exist because of customers who have needs which can be met profitably by companies. Therefore, if companies place emphasis on keeping customers happy by meeting and exceeding expectations, customers would continue their patronage, spend more; and businesses would become even more profitable.
To some degree, a government is like a business. While government is not profit-driven, it is in the business of providing a range of vital services to satisfy public needs. To deliver on its mandate, a government depends on the support and cooperation of a wide range of customers, businesses which contribute to the achievement of economic growth and taxpayers who provide the revenue to fund the operations of government.
Successive Barbados administrations over the years have expressed commitment to public sector reform with the aim of modernizing Government, with emphasis on improving the quality and delivery of service. Despite these efforts, Government continues to lag behind the private sector and, in its behaviour sometimes, expresses the old dim view of the customer as a bother, which the private sector discarded many years ago.
Recurring complaints from Barbadians doing business with Government speak of shabby treatment by civil servants, bordering on contempt in some cases.
A recent example, highlighted by this newspaper, involves a used car importer who complained of shabby treatment from Customs, including not being extended the courtesy of a response to correspondence aimed at settling an issue which has resulted in a batch of vehicles lying idle in the Bridgetown Port for the past six months.
For years now, Barbadians from all walks of life –– from business people clearing merchandise imports to housewives going to collect barrels sent in by relatives overseas –– have been complaining about poor treatment by Customs. Many Barbadians, therefore, can identify the frustration of Mr Bertram Jones, director of the 18-year-old Bargain Motors.
Speaking to this newspaper, the small businessman, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in management, made two points which speak to the need for Government to reflect on its role in the 21st century economy. The first point is that until Government starts to see itself more as a facilitator instead of a frustrator of business activity, then its stated objective of a robust economy posting consistently high rates of growth will remain elusive.
The second point speaks to the need for the delivery of better customer service in a timely fashion by the various Government departments and agencies as they carry out their lawful functions, which is not an issue being questioned. Speaking of the length of time which has passed since his issue arose and the seeming lack of urgency to deal with it, including the failure to respond to correspondence, Mr Jones said: “I am a customer of Customs and deserve to be treated with courtesy, fairness and respect.” He has a valid point.
A relevant question is: why does it appear so difficult for successive administrations to effect the kind of changes that are so badly needed within the public sector to bring about better service which the 21st Century Barbadian economy requires? In the final analysis, the political directorate must realize they are accountable to the people who elect them to provide solutions to nagging problems. An inefficient public service is indisputably a long-standing public peeve.
It would be interesting to find out how much investment has slipped past Barbados over the years because of bureaucratic red tape and other inefficiencies –– also, how many businesses which may have had to close as a result. These losses deprive the country of much needed jobs, foreign exchange earnings and other benefits.
Serious reform of the public sector is an issue which urgently needs to be placed on the front burner. At a time when our economy can do with a substantial boost, public sector inefficiency carries a heavy cost which can no longer be ignored.