How do you know what’s going on? I don’t mean the budget position or performance against targets or even staff moral. I mean how do you know what it is like to use your services, to be a customer of your organisation? Those who deal with customers directly know but how do their managers get to know and how do those at the top of the organisation find out?

Frontline managers know because they are the ones who deal with complaints, whereas senior managers may rely on customer satisfaction surveys. Frontline managers have the anecdotal evidence whereas senior managers have the numbers. This hasn’t always been the case and it still isn’t in many parts of the public sector.

Since the introduction of streamlined back offices and call centres it has become very difficult to complain directly to someone at the top. There was once a time when if you had a bad experience on a Virgin flight, you could write to Richard Branson and get a reply from his personal office. You could cut through the layers of management and get a response from some one senior enough to be able to do more than simply quote back company policy.

In the post-call centre era things are different. My wife’s recent experience appears typical. Having been incapacitated whilst waiting for an operation, she spent a week in hospital and had a six week convalescence period so she was not able to work out at the gym or attend classes. Therefore she asked the gym staff if she could have an extension as she had not been able to use her membership for three months. They referred her to the manager who said that it was not company policy to make refunds and she did not have the authority to make such a decision.

At this point the problems started. My wife asked for the email address of the celebrity whose name is on this chain of health centres. We don’t have an email address for him, the said. Well, what about the postal address for head office? “We are not allowed to give that out”. Well how do I take this up with someone in senior management?  The answer: put your request in writing with supporting medical evidence and it would be forwarded. She did. No response.

A search of the internet revealed a site set up by disgruntled members all with similar stories about how difficult it was to make a complaint if it could not be resolved by the local manager. My wife did eventually get a short letter saying how sorry they were to learn of her illness but pointing out that the contract she signed on becoming a member was quiet clear on their no refund policy.

It was a similar story when my local bank manager was replaced by a personal account manager based in a national call centre. The arrangement seemed deliberately designed to make it as difficult as possible to directly contact those at the top of the organisation.

Contrast this experience with my own as a director within a large local authority. If an MP wrote directly to me on behalf of a constituent I asked the relevant manager to investigate and draft a response for me to sign.

If a member of the public wrote to the director dissatisfied with how their complaint had been dealt with by the front line manager, I would ask the appropriate service head to organise a response and for the reply to go out in their name.

In this way the senior management team had a very good handle on the type of complaints we were receiving and as a result agreed actions to not only resolve the individual complaint by reduce the risk of similar complaints. Our anecdotal evidence supplemented the statistics and helped us get a feel for what it was like to use our services. Our direct experience stopped us being complacent if the number of complaints had fallen or the satisfaction rates had risen.

It would be a terrible mistake if local authorities, in their enthusiasm to reduce costs, introduced streamlined back offices and call centres which would end up denying senior managers snap shots of real life.