How many professionals does it take to buy an office chair?

The question is not as daft as it may seem and could potentially have dramatic consequences for your client service delivery. ‘How so?’ I hear you ask. Please take a minute to consider the following.

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At a recent conference I attended (The World Business Forum at Sydney ICC) one of the speakers Gary Hamel gave a great presentation around Bureaucracy versus Humanocracy. The audience was transfixed when asked to consider the question, how many people in your organisation would be required to sign off on the purchase of a $300 office chair. It provided for much navel gazing and self reflection and indeed I suspect for many, much embarrassment.

My line manager, my department head, the CFO , the CEO? Think about it. In most organisations it would require 3 or 4 touch points/email trails to get permission for such a basic requirement with little financial investment required. The length of time this all takes to go up the chain and back down to force some action to take place is what worries me. A few days? A week?

One of the major frustrations of clients of professional firms is the length of time it takes to get an answer to many of their problems. If it takes several layers of management to approve internal expenditure of such a low figure, I am tempted to believe that external expenditure to keep a client happy may well require a similarly prolonged journey. This is very dangerous in our modern, digital, immediate gratification world.

I recently enjoyed a catch up with someone from one of the world’s largest law firms who confided in me that every invoice over $500 that leaves their office in Australia needs approval from the CEO. This didn’t strike me as the best use of this most important executive’s time. I hope more leaders out there are focused on being a visionary for their organisation and can delegate the bean counting to someone else further down the food chain. Is this the price being paid for most CEO’s having come from a finance background? Who knows?

More client focused businesses such as the airline, Southwest Airlines, take a very different approach and surely one that more professional firms could learn from. All staff, even at junior levels, are empowered to make financial decisions up to a certain value if it creates client satisfaction. If you have left your newspaper in the terminal building, the stewards onboard are allowed to go and buy you another copy from the shop inside to keep you happy. No questions need to be asked.

The learning from all this, is work out how to speed up the decision making process in your business to help drive client satisfaction in a time when everybody is time poor. I promise you it will be worth it. Remember the clue is in the title, professional SERVICEs. Rant over.