The sceptic in me says that the more customer service standards an organisation has the less chance of them providing truly good service.

Contrast John Lewis’s “Never knowingly undersold” with, for example, the list of 40 detailed statements on a major English county council’s web site (“We will greet you warmly when you arrive…We will aim to ensure the decisions and actions we take today guarantee a better quality of life for everyone now and for generations to come”…and so on).

Now, anyone in reach of a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) branch in the UK – majority shareholders you and me – will probably see advertisement hoardings promoting one of their 14 customer charter promises.  You can also see them on their web site.

I have no quibble with the principle of setting out the standards you aim to reach and RBS do at least say they’re going to publish a report every six months so you can see how they’re doing.

But the language of these things is instructive.  Have a look at some of the things this bank promises.

THEY SAY We will extend our opening hours in our busiest branches – By the end of 2010 we’ll have over 80 branches open on Saturdays, plus selected branches will open early in the morning or late in the evening

IT MEANS 86% of our branches will be closed on Saturdays [RBS say they have over 650 branches throughout the country.  “Over 80” could mean at best 89]

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THEY SAY We will aim to serve the majority of customers within 5 minutes in our branches – This year we’ll introduce a new queue busting programme in our busiest branches to ensure every available member of staff is out serving customers during busy periods

IT MEANS 49% of customers in our branches may have to wait for more than 5 minutes before being served

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THEY SAY We will provide you with friendly, helpful service whenever you deal with us. We’re aiming for 9 out of 10 customers to rate our service helpful

IT MEANS We will find it acceptable if 10% of customers do not find our services helpful

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THEY SAY We will provide a 24/7 telephone banking service – Our call centres are UK Based and we’ll always give you the option to speak to a real person

IT MEANS Contact with our call centres will always begin with an automated set of options you have to choose from

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THEY SAY We will work with you to keep you safe when you bank online with us – We provide free market-leading enhanced security software for all online banking users, and we’ve published our new Online Banking Security Promise

IT MEANS We will provide the same levels of security for online banking as in our branches even though it’s much cheaper for us than face to face contact  [Free security software should no more be a privilege than a secure safe in a branch]

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THEY SAY We pledge to stay open for business if we are the last bank in town to ensure a local banking service is available – We’ve already identified over 100 ‘Last in Town’ locations where we’ll continue to provide a local banking service

IT MEANS We will keep retail branches open if they have a local monopoly

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THEY SAY We will actively support the local community in which we live and work – We will do this by creating a community fund. In addition, we’ll offer all our employees a day off for local voluntary work with the aim of providing more than 7,000 days each year to community volunteering

IT MEANS We expect only 25% of our UK retail employees to take a paid day off to do local voluntary work each year [RBS has 28,500 employees in its UK retail operation– annual report 2009]

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THEY SAY We will resolve customer complaints fairly, consistently, and promptly – We are aiming for 75% of customers to be satisfied with the way their complaint has been handled

IT MEANS We find it acceptable if 25% our customers who complain are dis-satisfied with the way we have handled their complaint

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THEY SAY Twice a year we will publish the most common areas of complaint.  And we’ll strive to address the causes

IT MEANS We’ll strive but we don’t promise to remove the causes of customers’ most common complaints against us

Measurement can be a great thing but at the end of the day whose service do you value more – John Lewis or your bank?

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