Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet satellite states favoured peculiarly ironic names. Thus, the German Democratic Republic boldly declaimed that for which it was least obviously known: democracy. In the same way, we all know people whose boasts are loud in inverse relation to the truth. But are businesses any better? How many of us, as customers, experience the frustration of being held in a call centre queue with a disembodied voice telling us that we are 'valued customers'?
I have a rule of thumb. When I buy from an organisation that trumpets 'excellence', I expect to experience failure; when it speaks of 'quality', I expect incompetence; and when it takes pride in 'customer service', I know I will receive shoddy treatment. Excellence, quality and customer service are the Holy Trinity of mediocrity. If I come across a company declaring its commitment to all three, I run as fast as I can. How can we explain this? Is it that these businesses are dishonest? Sometimes. Are they incompetent? Yes, more often than they are dishonest - but still not normally so.
Rather, they have diligently followed the received wisdom of 30 years of management literature from Peters and Waterman, through the Total Quality Management prescriptions, to the Business Process Re-Engineering ideas, and beyond. They have zapped bureaucracy, downlayered, downsized, subcontracted, off-shored and performance-measured. But could it be that this is the problem?
Let me offer you a case study. My local train station has a stationmaster called Michael. He is paid to sell tickets. He also sweeps and cleans the station; decorates the waiting room at his own initiative; is always polite and friendly; knows his customers by name and delights in selling tickets to obscure destinations off the commuter line. If a train is delayed, he phones local customers to give up-to-the minute information and for those already there he walks down the platform, telling each passenger what has happened and why.
Michael wears the uniform and badge (declaring him to be a Customer Service Operative) of the train company he works for. One day a week he is required to work at a larger station and is replaced by someone from the pool of employees. These substitutes are invariably rude, uninterested, cannot sell non-standard tickets and never venture out of the ticket office. They too wear the uniform and badge. But Michael is part of the local community and he cares about his customers because he knows them, not because he has been on a customer service course, and he cares about railways because - well, just because that is what lights his fire.
The irony is that Michael's attitude is exactly what customer service courses aim for. Yet they do so not by selecting for, recognising and rewarding real service, but by promoting phoney, ersatz service. A few years ago I did some work with a senior executive in a supermarket chain that was legendary for its successful customer care culture and was the subject of a widely used business school case-study. She wanted to discover whether shopfloor staff believed in the value of customer focus and did her study just after the apparently successful conclusion of an expensive training programme. I expected that the staff would not really believe in the customer focus value. I was wrong: 85% of them said they had not even heard of it. In the same way that the supermarket had redesigned its displays, so zones mimicked traditional high-street stores - greengrocers, fishmongers, butchers and so on - the entire edifice of customer service was a fake.
Why did this company believe it was doing things right when it was getting it so wrong? It relied on the reports of store managers, who all said that staff had signed up to the values when what they meant was that the staff had seen the video. And it believed customer surveys. What senior managers should have done was to go quietly and unannounced as customers to their own business, and experience the realities for themselves. The company has now been taken over, following a drastic profits slump. So does this mean that the lesson has been learnt? No - because it is still trumpeting the same old mantra of the customer, but with a reduced cost-base.
Which brings us back to Michael, for now there is talk that he will be sacked as part of a cost-saving plan - after all, other stations on the line are unmanned (including the one closest to my house, which I avoid because the ticket machines and car park are always vandalised - but that is a cost that doesn't show up in the accounts). I am sure that the managers of the train company are well-intentioned and I am sure that they are well aware of the latest management thinking. In fact, I checked its website and it is committed to excellence, quality and customer service. But I'd rather buy from a company that delivers these things, rather than one that boasts about them.
Christopher Grey is professor of organisational theory at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.