UK: 1996 MANAGEMENT TODAY UNISYS SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS.

UK: 1996 MANAGEMENT TODAY UNISYS SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS. - Winner, Manufacturing/Engineering Category ConvaTec (UK), Chronic Care division.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Winner, Manufacturing/Engineering Category ConvaTec (UK), Chronic Care division.

The Chronic Care division of ConvaTec (UK) is market leader, with a 50% share of the UK market worth £35 million, in a highly specialised corner of the medical products sector. The business manufactures bags for patients who have undergone surgery to remove parts of the bowel (eg, colostomy, ileostomy, urostomy). It was already market leader six years ago. But at that time it had reached a crossroads, since competitors were employing new tactics in an effort to increase their own sales on behalf of these stoma patients. 'The strategy we finally chose required us to invest more heavily in service,' says ConvaTec's marketing manager Nicola Brunt. 'The vision we formulated was of success based on a passion for customer-driven quality.'

Financial restraints in the NHS reinforced the competitive threat. Stoma patients, who number some 100,000 in the UK, are supported by 350 specialist hospital nurses. The nurses assist them in, among other things, the disposal of bodily wastes - that is, they advise patients on which company's products to use and how to use them. Aware of the pressures on the NHS, some producers had begun sponsoring stoma care nurses who agreed to market their own products exclusively - and even today a quarter of Britain's stoma care nurses are under an obligation to a single manufacturer. 'We could have chosen the option of buying up the entire stoma care nurse base,' says Brunt. 'But it was important to us that nurses should continue to operate in ways which do not challenge their professional ethics, also that patients should have a choice of product.'

Having elected to pursue a strategy based on product and service excellence, ConvaTec needed to be sure that it had a detailed knowledge of its two customer groups - the stoma patients and nurses. In 1993 it conducted an in-depth survey of 5,000 patients to determine their priorities. 'Security is of paramount importance,' reports Brunt. 'Next in order of importance come comfort, ease of use and discretion.' The company has continued to undertake regular research into patients' requirements.

Every year ConvaTec holds semi-structured interviews with 50 stoma care nurses. It appears that this customer group values product innovation and aesthetics more highly than the patients. 'Meeting these differing priorities is a challenge,' says Brunt. 'Stoma patients tend to be quite conservative and stick to the product that the nurse first recommends.

Leaving hospital is the vital decision point. Thereafter they simply ask their GPs for repeat prescriptions.' Clearly, nurses' opinions must not be ignored.

So ConvaTec embarked on an ambitious programme to exceed the expectations of both groups. The company organises a biannual symposium at which nurses can air their views about products and problems. It set up a resource centre, CORCE ( ConvaTec Ostomy Resource Centre Europe). It publishes a quarterly journal, Eurostoma, to forge links between stoma care nurses of different countries. And it supports the professional development of nurses with educational material and via courses at Bristol Business School.

The company is proud of its sensitive approach to patients many of whom suffer emotional and psychological effects following surgery. 'People of all ages undergo these operations and we have to be able to communicate with them all,' explains Brunt. 'Often they can experience very negative feelings ... and need constant reassurance, help and support to regain their quality of life.' ConvaTec communicates with patients in a variety of ways - including face to face, by mail and by telephone.

For example, there is a confidential advisory helpline, manned by a four-strong team. The helpline, says customer service manager Janice Tidy, 'provides the highest quality and highest quantity contact of all' - between 2,000 and 4,000 calls a week. Just under 40% of these calls concern products and sample requests, 10% are customer queries and complaints and the remainder are general enquiries about diet, travel, etc. 'Four years ago the customer service department was really a customer complaint department,' says Tidy.

'Now we've turned it round and play a proactive role in business development.'

The helpline contributes to long-term relationships: many callers ask for particular customer service representatives by name. It also gathers valuable feedback. A sample of helpline users fill in questionnaires and the results are channelled back to marketing and product development. The customer service department uses four databases, including CRIS (customer response information system) which records complaints, and CADET (ConvaTec adverse device event tracking) which logs information on users who develop adverse reactions to products. Both systems are used to solve immediate problems as well as for product development generally.

Stoma care nurses and their patients co-operate in the development of new products. ConvaTec is ready to respond to individual needs with custom-made products, and has invited patients to its factory (which employs 1,000 people in North Wales) to talk directly with technicians and, by video link, with others in the US. A patient panel is consulted by designers at various stages in the development process.

ConvaTec sponsors a quarterly magazine, Spectrum, which helps 60,000 ostomists keep in touch with news and with fellow ostomists. The company runs nine weekend roadshows every year. Held as family days, at locations such as Chatsworth or Headingley Cricket Ground, these events attract 10,000 visitors annually. 'It's an opportunity for people to see what's available. Often the expectations of ostomists are quite low. The roadshow can raise their expectations,' Brunt explains. 'We are continually striving for a better service and better product. I think we chose a hard road six years ago, but working in partnership with our customers, it seems to have paid off.'

Nicola Brunt, marketing manager: 'We are continually striving for a better service and better product. Working in partnership with our customers seems to have paid off'

KEY BUSINESS LESSONS

- Understand customer needs: ConvaTec has two main customer groups (nurses and users) with different priorities, and it strives to know both

- Involve customers in product development: at ConvaTec, patients and nurses contribute to the development process

- Build long-term relationships: through its helpline and roadshows ConvaTec creates opportunities for cementing relationships

- Track compliments and complaints: ConvaTec logs both in the general database.

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