At first sight, being a web host is a bit like banking. Most of the time your customers simply want everything to run smoothly behind the scenes, with the minimum disruption and without having to think about it. They only make contact when they have a special requirement or there's a problem - and then they expect the issue to be solved with the utmost efficiency and the least possible fuss.
Rackspace Managed Hosting Europe manages the servers that keep hundreds of web sites running smoothly for customers in the UK, Europe and as far afield as India, operating from an outwardly anonymous but highly secure building near London's Heathrow airport. Its staff never meet their end users - customers of most of the web sites they support (which include the likes of Oddbins and Newcastle United Football Club) - but that doesn't diminish their commitment to providing the highest possible standard of service.
The term 'Fanatical Support', used to describe Rackspace's overall service offering, says it all. New customers are usually up and running within a day, sometimes even faster. Support staff are available at the end of a telephone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: service level agreements specify 99.999% uptime, and the company is striving to move from 99% error-free transactions to 100%.
There are no automated phone systems at Rackspace. Customers get straight through to a member of a dedicated account team, with instant response promised in emergencies. When nobody at West Drayton can take a call, it is routed through to sister sites in Virginia or Texas, which are fully geared to provide the same level of support.
Service failures, though rare, are regarded as an opportunity to shine, and on occasions staff have been known to work through the night to get a customer back up and running. Recruiting the right people is key to delivering this level of service. 'We think our people are different,' says managing director Dominic Monkhouse. 'The type of people we attract are genuinely excited about delivering customer service in IT.'
They call themselves 'Rackers' and they take an almost macho pride in going beyond the call of duty on behalf of customers. Every month, one of their number is voted to the Fanatical Hall of Fame, and the Fanatical Employee of the Quarter is liable to win a trip to New York, or similar.
Rackspace (www.rackspace.co.uk) was chosen as the Learning Organisation because of its willingness to take on new ideas across the business. It used the benchmarking report from last year's Service Excellence Awards as the basis for Project Racker, the company-wide focus on both sides of the Atlantic in 2003 that is aimed at making the entire business more customer-oriented.
In terms of customer feedback, a survey for new customers is now followed up with a postal survey four times a year, as well as a 'healthcheck' for the top 20 customers every month. Feedback is distributed to employees via an intranet.
Rackspace also targets customers whose contracts might be vulnerable to lapse after six to nine months. When a customer leaves for a rival web host, a post mortem is carried out. Rackspace has even used one of its customers to mystery shop the competition.
It has also started carrying out 360-degree appraisals for all its people.
Every quarter, each person in the organisation rates everyone else on 14 statements. 'The peer-to-peer feedback can be harsh, but this is not a tough environment. You are exposed every day,' says Monkhouse.
The UK business was started only two years ago and now employs 25 people, with sales growing 10% month-on-month. Rackspace may still be finding its feet, but learning is easier, they say, when you're young. If so, the challenge will be to keep taking on new ideas as the operation becomes a more mature business.