Management Today and Unisys identify the UK organisations whose quality of service measures up to the best worldwide.
First class customer service is always more than a laudable add-on. Indeed, it is often an organisational imperative with immense consequences for the bottom line. Six years ago Birmingham Midshires Building Society seemed to have dug itself an early grave, yet it has since seen its fortunes transformed by customer focused strategies. Birmingham Midshires is overall winner of the 1996 Management Today/Unisys Service Excellence Awards - and today the future looks bright. Like all 20 other organisations which reached the finals of this year's contest, the Wolverhampton-based society has found customer care a powerful source of competitive advantage.
The judging criteria used in this year's Service Excellence Awards derive from research which Unisys carried out among 100 organisations worldwide that are recognised for the superb quality of customer service. Unisys managing consultant David Jackson defines service excellence as 'everything an organisation does to win, satisfy and retain customers, profitably and more thoroughly than the competition'; and the research confirms that only organisations which adopt a suitably holistic approach become market leaders in this critical activity.
The 21 companies visited by the judging panel (having been identified by Unisys and Management Today, also by previous winners and industry experts) were assessed against four broad criteria: (a) understanding customers; (b) operational excellence; (c) success in engaging the hearts and minds of employees; and (d) leadership, vision and values. The seven award winners were strong in every one of these areas. They understand that provision of top quality service is too important a task to be left to a small department allied to marketing. The determination to 'delight' customers must percolate into every corner of an operation. 'Everything we do is because of the customer,' says Tom Bell, director of award winner TNT Express (UK). The message is deceptively simple.
As to the first criterion - understanding customers - best practice companies seek answers to the following questions: who are our customers? what are their needs and expectations? how are we regarded compared to the competition?
Various techniques may be used to glean the answers - one-to-one interviews, focus groups, etc. However the 'listening' must be constant. Service leaders recognise the inadequacy of relying on an annual 'Do you love us?' survey.
If in doubt, it's always possible to ask.
For example, award winner RCI UK was uncertain whether its customers valued a rapid reply to written correspondence. The company could reduce the response time to under a week by throwing money at the problem, but was this necessary? No, replied customers, 10 days would be quite adequate.
Similarly, companies which invest heavily in reducing telephone answering time might sometimes be wise to think again. Customers who call TNT (UK) could well require an instant reaction. On the other hand, those who phone Barrow Family Health Advice Centre generally prefer to catch their breath before their call is answered.
Operational excellence means delivering the right products and being easy to do business with. It's now generally accepted that product quality, by itself, is not sufficient to win customers. Purchasers may not always fully understand the complexities of the product, but as Jackson says, any customer can assess the quality of a relationship and the organisation's eagerness to be helpful. The customer careline operated by ConvaTec UK's chronic care division provides an excellent demonstration of willingness to go the extra mile in pursuit of customer loyalty. And the importance of loyalty is reflected in the figures. As Birmingham Midshires' research shows, it is usually far more lucrative to retain customers than to seek out new ones.
Operational excellence also implies rigorous attention to quality. A performance standard such as BS5750 may point a route to quality, but it is not an end in itself and it certainly offers no escape from the constant requirement to review performance against that of the competition.
Best practice companies are passionate about benchmarking. Thus staff at Hugh J O'Boyle Training fly to Boston to check their methods against the best in the US. The search for improvement has to be endless. 'It's a treadmill,' says Mike Jackson, chief executive of Birmingham Midshires.
'Once you get on it, you can't get off.'
The third vital component is an organisation-wide understanding that everything depends on people. Philip Williams, managing director of Credit Card Sentinel goes against against the trend by putting his staff, not customers, first. Happy staff create delighted customers, he says. 'What I wanted to create was an environment in which people enjoy coming to work, an atmosphere of "Yippee, it's Monday".' The judges were unanimous that the greater the effort which organisations placed on developing, training, motivating, recognising, rewarding and - genuinely - empowering people, the more successful they were in attaining service excellence.
Best practice companies have leaders wholly committed to promoting a culture of customer care, an environment in which people are freed and encouraged to serve the needs of individual customers. Everyone, from chief executive to tea lady, goes through TNT Express's 'Commitment to Customer Care' programme. All employees therefore understand the one core principle of the organisation. Who, then, has ultimate responsibility for providing customer service? Everyone, says Bell.
While individual methods of developing customer service vary widely, some very clear, common threads are evident. The best practice companies, says Jackson, use a variety of techniques and sources of information to 'listen' to both present and potential customers; they court those customers which most closely fit the organisation's core competencies and contribute most to the bottom line; they concentrate on retaining existing customers above chasing new business; they cultivate and enhance employee satisfaction; and they employ technology to collect and share customer information and provide new ways of reaching customers and delivering service.