UK: 1996 MANAGEMENT TODAY UNISYS SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS - WINNER, SMALL COMPANY 1996 CREDIT CARD SENTINEL. - Happy employees create delighted customers, maintains Philip Williams, managing director of Credit Card Sentinel. Williams has no hesitation,

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Happy employees create delighted customers, maintains Philip Williams, managing director of Credit Card Sentinel. Williams has no hesitation, therefore, in putting employees first. This may run counter to traditional 'customer first' thinking of service companies but Williams insists that his priorities are correct. 'If you have a committed group of employees who know the direction the company is going, and who all work in the same direction, then "wowing the customer" is bound to follow.'

Credit Card Sentinel offers card holders a high degree of protection against loss, or theft, of their cards. If cards go missing, a single call to Sentinel, via a 24-hour helpline, will ensure that all relevant card-issuing organisations are alerted with minimum delay. Sentinel also offers add-on services designed to minimise cost and inconvenience to customers. The company has a total of three million customers who together hold 14 million cards. Its services are marketed through 25 client organisations (Barclaycard, British Telecom, Co-operative Bank, Lloyds Bank, TSB, etc) which individually endorse the service. The company was founded in the US in 1969, and launched in Britain (as a joint venture between Credit Card Sentinel Inc and Europ Assistance) in 1984. Two years later growth took off in the UK when Williams signed up Barclaycard. The UK company, based in Portsmouth, employs 140 people and has an annual turnover of £15 million. Credit Card Sentinel was acquired last year by the membership-based services group CUC International.

Williams's vision of enthusiastic and empowered em-ployees has various manifestations. The company oper-ates an open-door policy, employees dress casually, the organisation chart resembles a flock of geese in flight rather than the usual pyramid.

Williams is very serious about the importance of having fun at work: 'What I wanted to create was an environment where people enjoy coming to work.

I don't want to see myself at the top of the pyramid but at the front, leading a group of people all supporting each other to achieve our goals.

Everyone must feel important. Staff who are eager to improve and happy to take on challenges will in turn lead to delighted customers.'

The mission to 'delight' is enshrined in a vision plan 'Delivering The Best' (shortened to DTB). This embraces a set of values - security, reward and recognition, flexibility, trust, teamwork, profit and, of course, customer delight - which are represented in picture form, rather than in a verbal statement, and displayed throughout the company on walls, mugs, coasters, mouse mats. But there is also a DTB booklet, issued to all members of staff, which outlines the key objectives (and success criteria) applying to each department. Quality assurance manager Penny Treagus and personnel and training manager Debbie Brewster run a three-stage training programme based on DTB, which aims to ensure that all employees understand the contribution they can make to the company's progress.

Many DTB initiatives are left to employees themselves. For example, there is a recognition scheme - called Caught in the Act - under which an employee may nominate for an award any colleague discovered performing some unusual act of service to customers. Quite apart from the formal scheme, employees may also be awarded spot prizes of Easter eggs, turkeys, teddy bears, T-shirts. The company suggestion scheme (personified as Sir Gestion) is also run by staff. So is the 'works council', which acts as a channel for ideas for improvement and whose members are nominated and elected exclusively by staff.

A small, self-managed group of employees constitutes CAT (Customer Attitude Team), which makes random calls to customers to collect feedback. Operations director Chris Shaw explains that: 'We find this much more useful than questionnaires, which tend to attract responses only from those who are either greatly impressed or unimpressed. CAT is a very interactive system in that we can discover what customers really think. Staff are also empowered to bring any dissatisfied customers back on track, using whatever means they feel necessary.'

Yet another employee-led initiative is PACE (People Actively Committed to Excellence). One project concentrated on incoming calls which were caused by Sentinel errors. 'The team found that many of the errors resulted from inadequate training,' says team leader Julia Pearson. We arranged further training, and as a result the number of rework calls has fallen by two-thirds since last September.'

Sentinel has worked hard since 1991 to establish a systematic approach to service excellence. The company has adopted ISO9002 as a basis for continuous improvement and will achieve Investors in People recognition early next year. An internal audit team reviews internal processes twice a year. One of the benefits of the DTB programme, says Treagus, is that it encourages staff to alert managers when procedures are breaking down.

The company also uses extensive customer research and benchmarks its performance against competitors.

The procedure for handling complaints is based on the principle that these should be dealt with as quickly as possible. 'Passing complaints up through the organisation is not only expensive but leads to seriously disgruntled customers,' says Shaw. Complaints are logged, categorised and the lessons learned. 'We greatly value complaints. In fact some of our best customers are former complainers.'

It's implicit in Sentinel's vision, says Williams, that we have in the UK 'the most innovative and creative workforce in the world. Our understanding of empowerment is that we encourage employees to make decisions they are comfortable with. Helen Keller (who, although deaf and blind from infancy, overcame her disabilities to become a distinguished writer and scholar) said that life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing. We believe her and like to try things, to take some risks.'

Philip Williams, managing director: 'I don't see myself at the top of the pyramid but at the front, leading a group of people all supporting each other to achieve our goals'

- Empower employees: Sentinel likes employees to make decisions which they are comfortable with

- Resolve complaints early: employees are empowered to resolve complaints instead of passing them up the organisation

- Encourage employee initiatives: front-line staff are in the best position to bring about service improvements

- Embed service into the culture: employees must understand how they can contribute to achieving company goals.

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