UK: 1996 MANAGEMENT TODAY UNISYS SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS. - Winner, Consumer Services Category RCI UK and Ireland.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Winner, Consumer Services Category RCI UK and Ireland.

RCI is a holiday exchange club. That is, it enables owners of timeshare property around the world to exchange their customary time and location for time at some other resort. It also offers its members a complete travel service: competitively priced flights, holiday insurance, car hire, ferry bookings - and cruise or tour holidays as an alternative to timeshare accommodation. RCI UK & Ireland (RCI UK) is a subsidiary of RCI Inc which was founded in Indianapolis in 1974 and is now the third largest holiday organiser in the world.

Overall the group has two million member families giving access to almost 3,000 resorts in 80 countries. Last year its 67 offices handled 1.5 million exchanges. The 470 employees of RCI UK, based in Kettering, Northants, were responsible for organising 190,000 of these exchanges. They also arranged 158,000 flights, 150,000 insurances and 24,000 weeks of car rental. The UK company has seen its membership climb from 50,000 families in 1988 to 184,000 in 1995. Families generally get the first two years of membership free when they buy a timeshare at any RCI affiliated resort. Thereafter, there is an annual membership fee of £55. Using the exchange system (£67 per exchange), members can 'deposit' their timeshare weeks and select a different period at their own resort - or elsewhere, in which case RCI guarantees that the quality of the resort will match expectations.

The key to operational efficiency at RCI UK is innovative technology allied to a policy of staying close to customers. Two IBM machines at Kettering link other European offices with the corporate head office in the US, and allow exchanges to be organised on-line with minimum delay.

The system also communicates with travel companies worldwide, to give RCI members a fast one-stop shopping service. Some 2.5 million transatlantic computer transactions take place each week, the response time on each one being less than a second.

RCI uses document imaging to record all correspondence from customers.

Telephone representatives can call up on screen complete member histories including details of complaints and how they were resolved. All aspects of customers' buying behaviour (holidays taken, preferred airlines and travel times, hobbies and interests) are logged on the database and used in tailored marketing campaigns. The company also derives feedback from market research, from focus groups, customer surveys and member panels and meetings.

On their return from holiday, members get a 'welcome back' pack which includes a questionnaire on the quality of service they were given. Their replies help in the grading of resorts, and any complaints are relayed back for action. Members who send in the questionnaire are entered for a free prize draw. 'We used to send questionnaires to customers prior to their holidays,' recalls customer services and operations training manager Martin Ryan. 'By changing the system so that the packs are on customers' door mats when they return, we have increased the response rate from 10% to 55%.'

Complaints - and compliments - are encouraged, monitored and analysed.

All complaints are logged by category, which enables RCI to identify problem areas. The UK company received 32,841 letters in 1995 including over 1,000 notes of appreciation, and the complaint level was 5.4%. Most complaints were about resort matters, according to Vicky Cook, head of operations and travel marketing - lack of a kettle, the weather or unfamiliar food.

'These are really issues of culture rather than service breakdown, but it's our policy to compensate members with no fuss if they were unhappy,' says Ryan. 'We are looking to cultivate long-term relationships with our members; their satisfaction is of paramount importance.'

The company publishes a quarterly magazine, Holiday, plus a regular directory of resorts. Members are encouraged to visit the Kettering office, and senior managers make a point of attending members' events and Resort Owner Committee meetings. But RCI also relies on a high level of knowledge and commitment among operational staff. Take the Careline introduced to guide customers during the first six months of membership: 'Timeshare exchange is quite a complicated product so the telephone is staffed by experienced employees who have great understanding, not only of the RCI system but also of what to expect at the resorts themselves,' says Cook.

RCI employees - predominantly young (average age 28) and 75% female - all have a three-week induction and a biannual performance review, and they negotiate their own training and development plans. The company gained Investors in People recognition in 1995. Last year the introduction of a 'skillbuilders' programme - of peer group mentoring and coaching - helped to win it a National Training Award. Its internal communications include monthly team briefings. A 'big breakfast' event, also held monthly, enables employees to question board members directly. There is also an in-house journal, Exchanges, and a biannual video called Grapevine.

A staff suggestion scheme, Bright Sparks, generated 325 ideas in 1995, one of which produced cost savings of £85,000. Anyone coming up with a successful suggestion receives £25 plus a mug, and both the idea and a photo of its originator are displayed on noticeboards throughout the building.

In addition, RCI has two schemes for rewarding staff who display exceptional levels of service and commitment. Once a quarter managers and section leaders submit nominations for a Professional of the Season award. The winner gets £50, a desk blotter and an invitation to join other winners at a buffet lunch. One of these will be chosen Professional of the Year, which carries a £1,000 prize. Special Merit awards give immediate recognition of outstanding helpfulness to customers and/or colleagues and suppliers.

Staff nominated by members or colleagues receive a certificate, and after three nominations £25.

Ryan is in no doubt about of the worth of recognition and suggestion programmes. 'No-one in an organisation has as much understanding of customers as front-line staff who are in constant contact with our members,' he says. 'If you want to improve business processes from a customer service perspective, then it is vital to have systems in place which encourage and reward employees' involvement and gather their suggestions.'

- Foster customer relationships: RCI's database of customers' transactions and correspondence gives representatives immediate access to relevant facts

- Recognise and reward attempts to improve customer service: RCI has two programmes, one formal and manager-led, the other informal and peer or customer-led

- Encourage feedback, including complaints: by issuing questionnaires at a different time, RCI increased the response rate more than fivefold.

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