UK: 1996 MANAGEMENT TODAY UNISYS SERVICE EXCELLENCE AWARDS. - Winner, Public Services/ Utilities Category Barrow Family Health Advice Centre.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Winner, Public Services/ Utilities Category Barrow Family Health Advice Centre.

It's seldom easy to retain warm feelings towards difficult customers, but few organisations expect, like Barrow Family Health Advice Centre, to deal with ill-tempered alcoholics, or with a drug addict who enters the building armed with a cosh. Even the most difficult customers are covered by the centre's mission to provide information on all aspects of family health care to any person requiring assistance.

Occupying shop premises in Buccleuch Street, Barrow-in-Furness, the Family Health Advice Centre is managed by South Cumbria Community and Mental Health NHS Trust. Its staff of six offer free advice on all aspects of health care: on what is provided by doctors, dentists, pharmacists, opticians, and by hospital and community services; on how to obtain financial assistance with NHS services, such as prescriptions, sight tests, dental treatment, etc.

The centre holds a large quantity of health promotion literature (over 500 leaflets) on subjects such as breast and cervical screening, giving up smoking, healthy eating, travelling abroad, immunisation and self-help groups. It also has a selection of Braille publications and audio cassettes for the blind and partially sighted, and health-related video tapes for those with impaired hearing.

The centre functions on a limited budget of less than £80,000 a year.

It was established five years ago - the second bureau of its kind in the UK - and is open 10 am-4 pm, Monday to Friday. However advisers will make special arrangements to see any customer requiring an appointment outside normal hours. The centre deals with 8,000-10,000 enquiries a year.

Its stated aim is to 'strive to provide all clients with a personal, comprehensive service of the highest possible quality', and it regards customer service as 'the cornerstone' of the operation.

Friendly, personal service is an essential characteristic of this small organisation. Customers arriving at the centre are received immediately, and their queries are attended to within three minutes. 'One of the first decisions we took', says Zandra Slucky (who manages the centre, on a shared basis, with Ann Taylforth), 'was that no one would go out of the front door without either the information they required or, when we couldn't help them personally, advice on the appropriate agency.' All staff wear name badges and identify themselves when dealing with customers on the telephone or in correspondence. Telephones are answered within four rings and telephone queries are handled on the spot - or, if further information is required, at least on the same day. Letters receive a reply within three working days. Performance against these standards is strictly monitored and details circulated to all staff.

'Our twin priorities', Slucky explains, 'are to increase public awareness that we are here to help and to anticipate and respond to customer information requirements.' Various means are employed to promote the centre's services.

Staff aim to generate press and radio coverage, they talk to students at local colleges and man displays and exhibition stands at agricultural shows and fairs within Cumbria (where they offer not only advice but vision screening and blood pressure tests). Centre staff even take health promotion campaigns on to the streets. 'We go to great lengths to raise our profile in the community and get our message across,' says Slucky who, along with her colleagues, has spent several Saturdays parading through Barrow, dressed as a clown and wearing sandwich boards, in the cause of public health.

The centre won a commendation in the North West Health Challenge Awards for its 1995 no-smoking campaign - in which it obtained sponsorship for a free 'Trash the Ash' fact pack containing information and a relaxation tape by Granada TV doctor Chris Steele. Targets of other recent initiatives have included alcohol, blood pressure and general fitness. Staff members take individual responsibility for planning, designing and implementing the annual programme of events. Ideas are discussed at monthly team briefings, and the effectiveness of each campaign is measured by means of questionnaires, customer comment cards and market research.

The formal complaints procedure is on public display, but where possible complaints are dealt with immediately. For example, a deaf visitor to the centre's stand at an agricultural show once complained about the fact that literature aimed at people with hearing difficulties was displayed on a low rack: such people frequently find their balance disturbed if they have to bend. Action was immediately taken to reposition material of this kind at eye level. But the centre strives constantly to avoid unhelpful practices. Procedures were recently changed to allow customers to get refunds on pre-paid season prescription tickets in the form of postal orders rather than by cheque. 'Barrow is basically a cash community,' observes Slucky.

Comments on the skills and attitudes of staff are encouraged, and are reviewed at team briefing sessions. Staff are actively involved in their own development plans but are given specialist training on, for example, how to deal with aggressive or abusive customers. 'The most difficult aspect of the job is knowing how to stay calm and deal with difficult clients such as drug addicts,' says adviser Janet Irvine. 'But that is balanced by the fact that we are learning all the time, that we have plenty of opportunity to pursue our own ideas (for promotions) and derive enormous enjoyment from doing a job which we believe to be worthwhile.'

Staff are no longer surprised by any of the demands made upon them. The centre has located Barrow's longest married couple (67 years), it found a German-speaking dentist for a tourist with toothache, and provided information about a gender clinic for a mother of three girls who wanted to improve the chances of her next child being male. 'The element of surprise keeps us on our toes and makes the job interesting,' says adviser Gill Buck.

Zandra Slucky, manager: 'We go to great lengths to raise our profile in the community' - which often means manning displays and stands at local shows and fairs


- Eliminate processes which give customers needless difficulty: the centre switched its system of refunds from cheque to postal order

- Monitor and publicise service standards: the centre's standards are clearly outlined in information material and key performance indicators are displayed on its walls

- Communicate with customers in person: centre staff devised a roadshow to take its services to the public at shows and fairs.

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