Think very carefully before entering these awards. Mike Jackson, former chief executive of the 1996 Service Excellence Company of the Year, Birmingham Midshires Building Society, once delivered a warning which all subsequent winners have endorsed. 'Service excellence is very like a treadmill. Once you get on you can't get off,' he says. 'The pace simply hots up.'
Customers are an awkward bunch. Once you succeed in meeting their demands, those demands grow. What delighted a customer last year soon becomes the bare-minimum service standard. This year's overall winner, Bromley Council's Environmental Health & Trading Standards (EH&TS) division knows this all too well. Four years ago, when it introduced an out-of-hours call-out service to quiet noisy neighbours, demand for that service was extremely high. With budget cuts and no increase in staff numbers, EH&TS had to find ways of meeting the surge in demand it had triggered. Raise customer expectations at your peril. Failure to meet those higher expectations is a quick route to a ruined reputation.
Organisational agility, a new criterion in this year's judging assessment, aims to measure how well a company can respond to customers' spiralling expectations. The key to service excellence in the future is flexibility - of people and procedures. In the four years since these awards began, the proportion of award entrants who are competent in the basics of serving their customers has grown substantially. Future winners will need not only to excel at the basics but impress with their capacity both to innovate and cope with change.
Among this year's winners, examples of innovative approaches abound. Bromley Council's EH&TS division develops partnerships with other agencies in the borough as a cost-effective solution to limited budget resources.
Residents of Bromley, who would never express their opinions through traditional questionnaires, have been given a voice through drama and the arts. Financial services company Virgin Direct has pledged to cut through the jargon and bureaucracy that characterise its industry and provide straightforward, easy-to-understand products that save its customers time, hassle and money.
The IT systems of National Lottery operator Camelot Group are so flexible that lottery terminals introduced five years ago can now issue Millennium Dome entrance tickets and tailored travel information without any change to existing technology.
Richard Foulger, chief executive of EH&TS, believes it is this ability to innovate that marks out the best service providers. In case Foulger was ever in danger of forgetting this, he has taped the words of Einstein to his office wall: 'The world that we have created today as a result of thinking this far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.' Customers will always have new requirements and organisations will always face new problems, argues Foulger. Service excellence demands a never-ending quest for new solutions.
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