Customer service is one area of business where being small can be an advantage. Small firms know their customers personally, build closer relationships and inspire greater customer loyalty than their larger rivals.
This is certainly true of this year's Small Business finalists. All three firms share a passion for the service they provide.
Choosing a winner was extraordinarily difficult. Finally, it was Hugh J O'Boyle, a training and recruitment specialist in Downpatrick, County Down, which won the top slot.
Hugh J O'Boyle and runners-up Happy Computers, a computer training company in London, and the Triple 'A' Animal Hotel & Care Centre, an animal boarding specialist in Tyne and Wear enthuse all their staff with an impressive service ethic. While some of their practices would be difficult to copy on a bigger scale, the judges agreed they could still teach larger organisations much about motivating staff.
O'Boyle's vision is 'Training that Works'. Established in 1986, it aims to help 16 to 60 year olds find satisfying employment in roles as varied as butchers' apprentices or child minders. Its 25 employees offer training and recruitment services for school leavers and unemployed adults under the Training & Employment Agency's job-seeking programmes, including Jobskills and the New Deal. The company specialises in National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). It also provides training services to employers to meet the needs of local business and is working to increase its share of the private training market.
Having recently expanded its client base by 20%, O'Boyle's caters for around 335 trainees each week. While many have had bad learning experiences in the past, O'Boyle's aims to ensure its clients succeed. Each trainee has a structured training plan and is monitored throughout their course.
Last year 80% of clients received a qualification and 77% were offered jobs.
O'Boyle knows what its customers want because it is in constant contact with them. 'Our staff have become experts at getting customer input through formal and informal means,' says general manager Nicola Finnegan. Clients are reviewed every six weeks in their workplace and at college. On completion of training, they fill out an evaluation which gathers suggestions for improvement. A defect reporting system captures any causes of customer dissatisfaction. A 'Customer Service Charter' outlines O'Boyle's quality standards, mission statement and complaints procedure. Staff are expected to 'own' complaints received and do everything they can not to lose a customer.
As a result over 90% of clients claim to be delighted or very satisfied with the service they receive; 70% use O'Boyle more than once and 80% introduce new customers.
Employees regard training as a mission, not a job. The company genuinely cares that its clients succeed. Exceptional and unprompted customer service is common. Staff visit clients in hospital, provide lifts to work or interviews and often work with clients outside curriculum times - for example, to ensure one pregnant trainee completed her qualification early.
Employees' dedication to their clients is matched by O'Boyle's dedication to its staff. A Staff Charter outlines its commitment to regular appraisal, feedback and skills development. Achievements are recognised in ways appropriate to the person, such as a day's holiday, lottery tickets or vouchers. Staff share in company profits and tutors receive bonuses for achieving NVQ targets.
In a recent survey, 98% of employees said they were completely contented or contented with their work. It's no coincidence that employee and client satisfaction scores are both high. Studies have shown that staff contentment is a reliable indicator of customer satisfaction.
- Make customer charter promises measurable
- Make rewards for outstanding customer service appropriate to the employee
- Gather informal as well as formal feedback
- Resolve complaints early before they escalate
- Encourage employee initiatives.