The 1997 Management Today/Unisys Service Excellence Awards once again attracted the creme de la creme.
Both quantitative and qualitative improvement in the standard of entries for the second annual Management Today/Unisys Service Excellence Awards ensured a tough tussle before TNT Express Delivery Services emerged as this year's overall winner. Winner of the business to business category at last year's Awards, with its ongoing commitment to new and better ways of delighting customers, TNT Express is a model of best service practices worldwide.
The battle for this year's overall honours was particularly hard fought.
Although the Awards' rules excluded the 1996 winner, Birmingham Midshires Building Society, from re-entering, several of last year's shortlisted companies returned to the fray. In total, more than 180 organisations (a 40% increase on last year) were assessed against four broad criteria of excellent service provision: understanding customers; operational excellence; enabling people; and leadership, vision and values.
A panel of judges made up of representatives from Management Today, Unisys, previous winners and industry experts selected a shortlist of 17 organisations to receive site visits. But, as Christine Carroll, director of external marketing for Unisys Information Systems Group, points out, even shortlisting is an increasingly difficult task. She says, 'The sheer quality of entries, particularly the depth of supporting evidence, was higher than last year.
As Tom Bell, managing director of TNT Express, says, "Service quality is a race with no finish line." And Awards entrants clearly understand that principle and are striving to stay ahead and keep improving.'
A chief objective of the Awards is that participating organisations use them to improve performance. All entrants receive a personalised report which benchmarks their performance against other competitors and that of 80 companies whose details are held in the Unisys Customer Focus database and which are recognised worldwide for their dedication to customers.
The most powerful message from this year's site visits is that caring for customers requires organisation-wide commitment. 'Service excellence is everything an organisation does to win, satisfy and retain customers,' explains David Jackson, leader of the Awards' judging panel. 'Leading service providers show a deep understanding of their customers. Organisations which excel in service have a passion for customer care that is evident at all levels throughout the organisation.'
Sir Tom Farmer of Kwik-Fit takes the idea even further. He believes customer focus needs to be 'an obsession'. 'It's become an obsession with me. Can we do things better? I think that every day, every month, every year.'
Jackson's personal definition of service excellence is information plus passion. And this year's top award winners displayed both in abundance.
Award winners are awash with information about the needs, expectations and experiences of their customers which they acquire through questionnaires, interviews and focus groups.
Leading service providers are open about the views which their customers express. At Triple 'A' Animal Hotel & Care Centre, customer satisfaction ratings are displayed in the reception area and updated month by month.
At TNT Express, details of customer satisfaction are posted in the company's 33 depots every week.
Clearly customer-focused companies use customer feedback to improve the service they offer. Customers are involved in the design of products and services and any complaints are quickly captured and disseminated through the organisation to ensure problems do not recur. Good service requires operational excellence and consistent service standards to run through products and services like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock. The Customer Supply Services wing of Matra BAe Dynamics, for example, had to re-design its processes and invest heavily in new technology before it could deliver the performance that its customers required.
Given information and operational excellence, Jackson believes that to achieve excellent service standards organisations need a magic ingredient.
Car rental company Avis adopted the motto 'We Try Harder'. 'Organisations which have taken that philosophy to heart are way ahead in the service race,' he says.
Igniting a passion for customer care in all employees is, Jackson feels, the most difficult part of the excellent service equation. Clear vision from the top must be supported by systems which develop, train, motivate, recognise, reward and genuinely empower people. At Credit Card Sentinel, staff volunteer to work in teams on a variety of 'manager-free initiatives' aimed at delivering excellent service. Employees at Bromley Council's Environmental Health & Trading Standards unit listen to customers before driving through their own ideas for service improvement.
As Bell of TNT Express so rightly points out, everyone knows that ultimately it's a company's people who make customer service work. And only by listening to staff, communicating with them honestly, investing in their development, recognising and rewarding their efforts, trusting them to make good decisions, respecting their suggestions, learning from their experience, harnessing their enthusiasm and making work fun, can top teams hope to release the passion genie from its all-too-frequent captivity.
Unisys, a world leader in information management, believes that customer service is a key source of competitive advantage. The Management Today/ Unisys Awards provide a focus for organisations wishing to excel in customer care and an impetus for higher service standards.
Unisys supports a range of events to help organisations exchange customer service ideas and learn from industry leaders. Anyone keen to learn more about Sustaining Service Excellence can join David Jackson, leader of the Awards judging panel, and industry experts on 19 October for a five day study tour of excellent service providers throughout Europe.