In its third year, the Management Today/Unisys Service Excellence Awards attracted 165 entries, and produced an impressive overall winner - First Direct, the telephone banking operation.
These awards, organised by Unisys, the international information services and technologies group, and Management Today, with the assistance of judges drawn from Cranfield School of Management and from previous award winners, have four aims: to recognise UK organisations which excel at serving customers and to identify best practice in service excellence, provide benchmarks and offer guidance on how to build a customer-focused company.
So what are the key lessons to emerge from this year's competition? Andrew Maslen-Fincham, one of the Unisys judges, believes that the UK's top service providers excel in three areas: retaining profitable customers, working in partnership with both internal and external customers, and engaging and empowering staff at all levels in the organisation.
Most companies realise that the point of providing excellent service is to retain customers, says Moira Clark, one of the Cranfield School of Management judges. 'But an increasing number of firms are beginning to understand that not all customers are equal - in fact, some customers are far more worth retaining than others.' The UK's best service providers are now adept at identifying who their best customers are, how to find them and how to keep them. Moreover, these companies are not averse to shedding certain non-profitable customer groups. Knowing the difference between a profitable customer and an unprofitable one makes the difference between a successful customer retention programme and an expensive one, Clark points out.
The second trend highlighted by this year's finalists is the drive towards a more collaborative approach to both customers and employees. Bromley Council's Environmental Health and Trading Standards division, for example, develops partnerships with other agencies in the borough as a cost-effective solution to its limited budget resources.
And the Customer Services Business Group of GEC-Marconi's Radar Systems Division has completely restructured its traditional departments to create a more flexible organisation that encourages the sharing of information, responsibilities and opportunities.
The third theme to emerge this year is recognition that employees themselves can be trusted to run the business. 'Giving power to the people who address the customer's needs enables the business to anticipate and respond to requirements better than the customer expects,' says Maslen-Fincham, 'which is what builds customer loyalty.'
In addition to these general themes, the statistical information collated from entrants' questionnaires provides some useful insights into what separates the best from the rest. It is now clear that the traditional measure of customer service - the customer satisfaction index - should be treated with caution. While most firms put great store by this index, current research indicates that a high level of satisfaction does not necessarily lead to either a high level of repurchase or, indeed, loyalty.
The evidence suggests that only at very high levels of satisfaction (for example, extremely/very satisfied) do customers really mean what they say. Not surprisingly, this year's finalists all return 'extremely satisfied' ratings demonstrably higher than merely 'satisfied'. An extraordinary 90% of First Direct's customers describe themselves as 'extremely satisfied'. For the very best companies, service is an exact and measurable science.