If it moves and if it matters to customers, then someone at Nichols Foods is bound to be measuring it. This Haydock-based food and beverage manufacturer pursues feedback from both customers and employees with passionate enthusiasm and monitors its own performance with unflagging zeal.
The firm's 17 performance measures track everything from call response times to error-free invoicing. Surveys, comment cards, questionnaires, personal visits, a telephone opinion line and customer focus groups are just some of the methods used to find out how the company is faring.
When customers return to the Nichols Foods car park to find their cars have been valeted during their visit, they are even asked to rate the result.
Some may feel that Nichols' approach to customer care borders on the obsessive, but the attention to detail shown by managing director Gary Unsworth and his team is beginning to attract both plaudits and results.
Founded in 1981, Nichols Foods' growing £33 million business is based on supplying a broad range of beverages (coffee, soups, soft drinks) to the UK's leading vending, catering and retail companies. And while supplying vending machines and the drinks to go with them may not sound a great opportunity for customer service, the Nichols' approach has earned it not only industry awards but a growing international reputation for customer service best practice.
Nichols Foods featured alongside such well-known names as Unipart, First Direct, Richer Sounds, Xerox and Ritz-Carlton in the 1998 Marketing Council study tour of Britain's and the US's leading customer-focused companies.
The company also featured alongside 13 other UK organisations which hold outstanding reputations for service quality (including Marks & Spencer, TNT Express and Birmingham Midshires Building Society) in a five-day Best of British Service study tour organised earlier this year by Manchester Business School and Mosely Consultants.
Unashamed plagiarism of the best customer care ideas from companies outside the manufacturing industry has contributed to the success of Nichols' own brand of service excellence. The company recently sent nine of its managers on a visit to some of the US's leading service companies, including hotel chain Ritz-Carlton and parcel delivery firm UPS.
'We came back with about 500 points on our action plan,' says Martin Lee, Nichols Foods' operations manager. 'Many of the ideas were simple, such as one from the First National Bank of Carolina for thanking colleagues. It's a simple piece of paper with the picture of an outstretched hand. Employees use it to thank a colleague for a job well done and pin it on the notice board.' Unsworth is a firm believer in benchmarking - which he calls 'industrial tourism' - and, while most of Nichols' customer-focused initiatives are not new, few companies could claim to execute so many, at any one time, with such success and so much genuine enthusiasm.
It's little wonder that so many managerial seekers of the 'Service Grail' wend their way to the Nichols factory. At one site, which employs only 180 people, visitors can discuss the practical implementation of most of today's leading-edge customer service ideas. On the operational side, Nichols has everything from team-working to continuous improvement projects (the results of these projects are on public view in a specially designated corridor area).
And those eager to learn about how best to motivate staff can explore ideas ranging from how to institute a successful reward and recognition programme to cost-effective ways of supplying basic education in reading and maths to those employees who want to improve their education and skills.
(The Nichols' suggestion? Strike up a partnership with a local community college.)
In matters of communication, too, Nichols is a model of good practice.
The most important messages that the company wishes to impart to its workforce are delivered not only through face-to-face contact but also mailed to employees' home addresses. 'People tend to read things more closely when they receive a piece of mail addressed to them personally,' Unsworth says.
The firm's notice boards and wall spaces are alive with information on company performance and Unsworth also invites non-managerial staff to discuss company progress during a 'how are we doing?' meeting every six weeks.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all these initiatives is that visitors to the factory learn about them, not from managers, but from employees themselves.
When customers come to call, the most likely factory guide will be a machine operative eager to discuss the benefits of 'world-class manufacturing' or his colleagues' recent drive to reduce machine downtime.
And if that sounds a little too good to be true, the statistics bear out the increasing satisfaction of the Nichols' workforce. Staff turnover, for example, has fallen to 5% from 25% three years ago and only 3% of staff described themselves as discontented in a recent staff survey (with a 97% response rate). In the same survey, more than 97% of employees agreed that customer excellence is the major focus of Nichols Foods.
If you take any key performance indicator used by Nichols Foods you will discover staff and customers who are increasingly happy with their experience of the company. Better still, you could even take a trip to the Penny Lane site and experience for yourself the theory of service excellence in daily practice. But prepare to have your scepticism swept aside. For, as one Management Today/Unisys judge concluded, 'enthusiasm, commitment and energy run through this organisation like electricity'.
- Plagiarise: there's nothing very new in best practice - so borrow from the best
- Involve customers in the design of new products and services
- Formalise informal feedback: find ways to collect informal 'I didn't want to put it in writing, but ...' comments
- Communicate: managing director Gary Unsworth offers staff the formal opportunity to meet and express their views every six weeks
- Train employees and give them the responsibility to pursue business improvement: The results of Nichols' continuous improvement projects are on public display.