Once again the entry submitted by the Triple 'A' Animal Hotel and Care Centre, (winners of last year's Small Business Award) sounded too good to be true. Ready to find fault, a new team of judges trekked north up the A1 to inspect the deluxe animal boarding kennels based near Washington, Tyne and Wear.
In the final judging meeting, the sceptics admitted to a complete conversion. Don't underestimate this organisation, declared one member of the judging panel. Triple 'A' may be in the business of animal care but its approach to customer service is far from fluffily sentimental.
Triple 'A' is a first-class organisation with a model approach towards customer care. Founded in 1983 by former nurse Ann and her husband Arthur on an undeveloped 10-acre site near Nissan's car factory, the business offers Northern pet lovers a range of top quality facilities and services. Short and long-term boarding for up to 300 dogs, cats, horses, small animals and birds plus specialised dog and cat grooming, a pet sitting service, dog training and puppy socialisation lessons and a pet garden of rest form Triple 'A's core business. The kennel offers a free trial day to new clients which enables owners to view the facilities and leave their pets for a day's acclimatisation. In addition, Triple 'A' delivers training for both professional carers and the general public including NVQs, animal care training days for adults and free junior training days for children.
While still a relatively small concern (only 33 full-time staff and less than £500,000 turnover), Triple 'A' again impressed the judging panel with the extraordinary rigour of its customer-driven processes and procedures.
The company achieved Investors in People (IIP) recognition in 1995 and ISO 9001 in November 1997. Ann Adlington and her highly enthusiastic staff excel in identifying what customers want and responding quickly to those demands. More than 40% of Triple 'A's repeat customers and 64% of new customers provide individual feedback through written questionnaires or in response to a telephone enquiry three days after their pet has returned home. All feedback received by post, e-mail, fax or verbally to staff is noted in writing and discussed at the daily staff meetings. Triple 'A' responds to customer complaints or comments the day they are received.
'By listening to customers we can quickly implement their suggested improvements,' explains Ann Adlington. 'Recently, for example, we have introduced a new 24-hour pet collection and delivery service, a second desk in reception to improve customer service and we have dropped our extra charges for the use of credit cards and kennel heating.' Staff generated 2,250 ideas for improvement during the year - saving the company £25,000 and providing £75,000 in revenue growth.
This passion for customer care is backed by evidence of customer satisfaction. More than 90% of customers declare themselves to be 'highly satisfied' with the service they receive and 61% of customers provide repeat business. Triple 'A' asks customers to measure its performance according to value for money, appearance of the premises, range of services offered, attitude of staff and pet living conditions. Ranked on a scale of one (poor) to five (excellent), the results of this survey are openly displayed in the reception area on a 'What our customers think of us board' which is updated month by month. 'This open display serves as a reminder to our staff that what they do counts, as well as letting customers see that we take their comments seriously,' explains Ann Adlington. To date this year, survey results reveal consistently high scores - customers rate the attitude of staff most highly at 4.91: value for money is rated least favourably at 4.62.
The near-perfect score for staff attitude comes as no surprise to the company founder. A passion for Total Quality Animal Care lies at the heart of Ann Adlington's vision both for her business and the industry as a whole. The company ethos is understood by all staff who are encouraged to bring a mix of practical skills, theoretical knowledge and a caring attitude to their jobs. 'Communication, compassion, caring and commitment are paramount to the success of our organisation,' she points out.
At Triple 'A', staff development and communication is afforded a priority which must be rare in even the largest, multinational corporation. All staff are involved in daily meetings plus weekly departmental meetings.
Staff are encouraged to put forward their views, particularly any criticisms, and each employee (including managers) write a weekly report that includes a performance rating and written appraisal for each one of their colleagues.
The report also includes details of skills learned, challenges and ideas for improvement. These weekly reports form the basis of the Supervisor, Staff and Apprentice Employee of the Month Awards.
Staff are appraised on a monthly and six-monthly basis and encouraged to pursue further training. Pay awards are linked to the achievement of additional qualifications.
The philosophy of taking personal responsibility for ensuring customers are satisfied which Ann Adlington hopes to engender among the Triple 'A' staff is one of 'If it's to be, then it's up to me'. This attitude is encouraged in terms of both customer care (staff deal with customer complaints on the spot) and career development.
With its ambitious plans for growth and genuine passion for customers backed by clear evidence of improvement in customer-focused processes and procedures, the judging panel was very enthusiastic about the centre's exemplary service practices. Part of the Triple 'A' vision is 'to take animal care into a new dimension'. In terms of human care, it's already there.
KEY BUSINESS LESSONS
- Openly communicate customer satisfaction ratings among both staff and customers
- Harness all feedback: find ways to capture word-of-mouth customer comment in addition to more formal written customer feedback
- Communicate the company vision: regular meetings between staff and management ensure all staff understand the company goals
- Inspire passion: enthusiastic leadership can inspire employees at all levels in the organisation
- Aim to be highly recommended: track whether existing customers make recommendations to other potential buyers.