There's no doubt that customer care requires passion. And TNT Express Delivery Services possesses passion in spades. From tea ladies to truck drivers, all 4,800 employees understand that customers count. TNT Express managing director Tom Bell has no current plans to engrave the company's Committed to Customer Care logo on each employee's heart - but many TNT staff feel that's his next logical step.
Bell's passion for customer service is, after all, entirely logical.
TNT Express excels in the transportation and next or same day delivery of documents, parcels and freight for businesses throughout the UK. Some 1,600 trucks move more than 220,000 parcels for over 26,500 customers every week. But, as Bell insists, 'Service is our only product'. With over 4,000 parcel courier companies currently operating in the UK, customer focus has become the vital differentiator. Caring for customers is not just a matter of fine words. It quite simply makes great commercial sense.
The TNT Express figures underline Bell's conviction. Revenue has grown from £144 million to £230 million since the company first took customer service to heart in 1993. Over the same period, the number of customers trading each week has grown from 19,500 to the current tally of 26,500.
And, despite the highly price-sensitive and fragmented nature of the parcels market, Bell and team have lost none of their 20 major clients to competitors since TNT's customer service initiative began.
The decision to put customers first was inspired by market research undertaken in the early '90s. 'In 1991, customers named reliability, security and value for money as their top three reasons for selecting one parcel carrier over another,' explains Chris Atkinson, sales and marketing director for TNT Express. 'By 1993, although those three criteria were still vital, the importance of customer care had increased dramatically. Industry experts at the time expressed the view that only the most customer-driven, flexible and fast-moving parcel carriers were likely to increase margins without losing market share.' It was a message TNT Express took to heart.
Recently acquired by leading Dutch postal provider PTT Post, TNT Express launched its Expressing Excellence customer care training programme in 1993. 'Exceeding our customer expectations in all aspects of the business' became the objective. 'The approach was simple,' states Atkinson. 'Ask our customers what they want and ask our people what they need.' This is now firmly embedded in the company culture and the Expressing Excellence programme of video and workbook-based courses delivered to small multi-function groups is regularly updated.
Staff surveys reveal that Expressing Excellence has increased enthusiasm for customer care throughout the organisation: 87% of employees view the programme as up-to-date; 84% say it encouraged them to get it right first time; and 83% think it encourages them to beat their previous best.
Last year, TNT Express introduced Expressionism, the second phase of this programme. Its aim was to equip people with all the necessary skills to get the job done right first time, every time. When surveyed, 99% of employees said Expressionism improved their understanding of the business and 96% felt it increased their understanding of personal development opportunities.
Asking TNT Express customers what they want is the start of 'the race for quality, which has no finish line,' Bell declares. Every three months, TNT Express surveys 3,500 regular traders and 3,500 ad hoc or lapsed customers.
In addition, a bi-annual customer satisfaction survey asks 4,000 customers to rank 20 key delivery service attributes in order of importance and to score the company's performance against them on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 is poor and 5 is excellent). Results are analysed for each of TNT's 33 UK depots. Questionnaires are then returned to the corresponding depot so that the local team can address both general issues and specific grievances from individual customers.
Customer feedback drives all TNT Express customer initiatives, including its 13-point Customer Care Charter. Top of the charter is the company's commitment to answer all incoming telephone calls promptly, courteously and within three rings. TNT Express deals with 40,000 telephone calls a week and customer research indicates that expert call handling is a cornerstone of the company's continuing success. A 10-point telephone policy is framed and displayed at all company locations. As speed of answering is important to TNT Express customers, call answering time was cut from six to three rings earlier this year. Customers also favour speedy communication.
So TNT Express has cut call time by dropping the question, 'How may I help you?'
Instant confirmation of delivery information is provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year via TNT Tracker - an automatic telephone response system which enables callers to establish where their parcel is at any time.
Such practices have prompted the consumer magazine Which? to remark that if you wish to eat from a clean table, go to McDonald's, if you desire good-quality clothing, shop at Marks & Spencer, and if you want to know how to answer the telephone, ring TNT Express.
But customer delight does not arise from call handling expertise alone.
The reliable collection and delivery of parcels is paramount. So, two years ago, TNT Express introduced its Perfect Transaction Process. The six components of a perfect transaction are to collect a consignment on time and deliver it in perfect condition and on time with a fully completed delivery note, including name of recipient, date and time. Sending an accurate invoice to the customer and receiving payment at TNT on time are the other two components which complete the process. Every component is now measured and each of the company's depots receives weekly reports on its progress. Rivalry between depots to top the ranking charts is high and the proportion of perfect transactions has increased from 57% in 1995 to 87% this year. Almost 99% of customers now receive their consignments on time - a performance measure which applies even for circumstances beyond TNT's control, such as bad weather or incorrectly addressed parcels.
Continuous improvement of operational processes is key to continuing success. TNT Express has introduced a number of improvement schemes including a new training initiative, It's in Your Hands, to improve drivers' consignment-handling skills, and an Opportunities for Improvement scheme, which makes it easier for employees to put forward their suggestions. All locations now feature two Expressionism Talkback Stations, where employees can post their suggestion forms. Staff who put forward suggestions receive a written response within 72 hours. 'The number of suggestions has risen ten-fold since we introduced these stations,' says Atkinson.
Further steps to stimulate and harness employee ideas include the recently launched Quest 2000, whereby volunteer teams of five to six people in every depot select and work on their own quality improvement ideas. Responsibility for the implementation of this initiative lies with the employees themselves.
Each team appoints its own project leader, who attends a problem-solving course at TNT Express head office in Atherstone before training the team members themselves. Projects are based on issues raised by customer feedback on depot performance. Progress is fed back to head office on a weekly basis and is reported company-wide through weekly bulletins and a monthly newsletter.
Substantial investment in the latest technology helps TNT Express stay ahead of its competitors. Last year, Project Universe replaced a long-established central computer system with a distributed network. Full details of all customer contacts are logged onto the customer service management database. These include type of business, company contact, products dispatched, preferred times of contact, hours of business, competitors used, trading frequency, plus a full history of every telephone and face-to-face contact.
TNT Express prides itself on the strength of the relationships which it builds with its customers. Larger customers receive regular visits, smaller customers are updated by mailshots, telephone calls and a new customer magazine, Exec. Analysis of the top 20 accounts reveals that 16 of them have traded with TNT Express for more than five years. Ten of these major customers have been with TNT Express for more than seven years.
Loyal customers, Bell believes, result from happy and loyal employees.
TNT Express is firmly committed to a policy of home-grown timber which favours promotion from within. In the 1996 employee survey, 86% of respondents rated TNT Express a far better place to work than elsewhere and 83% described TNT Express as a better employer than other firms. More than 65% of employees replied to this survey and Bell sent 269 personal replies to respondents who had given their names.
Management recognises exceptional employee performance through a variety of awards, both for depots and for individual employees. The regional Customer Care Person of the Quarter receives a plaque and cash prize of £250, awarded at a major award ceremony. In December 1996, the company introduced the 'I Made It Happen for TNT' awards to reward individual examples of exceptional customer service as they happen. Winners are nominated by customers or colleagues for their commitment and receive a £50 voucher, gold pen, personalised letter from Bell and framed certificate with photograph.
Starring in the 'I Made It Happen' winners' gallery at present are Atherstone loading bay operatives John Baddeley and Gary Smith. During a recent mechanical failure, Baddeley pushed more than 4,000 parcels along the conveyor belt at the parcels distribution centre aided only by a broom. Baddeley's initiative meant parcels were flowing even faster than usual and Smith duly set a new TNT record by personally encoding 8,034 parcels with information on their weight and dimensions. Their exploits, says Bell, underline the connection between employee and customer satisfaction. 'There is a real enthusiasm for working here and a "must get through" attitude which makes all the difference. This passion for customers lies at the very heart of our organisation.'
Key Business Lessons
- Introduce new initiatives for employee recognition or suggestions
- Test employee morale through regular staff feedback. Loyal and happy staff ensure loyal and happy customers
- Measure what is important to customers: TNT Express has key measures of customer performance under 27 headings and publishes results in every depot
- Give instant employee recognition for excellent performance: it can mean more than recognition months after the event
- Count all service failures as failures whether or not they are due to circumstances beyond your control
- Give employees training to pursue business improvement.