If Credit Card Sentinel could bottle its employees' enthusiasm for customer-focused improvement, the Portsmouth-based company would have another fine product to sell. The organisation's vision is to 'deliver the best'. And with 200 employees working together towards that objective, achieving service excellence is not only possible - it's proving enjoyable, too.
Having fun at work is enshrined in the Sentinel philosophy. The company offers customers (introduced by client organisations including Barclaycard, British Telecom, Co-operative Bank and the like) the facility to record the details of their credit/debit cards and other important data. If cards go missing, a single call to Sentinel, via a 24-hour helpline, will ensure the relevant card-issuing organisations are alerted with minimum delay. Sentinel, which is wholly owned by US-based group CUC International, also offers a range of add-on services designed to minimise cost and inconvenience to its three million customers. Together Sentinel's customers hold 14 million cards providing an annual turnover of £15 million for the firm.
While Sentinel's core service is not intrinsically thrilling, managing director Philip Williams insists that making work fun is a serious business.
Only enthusiastic and empowered employees can make customer focus a reality.
After all, what is a company if not its people?
'I wanted a company where people looked forward to coming to work. The atmosphere we wished to create was "Yippee, it's Monday",' he says.
People, Williams feels, are the most important ingredient in the 'company loaf'. Making the most of their talents is the key determinant in how high the company will rise. Sentinel employees are therefore instrumental in deciding corporate goals and objectives.
Under the umbrella of its Delivering the Best (DTB) programme, employees work towards understanding their individual contribution to the company's progress.
The DTB workshop, in which every employee participates annually, ensures that everyone understands Sentinel's vision, values and goals. Following this year's programme, 97% of employees said they understood how their individual performance contributed to each aspect of corporate success. A booklet with the same title, issued to each employee every February, outlines the key objectives of each department, how those objectives will be measured and achieved, and who is responsible for achieving the departmental goals. The cover of the DTB booklet is a unique pictorial representation of Sentinel's values and, like the objectives written inside, is constantly updated by staff themselves. Indeed, the booklet and the training programme which accompanies it are now in their third revision.
Open communication throughout the organisation helps ensure that all employees understand the company vision. Every Tuesday morning, managers attend a stand-up meeting (sit-down meetings take too much time, Williams believes). Departmental managers then produce a weekly update for their staff under four topics: things worth shouting about, things we did, things you need to know and departmental objectives for the week. Loo News (brief news snippets pasted to the back of every toilet door) is Sentinel's novel way of ensuring everyone is kept abreast of vital information.
Sentinel's ability to enthuse and energise staff is based on its commitment to 'manager-free zones', says Clifford Coote, sales and marketing director. The company's numerous manager-free initiatives are critical in supporting genuine and effective employee empowerment. One of these is the Customer Attitude Team (CAT). A small, self-managed group of employees, the CAT contacts customers at random by telephone to collect feedback on customer perceptions, expectations and needs. Tracey Hall, team manager of customer services and a CAT member, believes that traditional questionnaires fail to tell the whole story. 'They are usually completed by those who are either highly satisfied or dissatisfied,' she says. 'Calling people at random gains a truer representation of how most customers feel.' CAT members identify their own areas for research, design the questionnaire, test it internally and externally, report their findings to managers and issue the CAT newsletter, Mews. Recent projects have included surveys to assess customer satisfaction with Sentinel supplies - luggage tags and wallets, for example - or the length of time customers are prepared to wait for correspondence. 'We can find out information overnight which it might take a marketing department months to discover,' says Hall.
A committee of nine voluntary members runs the Sentinel staff suggestion scheme, known as 'Sir Gestion'. The committee meets fortnightly and staff themselves decide which to implement. Since the scheme began in October 1995, it has received 511 suggestions. Of these, 377 were implemented, saving Sentinel £37,000. Some 171 employees have been rewarded with gifts and 206 received cash awards amounting in total to more than £5,000. Opportunities for Improvement forms offer staff another chance to get their views heard, as does the employee-run works council.
The PACE (People Actively Committed to Excellence) initiative gives employees scope to work on customer-focused improvements, as does TAN (Take Action Now). Launched last year, TAN allows staff to take any improvement action which they feel comfortable with. Receptionist Gina Celestine, for example, recently decided to design and introduce a questionnaire to be completed by all visitors to Sentinel's Portsmouth offices. The aim is to gauge their views on the welcome they receive, the information they are given and the helpfulness of reception staff.
Sentinel, which achieved Investor in People accreditation earlier this year, allocates 5% of salary budget to training. All staff have an annual development review, based on self-appraisal. 'Staff create their own s development portfolio to record company and department goals, an individual training and development plan, and evidence, which they collect, of customer satisfaction, along with their contributions to team efforts or projects,' says personnel and development manager Deborah Brewster.
Harnessing employee enthusiasm for customer service can only, says Williams, result in satisfied customers. CAT teams stay in close daily contact with card-holding customers. Meanwhile, managers spend time with client organisations such as Barclaycard to assess their needs and expectations. A strategy workshop, recently held off-site with some of Sentinel's larger client organisations, provided new opportunities to share confidential data for mutual benefit. 'Our concern a year ago was that clients saw us as a commodity supplier. Our challenge has been to differentiate ourselves and show that we can offer more than card protection. Working closer with our client organisations and increasing the level of trust between us can help us achieve that end,' says Sentinel account director Jonathan Grisdale.
As part of Sentinel's drive to get closer to both its customers and its client organisations, a new IT system to log and measure complaints was introduced a year ago. The company currently receives 70,000 telephone calls a month including, on average, 85 complaints and 45 compliments.
The new system enables staff to track complaints and identify gaps in products and processes which can then be corrected. Improvements to the IT system are already being implemented: these will also allow Sentinel to track the cost of complaints in terms of lost business, administrative expenses and compensation payments.
Sentinel also tracks customer satisfaction and retention, both by means of the CAT team and by independent research. The company investigates why customers fail to renew their subscription and a team is currently working on customer retention strategies. A CAT team survey conducted in May this year found that 99% of customers who have used the Sentinel service to report a loss would recommend the company to someone else.
An independent survey reveals that 73% of Sentinel customers are completely satisfied with the service, while 24% are very satisfied. Don't doubt the value of putting employees first, says Williams. The figures, he believes, speak for themselves.
Key Business Lessons
- Make work fun and provide people with challenge: people achieve more when they want to come to work
- Foster trust with clients and customers: long-term, trusting relationships will bring mutual benefit
- Communicate the company vision: ensure employees understand their own individual impact and input to corporate success
- Be creative: explore innovative ways of communicating with your employees and attracting their attention.