Unilever is one of the world's leading suppliers of fast moving consumer goods, producing household brands such as Wall's, Flora, Knorr, Persil, Dove, Lynx and Marmite. The firm has strong local roots in more than 100 countries with around 163,000 employees, and has ambitions to double in size.

In 2006 the company introduced the One Unilever programme to streamline and simplify the business. Service excellence was central to this strategy. Chief executive Paul Polman explains: “We need to put customers and consumers at the heart of everything we do.”

Service: a key differentiator

Unilever is undergoing a period of significant change as the company instills a passion for serving customers throughout the organisation.

Before, staff would say: ‘I'm only in customer service’. But having gone through the Awards, they have a greater understanding of their role within the business and how it makes a difference. That's a very powerful behavioural change.

Unilever supply chain skills and capabilities advisor, Marilyn Smith

Works director Rachel Thomas explains that this new emphasis on customer service is critical to success. “Service represents a key differentiator in a market environment where pricing no longer achieves sufficient competitive advantage,” she says. “We have a huge challenge to change the mindset of the whole business, so that the customer always comes first. We need to develop everyday disciplines to ensure that we deliver the products customers want, in the quantities ordered, at the time needed.”

A learning framework

Bringing about wholesale cultural change in a complex global organisation is no straightforward task. However, Unilever is making strong headway through the development of a Customer Service Learning Framework. The firm's Supply Chain Academy was the starting point for this, developing 25 dedicated e-learning courses. Despite this initiative, it soon became apparent that additional resource would be needed to help change the mindset of the entire business. Aarti Dheda was brought in as global customer service excellence director to extend the framework. As well as developing the framework, Aarti has also adopted the Institute of Customer Service's benchmarking tool, ServiceMark, to ensure Unilever achieves a mandatory standard of customer service throughout global operations as it strives to become a “truly service focused organisation”.

Working with the Institute of Customer Service

Unilever also turned to the Institute of Customer Service to develop a set of service standards that would form the pillars of the Learning Framework, and to create a programme of personal development to help staff deliver these standards.

“Our market scan identified the Institute as the forward-looking organisation we needed to help link business strategy with customer needs and drive service excellence,” says Rachel Thomas.

Institute associate member Stephanie Edwards worked with Unilever to develop five customer care e-learning courses as the building blocks for the company's global service culture. Once a staff member completes all five courses, a customer service project and a written report, they attain an Institute-accredited Foundation Level Certificate.

Cultural shift

External accreditation is a key aspect of the new customer service ethos at Unilever and the Foundation Certificate is designed as an entry route into the Institute's Professional Awards.

"Our customer service will become much more professional thanks to the Awards,” says Unilever supply chain skills and capabilities advisor, Marilyn Smith. “We are already seeing a cultural shift take hold, driving home the message that everyone in the business has a customer - be that a retailer or a colleague from another department.

“Before, staff would say: ‘I'm only in customer service’. But having gone through the Awards, they have a greater understanding of their role within the business and how it makes a difference. That's a very powerful behavioural change.”

Business impact

A survey of staff and managers who have completed the Professional Awards highlights the positive effect the scheme is having on individuals and Unilever as a whole.

Asked to rate the impact on personal development, respondents gave an average score of 4.75 out of 5. The Awards also increase motivation to work for Unilever (4 out of 5) and provide a broader understanding of what customer service means (4.71).

Marilyn Smith says: “Staff who complete the Award understand the bigger picture that successful service is a balance between the needs of the customer and the organisation. They become much more business savvy, which is of huge benefit to Unilever.”

She adds: “They also become more productive, as the Awards provide an impetus to go on the journey of personal development.”