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By anyone’s standards, the British Council is a truly global organisation. Operating in more than 100 countries, its role is to work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year teaching English, sharing the arts and delivering education and society programmes. It’s an important mission, and one that would be impossible without a consistently high level of customer service.

With 10.9 million face-to-face and 116 million digital interactions as demonstrated in the 2013/14 annual report, across a wide spread of geographical and cultural environments, this represent a major organisational challenge. What’s more, the customer base is extremely diverse, from individual language students to entire national education ministries. Although the British Council is partly funded by a government grant, it increasingly has to stand on its own feet financially. Success in areas such as English and exams mean that less than 20 per cent of British Council funding now comes from the government, but it is a competitive market, and sustaining this level of growth cannot be taken for granted.

“We wanted to do more, and better”

The British Council recognised that its success depended upon providing a high quality customer experience all over the world and so, eight years ago, joined The Institute of Customer Service. Customer Management Director, Eva Choong believes the benefits of membership were obvious: “Our market was growing rapidly, so we needed to find a way to scale up and professionalise our approach to customer service. There was an awareness that the world is becoming more sophisticated and customer expectations are growing, so we wanted to do more, and do it better.”

“It was good for business”

To improve service, The British Council embarked upon a fixed term ‘Customer Service Excellence’ project, which has now become an integral, ongoing part of the corporate structure. They worked with The Institute to ensure best practice and professional knowledge informed the project. Eva leads a team of seven based in the UK, which supports almost 1000 people globally in delivering consistently good service at front line, managerial and strategic levels. She recalls: “It was seen that by focusing on customer service, putting resource into it and clarifying what was expected locally and globally, we were achieving better results. It was good for business. You couldn’t just do it for two years, this was something we needed to be doing all the time. Our Chief Executive was coached remotely by a colleague based in Warsaw using technology.”

To ensure consistency of experience, the British Council uses The Institute’s Professional Qualifications as part of its main framework for customer service training worldwide. Susan Burnett acts as Global Qualifications Programme Manager (QPM), with responsibility for ensuring that the British Council derives the maximum business benefit. The Institute qualifications fulfil this requirement as they enable organisations to train staff wherever they are; it has a network of in-house assessors and coaches who deliver training face-to-face and remotely via telephone, videoconference or Skype.

To emphasise the strategic importance of the programme, the British Council’s former Chief Executive, Martin Davidson, took a qualification alongside colleagues across the global network. “Martin was in London, and was coached remotely by a Warsaw-based colleague,” says Susan. “The fact that our Chief Executive took a qualification himself shows, at the highest possible level, just how important customer service and professional development for customer service is.” With well-established groups in Africa, the Americas, China, India, Europe and Eastern Europe, some 279 people have now been through the British Council’s Institute’s Professional Qualifications programme, helping to ensure a consistent, high level of service is being delivered across the globe.

“World-class best practice”

Has the British Council seen tangible business benefits from the improved service its customer service improvement programme has helped to deliver? Susan is unequivocal: “Yes, for sure. Working with The Institute has provided us with professional insight in support of our improvement projects across the global network. We started with the basics. Before we started this project we couldn’t say with certainty how many phone calls and emails we were answering. Now we have trend data over several years, as well as activities like mystery shopping and customer surveys, so we’re able to see where we are. In many parts of the world we’re exceeding our targets, and we have pockets of world-class best practice emerging in unexpected places , Colombia for one. Bangladesh is another success story. Despite significant technological challenges, not least the poor state of the telecommunications system, the team has found ways to effectively engage with customers – an effort rewarded during the Institute’s Customer Service Week campaign which the British Council has promoted as a global initiative across its network.”

“Our customers are happier”

Susan comments: “Overall we’ve made considerable progress in responding more effectively to customer enquiries, being more accessible and being able to target investment, resource, time, management and support where it’s most needed. Customers are happier with the experience they are getting at the British Council, and staff are happier because they know the direction, and they understand the standards that they are expected to work to. The Institute’s Professional Qualifications have also had considerable impact on staff engagement in this area of our work. Staff are more engaged because they’re being listened to, their ideas are being used. It’s got to be good for our business.”

“Word class service”

There are other business benefits from the Institute’s Professional Qualifications programme. In one country, a staff member running English language exams was repeatedly asked about opening a new centre in a neighbouring city. As part of her Institute qualification she developed a customer feedback project proving the demand, and a new centre was opened as a result. Susan points out: “This was a slice of the market that we had previously missed out on. Through the qualifications, a staff member was encouraged to think beyond her specific job, to see an opportunity and find a way of acting on it.” Susan believes that staff from many different countries join the British Council because they share its values, and service has become an expression of that. “Wherever they’re from, our staff around the world know are our ambassadors, providing the best of British Council service.”

“Excellent partners, and good friends”

Susan says The Institute of Customer Service has been, excellent partners on the British Council’s customer service journey. “They are really helpful on all levels. Our account manager works with us across all product areas and we have a counterpart in The Institute to troubleshoot any administrative challenges too. It’s a great relationship; they are good business partners and also good friends.” The journey is ongoing. Susan admits that in some parts of the world, there are still outstanding technological challenges, while in other areas unstable environments pose challenges to maintaining service levels at all times. “Nevertheless,” she says, “our customer experience, building trust, inspiring through our products and services and making it easy for people to do business with us, is really strong. Trust is our USP, both when we’re selling a language course, and representing the UK as a whole.”

Leadership support which is vital to the success of the Institute qualifications programme continues with the appointment of a new Chief Executive at the British Council. Ciar√°n Devane congratulated a group of 14 staff who recently achieved their Institute qualifications. He was also full of praise for four Coaches who received Institute Coach Qualifications, the first in the British Council to take their coaching support to this level. “This cohort has come away with new and strengthened skills in customer services, communications and coaching.”

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