Birmingham City Council: an unflinching commitment to public service

“Senior directors see the value in what we are doing, and they are consistently putting aside training budget to ensure their own team members can benefit from this opportunity and use the qualifications as a benchmark for excellence in customer service delivery.”

A founder member of the Institute of Customer Service, Birmingham City Council has a long track record of equipping its staff to serve the local community. 

Over a 1,000 of the Authority's workforce have completed the Institute's professional qualifications in customer service since the programme began.

In recent times the Local Government landscape has shifted dramatically, with significant job losses and far-reaching budget cuts. Far from dispensing with its commitment to staff development in customer service, the Council has renewed its efforts. 

Focusing on the customer

“As we all know, customer service is the key differentiator in any successful organisation,” says, Council Institute of Customer Service Officer, Sue Hopkins, one of two Council staff managing the qualification programme on behalf of the whole organisation. “After all, serving local people is the reason we are here.”

“Putting the customer at the heart of everything we do is a priority and renewing our commitment to the Institute of Customer Service while times are tough really puts some meaning behind those words.”

“Our relationship with the Institute is exceptionally strong – both through our Account Director, and at a strategic level. The landscape has obviously changed dramatically for us recently, but if anything that relationship has grown.

“Pressing on with the qualifications – in the face of budget pressure – is a clear statement of intent to customers and staff alike. Providing an excellent service remains our top priority.”

Investing in staff

At a time of job uncertainty and understandable fluctuations in morale, the Council's ongoing investment in the professional skills of its workforce – leading to recognised, professional qualifications – has been broadly welcomed by staff and trade unions alike. 

As well as the qualifications themselves, the Authority has retained its regular graduation ceremonies for successful practitioners, alongside their coaches, Institute speakers, senior managers and directors. 

We believe these events are crucial: “Despite the very real challenges we face moving forward as an organisation, it is more important than ever that we continue to recognise and celebrate achievement. It's not often the staff get to meet the Lord Mayor and share their success with senior directors and service heads. It shows our people how much their contribution and hard work is valued.

Inspiring continuous improvement 

“The external qualification brings a change in focus. Where traditionally a team member might have been regarded as 'just' a service provider, now they rightfully regard themselves as a customer service professional.” 

Council Institute of Customer Service Officer, Vikki Yale, adds, “a key feature of our programme is that Practitioners are given the opportunity to develop as coaches and support their colleagues, drawing on the benefit of their own experiences. This in turn helps to drive the performance of the organisation as a whole.”

“Some of our coaches have themselves been inspired to become Institute assessors. It is testament to the programme that people are now choosing it as their professional development route.”

Quote from a coach: “We are all feeling the impact of the current financial savings within our work environment.  I recognise that my involvement with the Institute has given me a route to follow in order to gain personal and professional development.” Tracey Melbourne, Customer Service Team Manager

Driving organisational performance

There are hard business reasons for the qualifications too. 

The habits practitioners learn – taking personal responsibility, reflecting on their practice and making incremental improvements – naturally make them more effective in other areas of their work.

Notably, qualified practitioners become proactive in spotting vital cost savings. “People are enabled to achieve the best they can with what they have”. “They become very focused and mindful of the resources they are using.”

“Everyone has a part to play in achieving the efficiency savings we need, and the qualification framework reminds each individual that they can make a real difference”, adds Sue.

Encouraging positive change 

Our evaluation activities consistently demonstrate that the qualification programme has a direct impact upon broader performance and change management initiatives throughout the Council, such as its Performance Development Review process, the “Birmingham Way” behavioural guide and “BEST”, a programme encouraging a positive, “can do” response to the changing Local Government landscape.

We consistently drive home the message to Practitioners that the ethos of the Institute’s qualification is to build the habit of reflective thinking across each of the four key areas of the qualification. This practice should inform their approach long beyond when the qualification has been achieved, and it is this habit that demonstrates that they are professional practitioners of customer service. 

Focusing on the future

“We would definitely encourage other organisations to take up the Institute's qualifications,” enthuse the Institute of Customer Service Officers “...And consider First Impressions as well. Qualifications give that important recognition, but sometimes it's useful to start with some formal customer service training as a basic intervention, then move on.”

Customer service is certainly going from strength to strength at Birmingham, with a long line of managers eager to replicate the performance impact of the qualification in their own services.

“Senior directors see the value in what we are doing, and they are consistently putting aside training budget to ensure their own team members can benefit from this opportunity and use the qualifications as a benchmark for excellence in customer service delivery.”

Stephen Hughes, Chief Executive, added "the Institute’s Qualifications remain instrumental in driving the quality and professionalism of frontline staff, enabling them to deliver a better service to customers. Continuing our commitment of using the Institute's qualifications enables our staff to focus on providing services in the most effective way whilst seeking to find efficiency savings in doing so".