Brighton and Hove City Council: Keeping promises through customer service

"We’re thinking differently, behaving and communicating differently. The feedback shows staff who go through the professional qualifications programme are happier, feel fulfilled and understand more about the council and their role in it...hey have an enormous sense of achievement – they also have a valuable addition to their CV which is a stamp of approval from the Institute - a nationally recognised organisation. That’s a definite plus."

Brighton & Hove City Council employs 9500 staff (including those who work in the city schools), providing 800 different services to its 273,400 residents, almost 13000 businesses and 8.5 million annual visitors.

Chief Executive Penny Thompson was appointed in 2012 and has introduced six clear values for the council and each employee - respect, collaboration, efficiency, openness, creativity and customer focus.

One of the council’s four key priorities is to modernise its processes to ensure it can maintain vital public services in a cost effective and sustainable way against; a backdrop of challenging financial constraints, a growing population and increasing public expectations.

A high performing workforce 

Each member of staff has a Performance Development Plan which clarifies their role and sets out the training and resources that will be available to them. One significant route to such development is through a nationally recognised professional qualification programme established and implemented by the Institute of Customer Service.  

Angela Corney is the council’s Learning and Development Officer with specific responsibility to run the programme.

‘We started to work with the Institute some years ago - the growing programme was so successful, I was brought in to give focused and targeted support to the employees who want to participate’, she says. ‘Our values fit neatly with those of the Institute’s qualification programme – you and your customer, organisation, colleagues and development. We are working in partnership with the Institute on an ongoing development programme - not a quick fix,’ she says.

Around 20 employees at any one time will be involved in the programme which constitutes one of the three professional qualifications that the council offers – in communications, solutions and innovations.

‘Practitioners are either self-nominated or put forward by their manager as part of their Performance Development Plan,’ says Angela. ‘Crucially, the programme can be made available to any employee. This has been a major shift for the council. By signing up for a qualification, staff members are demonstrating our values and aiming to change their behaviour and approach to deliver a better service to our customers.’

‘We set up a programme to improve the customer experience which built strong links with managers and their teams and looked at the barriers to embedding our customer promise, which is; to be easy to reach, treating all with respect, listening and getting things done. The number one request that came back was to improve customer service skills. The professional qualifications offered by the Institute were a very important part of the package. The Institute content helps staff reflect on their own behaviour, how they talk and listen to customers and how they work with them – it offers all round development in customer service.’ 

The flexibility and adaptability of the qualifications programme is attractive to the council. ‘Because it’s not overly prescriptive, we’ve been able to tailor the qualifications to fit a range of individual roles,’ says Angela. ‘Each of the three qualifications can be picked up by any staff member, whether they are a manager or part of the frontline team. All can benefit.’

One to one support

Around a quarter of the practitioners who obtain a professional qualification go on to become a coach, supporting other colleagues in their bid to achieve a qualification. ‘We have a strong coaching ethic in the council which very much fits with our values,’ says Angela. ‘Every practitioner in the professional qualifications programme is allocated a coach who isn’t their manager and also probably works in a completely different part of the council. This helps in terms of networking and as we are such a diverse workforce with two large admin centres and small pockets of staff throughout the city, it enables practitioners to understand a different set of challenges and priorities.

‘I’m more confident, have been able to implement changes and explore new ways of engaging with customers. My coach showed me what my capabilities are and enabled me to plan what I need to do to improve the customer experience.’ (Feedback from employee who had achieved the innovation qualification)

The entire qualifications programme is on a one-to-one basis. Practitioners meet with their coach around every four weeks to look creatively at different aspects of the online programme and how any challenges can be overcome. ‘There are guidelines about how long the qualifications should take’, says Angela. ‘But because we take this seriously, it isn’t a cosmetic exercise, we are happy for practitioners to take their time without pressure. We want them to fully develop and see the changes for themselves. It’s important they have time to reflect on the personal impact they can have, through the experience of gaining these qualifications, on their own role and also their colleagues.’

Angela’s role is to promote the programme internally – which she admits is not an onerous task as the enthusiasm of participants does a lot of the work for her. She also offers drop in sessions, helps with online documentation, runs skills workshops and keeps abreast of different coaching models and examples of best practice.

‘The Institute is very much my support’ she says. ‘I meet with them every three months to monitor how we are implementing the programme, looking at any issues and challenges and how we can network with others. We have an annual celebratory event which recognises the achievement of our practitioners and the support of their coaches’.

Defined benefits 

At the end of the qualification and once the practitioner and coach believe they have met all the online requirements, an assessor will discuss with them what has been achieved, objectively looking at how the new learning has been absorbed and demonstrated. Feedback from peers, their manager and coach is also explored.

The council also asks for all practitioners, to evaluate their experience. ‘The feedback we receive and the changes we have seen helped us realise that customer service isn’t just about the customer,’ says Angela. ‘We need to understand our relationship with them, manage their expectations, understand their needs, find solutions and think creatively about possible outcomes. With such pressure on time and resources, these qualifications are helping staff to do a better job and – more importantly – helping them realise what a fantastic job they are doing.

We’re thinking differently, behaving and communicating differently. The feedback shows staff who go through the professional qualifications programme are happier, feel fulfilled and understand more about the council and their role in it. It’s made a huge difference to a number of staff who have chosen to take the qualification. They have an enormous sense of achievement – they also have a valuable addition to their CV which is a stamp of approval from the Institute - a nationally recognised organisation. That’s a definite plus.’