Essilor: How ServiceMark helped a historic lens maker to see a brighter future

“I'd recommend ServiceMark to anybody – but don't do it for the badge: understand why you're doing it, and really make the change."

You might not immediately recognise the name Essilor, but you've seen its products. Indeed, you might even be using them to read these very words.

That's because Essilor is the leading manufacturer of opthalmic lenses and equipment. It manufactures half the world's varifocal lenses, an idea it invented in 1959. The UK division alone turns over £66 million, employs 320 staff and makes over a million prescription lenses each year, as well as off-the-shelf reading glasses: numbers that are growing with the ageing population.

Far from being just a supplier, Essilor UK is at the heart of its industry, working hand-in-hand with 1,400 independent eye care practices to help them tailor their services, equipment and marketing to suit their local environment and clientele.

But such a personalised service relies on a strong bond between customer and supplier, and as recently as 2009, things were not as bright as they should have been,“Things simply had to change.” Internal communication difficulties were compromising Essilor's ability to deliver on its service promises. Complaints were rising and maintaining customer confidence became a regular task. Quality Manager Pete Dodds distinctly remembers the moment he understood a new approach was needed. “We were trying to improve internally, but ended up going in circles. Because of our industry, we're very familiar with ISO quality accreditations, so we looked at those models first, but we just weren't getting to where we needed to be.“

This is our journey

”After examining a number of options, Essilor UK joined the Institute of Customer Service in March 2010, and began working towards the ServiceMark standard – involving not just service staff, but the whole company.Pete says: “We liked how the Institute explained that they would support us, but this is our journey. It's not consultancy, it's about us learning, calling upon guidance and support when we need it.“We spread ServiceMark throughout the business; the information was relevant, simple and easy to understand. People could see that we really were making the company more transparent.”

“The Quality team led, because we're seen as independent. We did not want this to be just a departmental drive; it affects every part of our organisation, from the MD down. The whole business was entering a new era. Transformed from the inside out Benchmarking surveys carried out as part of the ServiceMark process revealed that while customer confidence was still buoyant, Essilor needed to work far harder at internal engagement and morale was low. Support from the Institute of Customer Service helped Essilor find the tools to identify important changes.

Pete says: “The support has been excellent – both from the Institute and other members. Our Account Director, Sam, has been very good in setting us up with likeminded organisations going through a similar journey. “The research materials have given us some really useful principles and models to apply – ours is a specialised industry, but good engagement is good engagement.”Even minor changes had a profound impact. Managing Director Mike Kirkley switched from making six-monthly, all-staff presentations to smaller, inclusive events, enabling two-way conversation.

Gradually, employees realised their managers really were listening, and internal approval scores leapt from 59 to 82.1.As morale improved, work became more of a team effort. When snow made travelling conditions difficult, team members who could walk took it upon themselves to cover others' shifts – without being asked. One told Mike: “It's because we feel valued.”He recalls: “It was humbling how everybody was so keen to do their part. The atmosphere was buzzing.

“ServiceMark has pulled us together as one. The teamwork is incredible.”“Leaps and bounds”Customers have noticed the difference, too. Surveys revealed a marked improvement in satisfaction over complaint handling, as Essilor took steps to ensure quicker resolution, more visible results and, crucially, improved learning from each mistake to stop problems recurring. Having worked with Essilor for 10 years, Lorraine Chambers moved to a new team in 2011, created to further enhance the company's personalised service approach. “Service has come on leaps and bounds,” she says.

“Customers have one person to talk to, so we can build rapport and trust. They feel more confident which makes my job more enjoyable.”Similarly, customers visiting the factory during Essilor's new Customer Service Week frequently take time to compliment the friendliness, openness and expertise of production staff. The benefit is mutual. Dave Pearce works in production, checking lenses for scratches, and appreciated the opportunity to ask directly for feedback.“It was good to put a face to an order,” he explains. “I wanted to find out how our customers work, and whether I could improve the product for them in any way.”Bottom line benefits the new spirit fostered while achieving ServiceMark has in turn had a direct impact on Essilor UK's profitability.Unplanned absences have fallen by 80%, while annual staff turnover has plummeted from 20% to just 1%: a huge factor in a highly skilled industry where experience and expertise take years to acquire.“These days, our HR department doesn't spend a lot of time recruiting,” smiles Pete.

“And because staffing is so stable, we can invest more in quality training. We're working towards a new academy.”Likewise, ServiceMark's emphasis on team working and employee-led improvement paid spectacular dividends, as team members devised a way to save £65,000 on a single project.“That was Logistics and Purchasing, working together. They don't even sit near each other, but took it upon themselves to team up and get more from our resources.”“

A huge, huge impact

”Despite the recession, Essilor UK has continued to grow by up to 3% year on year, drawing admiration from the company's other international divisions. Pete has “no doubt” the success is down to the engagement created through the ServiceMark process.“You can only grow as a business when your teams are fully behind you. The Institute has had a huge, huge impact.”Essilor is determined to make its progress permanent. Workers have featured in a morale-building video, entitled “heroes”, while there are plans to create a new heritage centre and documentary, helping employees to understand their place in the company's illustrious history.“We've climbed a mountain,” concludes Mike. “Now we have to stay on top.”

Pete nods: “We're not a badge-wearing company, but our ServiceMark means a lot to us and we need to keep moving forward, because we don't want to go back.”“I'd recommend ServiceMark to anybody – but don't do it for the badge: understand why you're doing it, and really make the change.“Be honest with yourself. Because if you're not, you'll never change anything.”