Taking control of customer service

1st Nov 2016

The need for excellent customer service may not be the first thing that springs to mind for a firm in a science-based industry like laboratory services, but it’s something that ALcontrol has put at the heart of its operations – with impressive results.

The company’s Food & Water division, with five sites throughout the UK, is one of the nation’s biggest testers, carrying out some eight million tests annually. The division’s work plays a crucial role as part of a safety regime that protects and informs the public, testing that food and water is safe and contamination-free, checking and verifying nutritional claims and labelling, and substantiating the authenticity of food products – think of the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Not only can the work be pressured for staff, but the results can also lead to highly stressful situations for customers.

“If we find an unwanted bug – Listeria for example, in a manufacturer’s sample – then we have to break what is obviously a piece of very bad news to them,” says Mike McCorkell, managing director of the UK Food & Waters division at ALcontrol. “You’ve got to do that in a sensitive and human way – one of the areas where the need for excellent customer service really comes in.”

Four years ago, Mike decided that the company needed to overhaul its approach to customer service. “We were in danger of being too transactional in our dealings with customers, treating the work like a production line,” he recalls.

His response was to recruit an experienced service and engagement expert, Julia Bloomer, from the steel industry. Julia had experience of The Institute of Customer Service from her previous role, and enrolled the Food & Water division as a member. Since 2013, ALcontrol has made wide use of The Institute’s products and services, including putting many of its staff through training programmes such as FirstImpressions and ServiceManagement and obtaining one of The Institute’s most prestigious accreditations, ServiceMark.

Making its mark

ServiceMark requires an organisation to survey its employees to benchmark engagement; survey customers to gauge their level of satisfaction; and have an independent assessment carried out by an Institute representative.

ALcontrol is the only commercial laboratory nationwide to have obtained ServiceMark, which has enabled the firm to swim against the tide in an industry where margins tend to be low. Julie explains: “What it’s done for us is given us the knowledge and the confidence to increase our pricing in a fair way, knowing that our customers recognise our service offering too and will stay with us. So it’s had a direct commercial benefit.”

Putting the focus on customer service has paid off. Customer retention now stands at 95% compared to 85% four years ago, while the average employee engagement score has risen from 50% in 2012 to 84% today.

“We’ve had a seismic cultural change,” notes Mike. “It is pleasing that when customers visit or audit they pick up on the vibe and comment on it and can see that we’re doing a good job.”

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