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Watch the inspiring story of Hampshire County Council’s transformation journey and how the improvement in service performance brought a positive impact on employee engagement and business performance.
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Hampshire County Council (HCC) became our first member to use our recently introduced Qualifications Programme Management (QPM) service.

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Whether at home or at work, we all rely on the power supply to keep us going about our day to day lives. Maintaining the power network is therefore a big responsibility, requiring rapid response and high levels of customer service when issues arise.

One distribution network operator (DNO) with a large customer base spread across two distinct geographical areas is SP Energy Networks. The organisation looks after the power supply to some 3.5 million households in Central and Southern Scotland and in Merseyside, Cheshire, North Wales and North Shropshire. This involves maintaining around 40,000km of overhead lines and 65,000km of underground cables, no small task!

SP Energy Networks has a team of 1,500 field engineers who interact directly with customers when an issue needs resolving or networks need to be maintained, and a contact centre team of around 65 people who handle phone calls, emails and other communications from and with customers.

A busy contact centre

The contact centre handles some 1 million calls a year, with daily volumes varying significantly depending on whether or not a power interruption arises. If a storm damages the supply network, calls can shoot up from the daily average of 1,500 to as many as 80,000. The contact centre runs itself like an emergency service with normal phone call response times impressively low, at under 10 seconds.

“Providing outstanding customer service is a major priority for us,” says Kendal Morris, General Manager Customer & Social Delivery at SP Energy Networks. “We have to be ready to deal with a wide range of enquiries. If there is a power cut or fault, then of course customers can be quick to contact us. But we also proactively contact customers ourselves especially our more vulnerable customers, for example, if there is planned maintenance due to the supply in their area. Customers also contact us for new connections or with general enquiries, which can be anything from reporting graffiti to requesting some earthing work in their property.”

The majority of customer contact, apart from face to face in the field, is done by phone. However, queries also come via email and contact forms from the website. The company also runs various social media accounts and monitors and responds to enquiries through those channels.

On the customer service journey

In recent years, the business has significantly increased its focus on customer service, as Kendal explains: “Our CEO Frank Mitchell recognised a number of years ago that a culture change was needed across the organisation to ensure decisions were made with our customers at the heart of every plan and action. We are an engineering business and it is really important our engineering standards are high, however decisions need to be made from a customer service perspective.”

This service emphasis is also important because, as a regulated business, every customer contact that SP Energy Network has is passed to a third party and scored. The business needs to achieve at least 8.2 points out of 10 on average to avoid a financial penalty and so customer satisfaction needs to be exceptional.

Satisfaction scores have risen year on year over the last 8 years which shows the strategy is working and customers are receiving an excellent service.

Training and benchmarking

Kendal said “as part of our customer service strategy SP Energy Networks joined The Institute of Customer Service. Over the last two years, the business has rolled out customer service training via The Institute’s Academy, with around 200 staff members having been through the programme to date.

The Academy has delivered FirstImpressions customer service training to staff as well as ServiceManagement training which is designed for managers and team leaders.

The training we’ve done with The Institute has definitely helped us enhance our customer service focus,” Kendal says. “It reinforces a customer culture and provides a consistent platform. It’s also really effective in bringing people together who might not work directly with each other on a day-to-day basis and building a team mentality, while the project work involved extends the learnings and embeds them further. It also means that we can provide customer service qualifications to staff, where previously the business only really invested in engineering and technical qualifications, so that’s an important benefit for many of our people.

One of the most valuable parts of membership for the business is the annual benchmarking exercise that The Institute conducts. The most recent benchmarking in February 2019 gave SP Energy Networks a customer satisfaction score that was 1.7 points higher than the top organisation in The Institute’s UK Customer Service Index.

We were very pleased to have such a good score of course,” Kendal reflects. “Network Operators like ourselves aren’t included in the UKCSI itself because of the ambiguity it would create with frontline energy suppliers (they people you pay your energy bill to). But our score enables us to benchmark ourselves against businesses outside our industry and shows us that we’re on the right track .”

Looking to the future

One area that has become increasingly important to the company, as well as regulators, is supporting vulnerable customers. Customers can register across 30 different categories of vulnerability for support during a power interruption. Of the 3.5 million households SP Energy Networks serves, some 980,000 customers have registered for support.

“We need to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances because obviously any power cut or interruption to supply could have serious consequences for some individuals,” Kendal explains. “We engage in proactive outreach to identify vulnerable customers and also partner with charities and other organisations who provide services that may help them. We offer services to our customers far wider than customers may expect from a network operator such as befriending services, benefits checks and dementia support.

Developing specific training for our staff to support those with vulnerabilities has become an important focus for us, whether we develop and deliver that training ourselves or with The Institute or another organisation.

Meanwhile, we look forward to continuing our membership of The Institute and working together to keep driving our customer satisfaction scores as high as we can get them.”

Head of Client Services at Landmark, Abby Gollicker, talks passionately about their approach to customer service and the part The Institute plays in helping them set the standard.

 

Opus’ Service Delivery Team discuss how The Institute has helped them drive a huge improvement in their customer satisfaction levels and boost their Net Promoter Score from around 20 to 50-60.

 

The University of the Arts in London (UAL) is the biggest arts university in Europe, and ranked sixth in the world for Art and Design in the QS World Rankings 2018. The University draws together six renowned colleges, each with its own distinct reputation, including Saint Martins and the Chelsea College of Art.

Attached to UAL is its own awarding body that was set up ten years ago and runs pre-degree arts qualifications that are equivalent to either A levels/BTecs or GCSEs. The UAL Awarding Body devises the curriculums, sets the tests and assesses and monitors the institutions delivering the qualifications, which are mainly FE colleges but also include sixth forms, schools and some universities. UAL itself, for example, offers an Arts Foundation course that is run by the UAL Awarding Body and is taken by around 1,000 students annually. Nationally, some 44,000 students take UAL Awarding Body qualifications each year, gaining a UAL diploma or extended diploma in such subjects as Art & Design, Creative Media, and Performing & Production Arts.

Rapid growth

It’s been a fast-growing business, with significant expansion of workload in the last couple of years as the popularity of the qualifications has grown and an increasing number of colleges and schools have begun offering them. This has meant that the number of staff at the awarding body has also risen significantly, from 9 to 36 in just two years. Whilst this has been a very positive development, it has also presented some challenges as Ross Anderson, director of the UAL Awarding Body, explains.

“We have always taken the level of customer service that we deliver to colleges and schools extremely seriously,” Ross says. “We aim to take a partnership approach, growing long-term relationships and, unlike many other awarding bodies, we like to deliver our customer service face-to-face. Some bodies are increasingly monitoring and taking evidence from colleges through online platforms, but we prefer to go out and visit institutions even if that is more work intensive and takes more time. However, the growth of the business meant that we began to find it increasingly difficult to deliver the level of service we wanted to as the volume of incoming queries rose.”

Ross recognised that he needed to bring a number of new people into the team and also make several changes to systems and processes to keep on top of the workload.

First impressions last longest

However, another important step that Ross saw the need for was to undertake some customer service training for the whole team, giving everyone the chance to step back and take stock of what they did and how they worked, seen through a customer service lens. This led to the UAL Awarding Body becoming members of The Institute of Customer Service, with the whole team, then around 30 people, going through The Institute’s FirstImpressions course. FirstImpressions is an interactive short training programme consisting of four modules covering different aspects of customer service, delivered over two days with a gap of usually around one to two weeks between the days to allow an assignment to be completed.

“The training was really successful,” Ross reflects. “It was a great kick-off point for us that helped us all to understand that we’re a service providing department in which all of us are providing service, not just the individuals who spend the most time answering phone enquiries. I think some of the more front-line team members were feeling a bit isolated and weren’t sure that others understood the value of what they did. The training helped us develop a more shared culture and a better understanding of service delivered by the whole team.

Empowerment & ideas

The training was delivered on-site at UAL by The Institute’s Academy.

“I think it was really important to have an external voice in the room,” Ross says. “It was helpful to be reassured that what we were experiencing ,some service issues around the edges due to rapid growth, was quite normal in an organisation of our nature and size. Overall, the training made team members feel more empowered. In particular, there was an ideas generation exercise that was excellent, people came up with a whole range of ideas that we captured and made sure we took back to be actioned wherever possible. One small example was that we reconfigured the hunt groups on our phones to better direct calls. This was something we already knew we had to do, but the FirstImpressions training made us actually do it!”

Ross plans to put new joiners through the FirstImpressions training in the future, and is also planning to introduce the ServiceManagement training offered by The Institute for managers and team leaders. There is a leadership team of four at the awarding body, and six further middle managers, all of whom will potentially undertake ServiceManagement.

Satisfaction uplift

The benefits of the FirstImpressions training are clear to see. Before the training, the satisfaction scores from The Institute’s survey for staff was running at 50% – well below the national benchmark. Now however it has risen to a much healthier 70%.

“I am absolutely delighted with that,” Ross says. “That uplift is the result of a range of things we have done, but the FirstImpressions training certainly played a large part.”

The UAL Awarding Body is just about to renew its Institute membership for a further two years. Within that time, one of Ross’ ambitions is to secure ServiceMark accreditation which is achieved through a combination of survey scores from customers and staff plus an assessment by an external assessor from The Institute. “We get lots out of our membership of The Institute, regularly attending the annual conference and also a number of the seminars and roundtables that are put on” Ross reflects. “To achieve ServiceMark would be the icing on the cake. We want to show that we’re good at this and obtaining the accreditation would be a great reward for our collective efforts. I’d love to report upwards to the Board at the university that we’ve got it. We’ll see!”

Watch Emma Morris, Head of Customer Service at Redrow Homes, explain the challenge of providing a consistent customer experience across the country and highlights how working with The Institute of Customer Service has enabled the organisation to deliver a return on its investment.

 

Since starting out from founder Jeremy Hyams’ front room in 1996, Claims Consortium Group has become something of a success story. Now employing nearly 300 people, primarily at their offices near Taunton in Somerset, the company provides property claims handling and claims workflow technologies working with the majority of the UK’s blue chip insurers. They specialise in claims for property damage from perils such as storm, flooding or fire. Integral to the group’s success has been a focus on customer service. You only have to read a short way down the homepage on their website before you come to the statement: ‘Customer service is the foundation of everything we do.’

Matt Brady, Group Managing Director, explains: “We’re very conscious that the customers we deal with are in a situation they didn’t want to be in. They’re often stressed and, having placed their policy with a blue chip insurer, have high expectations of service. So we put the emphasis on service right from the outset. For example, we ask our call centre staff to score a customer’s happiness from their very first call. This individualises the customer and places the focus on customer satisfaction straightaway.”

Service through the supply chain

However, customer service is not only delivered by Claims Consortium staff themselves, but also by the company’s network of partners, the contractors and surveyors that they employ to assess building damage and carry out work. As a result, the company works very closely with its partners and delivers customer service training to them through regional workshops. “We have a multi-layered operation and we need to get our supply chain to work in the same way as us,” Matt says. “In many ways, the most difficult part is getting the service ethos embedded into businesses that are not ours , so we work very hard at that.”

Linking it up

The majority of customer interaction is over the phone, but online is also growing fast as a channel. Overall, about a third of customers mainly use online, and for one insurer client, this rises to around 50% of their customers. Claims Consortium has developed a unique social media style portal called TrackMyClaim through which customers can communicate with parties involved in the claim and track the progress of the claim and repairs in real time. They can use it as an information source only or proactively post messages or add photos. An extension of this is Synergy, the company’s multi-enterprise software platform that brings all parties (not just the end customer) involved in the claims process together in real time, linking up everyone in the chain. “We’ve had around 1.5 million uses of Synergy so far since we launched it in 2015,” Matt says. “We think it’s a step-change in the industry. The system has also garnered outside recognition , such as winning the Institute of Customer Service’s Customer Satisfaction Innovation award in 2017.

Institute membership

The system has also garnered outside recognition, such as winning the Institute of Customer Service’s Customer Satisfaction Innovation award in 2017. Claims Consortium Group has been a member of the Institute since 2013 and, in 2016, achieved ServiceMark accreditation. They also use The Institute’s FirstImpressions customer service people development programme, run by their in house Learning and Development team.

Matt reflects: “Key to our business strategy is to invest in and develop our staff. We don’t have a ready market of insurance specialists around us here in Somerset so it’s essential that we train our people well ourselves and can retain our talent. We already had insurance qualifications that staff can do (through the Chartered Insurance Institute) but we needed something on the customer service side too, and the Institute fits the bill perfectly.”

Motivation and validation

The company didn’t rush in to doing ServiceMark, but ran the staff and customer surveys first to benchmark where they were before deciding to go for accreditation. Carly Eggar, Head of Accreditation and Certification at Claims Consortium, says: “We didn’t want to just chase badges and we realised that ServiceMark is not about badge collecting. We learned a lot through the surveys, of both our staff and our customers. For the customer surveys, we surveyed both our insurance company clients and their policyholder customers to get the fullest possible picture. A lot of the learnings related to the communication piece. It became very clear that although we were doing many of the right things as an organisation, we were at times failing to ensure that our staff and customers were kept as engaged as they should have been with changes we were making and the reasons behind them. This is something that we have worked extremely hard to address over the last few years and is an ongoing commitment.”

One of the biggest impacts of doing ServiceMark was internal, as Carly explains: “Staff found it really motivational to see that we were serious about benchmarking ourselves against the best. It gave them a greater sense of ownership too, that their views were being asked for and listened to. Gaining accreditation is like a validation, a sign of their efforts being recognised and rewarded. Since we did ServiceMark, staff have asked me when they’d be doing the survey again, so keen are they to be involved!”

When the assessor came in as part of the accreditation and interviewed around 25 staff, many of them were fairly nervous and didn’t know quite what to expect. But you could see their enthusiasm afterwards and how inspired they were. Meanwhile, First Impressions training has become part of the company’s on-boarding process and some 65 staff have been through it. Claims Consortium is also piloting the Institute’s more advanced Level 3 qualifications which were launched to the business as part of their National Customer Service Week celebrations and have received great levels of interest so far.

A ‘tie-breaker’

But it is not only on the internal side that the company has seen the benefits of its work with the Institute. Matt Brady says: “There has been at least one instance where we won a contract with an insurance client and our ServiceMark accreditation was one of the deciding factors. It was the tie-breaker if you like, that tipped the contract in our favour. Of course, winning new contracts or retaining existing ones is usually the result of multiple factors and complex scoring systems, but having the accreditation and being members of the Institute certainly helps” Matt also values some of the materials that the Institute produces, such as the ‘Customer of the Future‘ report which, he says, “helped me to think further about customer behaviours and therefore service strategies.” In the end, the goal as Matt sees it is quite simple: to provide a joined-up, professional service that satisfies the customer and therefore the end client. “The best we can do in fact is hardly to be noticed,” he says. “Our greatest compliment is when it’s been so effortless for the customer that they don’t even remember who we are or what we did!”

Arguably, no sector in the UK has seen greater change in recent years than higher education. The increase of tuition fees, which rose to £9,000 in September 2012, and the removal of the cap on student numbers, have profoundly shaken up the sector. As ‘paying customers’, students’ expectations are higher and the competition to attract students is fiercer than ever. One university is putting customer service at the heart of its response to this changing landscape, London South Bank University (LSBU).

The university, with its main campus in Southwark and another in Havering, is distinctive in a number of ways. More than half of its students come from the local area in London; over half are of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) origin; and more than 50% also come from the lower socio-economic quartile. The demographic of its students means that the university puts a huge emphasis on developing employability skills. And it sees customer service, across all aspects of the student experience, as a key facilitator to achieving this.

Ian Mehrtens, Chief Operating Officer at LSBU, said: “Everything we do is focused around the student experience. We are committed to providing the most positive and supportive environment possible so that our students can flourish and put themselves on the path to successful working careers. Customer service is central to this, we use customer service as a way to stay ahead of the curve. Many universities are slow to react to change, but we try to adapt quickly and deliver what students need and increasingly expect.”

An embedded approach

This sense of the importance of customer service has been embedded across the university, from academic staff to student support services (well-being, disability/dyslexia support), accommodation services, student admin, library and learning resources, and HR. The university has established a Customer Service Steering Group that sets the strategy and vision for customer service across the organisation. The steering group includes two Deans who actively promote and push the service agenda to academic staff, to ensure that it is seen as an issue for everyone, not just support or admin functions. For example, tutors in all of LSBU’s seven Schools use their module evaluation questionnaires to improve the student experience – by asking students for their feedback after each and every module, and then acting on the feedback received.

What makes this really stand out is the fact that courses are designed  with this feedback specifically in mind, so students’ needs are central to all developments. Classic customer service in action. However, whilst students form the biggest customer base for LSBU, it is not only about them. Around a third of the 20,000 students at the university are undertaking employer-sponsored degrees (a much higher proportion than at most other universities). So these companies are another important customer base, along with other businesses local to the university. The local community is important too. For example, LSBU’s Academy of Sport, which offers a whole range of sporting facilities and events, markets itself as much to the local area as it does to students.

The customer service journey

The university has been on its customer service journey for a number of years now. But becoming members of The Institute of Customer Service two years ago marked an important step. Since joining, the university has delivered customer service training via The Institute to a wide number of staff (through the FirstImpressions and ServiceFocus training programmes) and also received ServiceMark accreditation for four of its divisions.

“Working with The Institute has enabled us to formalise and professionalise our customer service approach,” Ian Mehrtens said. “In a sector that fundamentally values qualifications and professionalism, it is important for us to bring that to customer service as well , to show the real value of customer service as a career, or as a facet of a career.” The training programmes have given staff greater confidence around delivering service to students as well as improving employee engagement. The university is notable for being the first organisation to achieve ServiceMark accreditation for four areas at the same time. The Academy of Sport, the Accommodation team, the Library and Learning Resource Centre, and the Student Life Centre (that delivers support and well-being services) all achieved the prestigious accreditation.

Returns on investment

There have been tangible returns for LSBU from its Institute of Customer Service membership. The university has been seeing higher number of students re-enrolling, lower numbers dropping out of courses, employability rates rising, and demand for its support services increasing. Meanwhile, staff retention rates have also increased. In some areas, satisfaction rates among students and staff rose by as much as 25% between the university’s 2014 and 2015 surveys. LSBU’s score in the National Student Survey (which is of third year students) also rose last year. There are many factors involved in these outputs of course, but The Institute training and accreditation has certainly helped.

“One of our key values at the university is inclusivity,” Ian Mehrtens said. “We want students to be comfortable to be themselves, whatever their background, and not feel that they are being judged. We want them to feel well-supported and well-understood. I think our metrics show that we are succeeding in that.”

Plans for the future

Looking to the future, the university plans to roll out further customer service training to even more staff, gain ServiceMark accreditation for more of its functions, implement the action plans that have arisen to date, improve its internal customer service, and maintain and extend its close working with and service to partner businesses and the local community. A packed agenda for sure. Reflecting on the importance of the university’s Institute membership, Ian Mehrtens said: “The Institute has helped us focus all staff on what customer service is, what it means, and how it affects our students’ lives. It’s really been worth it.”

The company’s Food & Water division, with 5 sites throughout the UK, is one of the UK’s biggest testers, carrying out some 8 million tests annually. Open for business 365 days of the year, and often needing to test into the early hours in order to meet customer deadlines, the work is fast-paced and can have unpredictable peaks.

The division’s work plays a hugely important role as part of a safety regime which protects and informs the public, testing that food is safe and contamination-free, checking and verifying nutritional claims and labelling (including for example that a product is ‘nut-free’), and substantiating the authenticity of food products too, think of the horsemeat scandal from a few years past.

Around 80% of the division’s work is food testing, with the other 20% involving testing the quality of water (important for water processing plants or for renal units, for example, in hospitals). “A demanding environment.” Mike McCorkell, Managing Director of the UK Food & Waters division at ALcontrol, explains: “We have 50 vehicles that collect food samples from manufacturers daily and for food safety tests we have to process them straight away. Most of our testing is pre-scheduled but even so we don’t usually know until the day it’s actually due to arrive what the volumes will be. So it can be quite pressured getting through the work and we rely considerably on the engagement, flexibility and goodwill of our staff to get the job done well. Not only can the work be pressured for staff, but the results can also lead to high stress situations for their customers. Listeria for example, in a manufacturer’s sample, then we have to break what is obviously a piece of very bad news to them,” Mike comments, “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.”

A customer service journey

It was four years ago when the company was consolidating some of its sites that it really occurred to Mike that a radical change to a more customer service focused approach was needed. “We were in danger of being too transactional in our dealings with customers, treating the work like a Lean production line. Our organisation was perhaps somewhat introverted as well, working hard under the bonnet but not communicating enough with customers in an engaging way. Mike recruited an experienced service and engagement expert, Julia Bloomer, from the steel industry (another tough industry, fighting hard for marginal gains) to supplement his team and together they set ALcontrol off on what has been a fruitful and rewarding journey.

Julia had experience of The Institute of Customer Service from her previous role, and enrolled the Food & Water division as a member too. Since 2013, the company 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, using Business Benchmarking putting leaders and managers through Institute training qualifications for Communication, Solutions, Innovation and Coaching obtaining one of The Institute’s most prestigious accreditations, ServiceMark.

ServiceMark requires an organisation to carry out a survey of its employees to benchmark engagement; a survey of customers to gauge their level of satisfaction; and have an independent assessment carried out by an Institute representative. All three components require challengingly high scores in order to achieve the accreditation.

Julia Bloomer says: “There’s no doubt that being members of The Institute has really paid off for us. It’s benefited us in lots of different ways. Obtaining ServiceMark was the icing on the cake if you like, although for me the most important thing isn’t obtaining the accreditation, it’s the journey to get there and the things you learn along the way. The journey is still ongoing too. We’re the only commercial laboratory in the country to have ServiceMark so it stands out as a truly independent verification of our standards. Some of our competitors promote in-house survey results but without any facts or confirmation, so it’s a great achievement for us.”

Return on investment

And it’s not just a nice piece of paper or a plaque for the company to display, it has led to real return on investment. The food testing industry is a price sensitive marketplace, and margins are low. Getting fairly rewarded for work and making a sustainable profit can be challenging. Obtaining ServiceMark along with other Institute programmes, and achieving the underlying service standard that enabled this, has helped the company to swim against the tide on price. 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,” Julia says.

Other programmes have led to financial benefits as well. “In the FirstImpressions training course, you have to come up with an actionable plan to improve an aspect of the business. One lady came up with a suggestion to plug a previously unseen revenue leakage around the way we invoice for agreed carriage charges which led to a £10,000 increase on the bottom line every month,” Julia says. “The training people go through has given them a voice and a sense of people power, that’s a return on investment in itself.” Putting the focus on customer service has paid off in multiple ways. Customer retention now stands at 95% compared to 85% four years ago; the average selling price per test has increased year on year for four consecutive years; employee retention has also increased; while the average employee engagement score has risen from 50% in 2012 to 84% now.

Seismic cultural change

“We’ve had a seismic cultural change,” Mike McCorkell observes. “We have a much improved workplace where people enjoy their jobs and are proud to tell their friends and family what they do at work. 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. I’m proud to say that we love to let customers loose on site!” Julia adds. “We can let them stop and talk to anyone, anywhere. I don’t know how you put a price on that. Around 75% of the company’s 420 staff have now been on at least one Institute training programme and the aim is to get that to 100% in time. We benchmark ourselves with great service leaders in other industries, not specifically the food testing business which perhaps is less mature in developing service leadership,” Mike says. “I think we’ve created something quite unique, we’ve built a strong ethos around being a great place to work dedicated to great service, creating quality opportunities and careers for people.”

Other divisions in ALcontrol are now on the same journey, adopting a similar customer service focused approach and working to the same ‘value cycle’ where engaged staff drive great service helping the business gain a fair price and sustainable profitability. A commitment to customer service is now deeply embedded.

Watch Andrew Harris, Customer Contact Centre Manager, at Laithwaite’s Wine discuss how he secured a return on investment from customer service training and skills development.

 

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