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Paul Couchman, Managing Director of Premier Pensions Management discusses 10 years as a member of The Institute and why he – along with all new recruits – love the FirstImpressions training.


Paul Couchman

Watch Andy Pymer, Executive Director of Finance and Regulation at Wessex Water, highlight how membership and ServiceMark with Distinction helped them achieve a high rank in Ofwat’s Customer Measure of Experience and Developer Services Measure of Experience league tables.

Watch Dean Anderson, Customer Experience Manager at Edinburgh Trams, share how ServiceMark and Professional Qualifications, among other membership benefits, have helped them consistently grow their customer base over the last 7 years, increase colleagues and customer satisfaction, reduce complaints handling and increase employee retention.

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.

The group has been in business for over 50 years and the parent company is a French mutual insurance group, the largest French insurer in France, where 1 in 4 customers has a policy with Covea. In the UK, its operations are also extensive, employing over 1,600 staff with three main sites in Halifax, Reading and West Malling, in Kent. It offers a range of products including commercial, motor, life, high net worth, property and protection insurance. For motor insurance, it sells a lot of business through one of its subsidiary brands, Provident, which has begun to market its policies directly to consumers.

It was on the motor side that the company first established its relationship with The Institute of Customer Service, becoming members in 2010 and working towards ServiceMark accreditation in Motor Claims Operations – which it successfully achieved in 2013 and then regained accreditation in 2016. Setting up a home for customer service. Another part of the business that has well and truly embraced the customer service agenda is the home insurance claims department.

The organisation took the decision to bring its claims management in-house rather than running it through an external claims management company, and when Kelly Morris joined as Senior Home Claims Manager she had the brief to recruit, train and provide the tools for a new claims department. “I could see the value of the work the motor team was doing with The Institute,” Kelly says. “I needed to set up a new department and create a customer-centric culture and I could see that the ServCheck survey of staff that is part of ServiceMark sets exactly the right agenda. It really rang true. To achieve excellent customer service, you have to get it right internally first. It was about setting off on a journey to create the right culture. If you get the culture right, it breeds a customer-centric approach and ServCheck and ServiceMark became really important features of establishing the culture and ethos of our in-house home insurance claims department.”

The process worked out very well, with the home insurance team achieving ServiceMark accreditation in 2015, and becoming the only home claims department in the UK to achieve a distinction.

A growing agenda

Indeed, since then the ServiceMark agenda has spread even further through the organisation, with the company’s personal lines department (including the sales and renewals teams as well as claims) recently beginning its work towards accreditation. This will be the biggest accreditation to date, as the entire personal lines team comprises over 500 staff – no small feat! “Ultimately, our aim is to get the whole of Covea in the UK accredited,” Kelly says. “It’s something we’re working towards. ServiceMark has support at Board level, with our Claims and Operations Director, Adrian Furness, being instrumental in driving it forward.”

Tangible benefits

So what have the benefits been of putting parts of the business through ServiceMark? For Kelly, there have been plenty of upsides. “Working towards accreditation has been beneficial on many levels. As more parts of the organisation have come on board, it has helped different departments work together and increased understanding between them. Staff have become very engaged and involved. It has also helped us look at how we work and make some important improvements to the way we deliver service to the customer. For example, in the home team we realised that we needed to take an even more proactive approach when managing a customer’s claim. So we now have a system where we contact the suppliers involved in a claim (for example, the company that is going to fix or replace a damaged item) and make sure everything is on track, before we have our regular call to the customer. That way, customer contact is not just ticking a box but becomes much more meaningful. It’s part of our ‘make every touch meaningful’ approach.” The benefits are evident in the statistics too. Before Covea insourced household claims, the home insurance team’s Net Promoter Score was 3.8. Now, it’s 58.8, a huge increase. Results have continued to improve. For example, in the first accreditation, the department’s customer survey score was 86.1, but this has risen to 90 at the latest interim survey. “Our journey with The Institute has definitely supported the improvement in our results and has been a real proof of concept for our very different approach to the industry standard,” Kelly says.

Taking a wider perspective

It’s not just about ServiceMark, though, with the organisation getting involved in a number of Institute events such as the annual conference and various roundtables. In fact, Covea hosted an Institute Member Forum at its offices in Halifax showcasing the journey they have been on at Covea and the link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Kelly says: “We were joined by approximately 30 other members, where The Institute also presented new research on the correlation on engagement and customer experience, and we also had time to run some workshops allowing groups from a variety of different types of organisation to share their ideas in relation to customer experience.

These practical examples are where we, as Covea, have always found the most benefit from attending other Institute events and roundtables. These events enable us to get an insight into how other businesses are approaching the customer service agenda, including companies from different sectors,” Kelly reflects. “It helps us break out of our insurance bubble. We are all striving to emulate customer service leaders such as Amazon and John Lewis to name just a couple, and to do that you’ve got to get a wider perspective.”

And what tips or guidance does Kelly have for other organisations that might be considering accreditation? “Make it fun!” she says. “It should be an enjoyable process as well as a challenging one. When we started our personal lines accreditation, we had green and white balloons in the office (after The Institute colours) and encouraged people to wear green and white to work. Secondly, make sure you act on the feedback you receive, from both staff and customers and keep your promises. You need to take a ‘you said/we did’ approach to show that you are listening and bring everyone on board. Finally, remember it’s a journey, it takes time to change or establish a new culture. It’s not something that happens over night, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.”


Helen Gorrell, Operations Director of Next Gear Capital explains how a customer service framework helped build an engaged workforce, drive up customer satisfaction, achieve accreditation and drive return on investment.


The Motability scheme is a vital service for people with severe disabilities through which individuals can use their government mobility allowance to lease a car, scooter or power chair. The scheme is run by the charity Motability and delivered operationally by Motability Operations. There are some 630,000 people with leases on the scheme, meaning that administrating it and ensuring excellent standards of service is a complex task. It involves a high degree of partnership working as the lease scheme offers a whole package of services including insurance, breakdown services, tyre replacement, service and maintenance, all delivered by different parties and covered by the customer’s single regular payment.

Motability Operations has around 900 staff, with some 200 based at a contact centre in Bristol. The centre receives well over a million calls a year and most of its interactions with customers are voice-based, although there is also a web chat facility.

Going digital

Motability Operations prides itself on the high level of customer satisfaction that it consistently achieves, and indeed it was recently the highest scoring organisation across any sector in the Institute’s UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI). It has been a member of The Institute since 2011 and holds the ServiceMark accreditation. However, in recent times the organisation has recognised the need to move its services to a more digital platform. At present, customers cannot transact online with the company, any significant transaction or change is done by phone or face to face. Ian Goswell, Commercial Director at Motability Operations, explains: “We have some basic digital services but realised that we need to make a more substantial transition. This is not to replace or downgrade our voice services, but to provide an additional channel for our customers that they can choose to use if it suits them. This would also give us the opportunity to potentially offer new products and services that customers might find valuable, such as around car-sharing or a journey planning tool for example.”

However, as Ian explains, the organisation did not want to simply launch digital services for the sake of it. “The idea of the move to a digital platform causing any erosion in our service levels is completely unacceptable to us. So we’ve been absolutely clear from the outset the customer experience via digital channels must be identical to that of our voice-based services. And our voice-based services must maintain their existing quality. That’s been our ambition and guiding principle.”

Inspiration from The Institute’s Annual Conference

It was while Ian and his team were contemplating putting the digital project in motion that a very timely event happened, The Institute’s Annual Conference, which takes place in March each year. At the 2016 conference, Ian was particularly struck by the presentations given by two speakers. “There was an excellent session from Tony Prestedge, Director & Group Chief Operating Officer, Nationwide Building Society who was talking on exactly the subject I was thinking about,” Ian says. “What really hit home in his speech was that he said Nationwide had always been determined to avoid the trap of ‘digital by default’, i.e forcing customers down the digital channel. Sometimes, this can be an excuse to reduce other frontline services. But for Nationwide, they made it a principle to let customers interact with the Society in the way they wanted to. So that was an important validation for me of how we had already been thinking.” The second presentation to leave its mark was given by the Head of Customer Service at Marks & Spencer, Jo Moran. “What stood out here was the extent to which customer satisfaction mattered and was analysed in the Boardroom,” Ian recalls. “The M&S Board had really taken it to another level. They clearly regarded it as a fundamental strategic driver. It has always been discussed in our Board meetings too, but Jo Moran’s presentation inspired me to make sure we gave it even more emphasis. The whole conference was a great event. It was really well compered by the BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, she did a great job of talking to the presenters and drawing out more nuanced information.”

Exchange visits

But it wasn’t just The Institute’s Annual Conference that proved useful to Ian and his team. “Being members of The Institute has helped us in several other ways. You get access to other organisations’ smart thinking about key issues and can look at what they have learned. Another thing that has been invaluable to us is exchange visits that we have arranged with other organisations who are also Institute members. For example, some of my team visited HSBC to learn from them about their web chat service, this was directly useful to us in setting up our own facility. Being members of The Institute means that you meet other organisations at events and seminars and can get talking to them on specific operational issues. Often it’s not the top-level Boardroom contacts that are hard to make, it’s getting to meet operational management and develop contacts there. That’s been a real plus.”

Membership insights

The company has also gained some critical insights from The Institute benchmarking surveys that it takes part in. “They are massively important to us,” Ian says. “We have a very specialised customer base and we want to make sure we can relate the service we provide to other customer groups and see how it translates. We have gained some little insights that have profound implications. For example, the surveys have shown us that we score extremely highly for the ease with which customers feel they can do business with us. We might otherwise have lazily assumed that because our interactions are voice-based, our ease of doing business might not be so good. But it’s given us the evidence that this is a strength and so it’s been critical to ensure that we don’t lose that in the move to digital, it’s about ensuring we maintain the same ease and flexibility.”

Nearing go-live

The company’s digital plans are now beginning to near go-live, with a gradual but progressive roll-out of digital services planned to start from next year. “We’re well-developed with our plans now,” Ian says. “What we’ve learned through the various Institute events and platforms has been crucially important to us as our journey has progressed.”

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!”

As the power behind energy efficiency,¬†IMServ provides energy data and metering services to a range of customers. They include the energy suppliers, organisational energy users (companies) and energy management partners such as energy consultancies or brokers. Monitoring around 275,000 metering points remotely and covering 25% of the UK’s electricity consumption through its network, the company collects approximately 80 billion units of energy data per year. IMServ provides multi utility solutions, gas, water and electricity, with its key expertise within the electricity industry.

Headquartered in Milton Keynes with 350 employees, the company has been operating for 25 years now and is one of the leading players in the complex business of energy consumption data and analysis. The Energy industry is increasingly a highly competitive market, undergoing significant change, meaning that levels of customer service can be an important differentiator.

Service on the agenda

It was about five years ago that senior management at IMServ realised they needed to do more around the service agenda. Steve Brown, Managing Director at IMServ, explains: “We got to a point where we were conscious that our levels of both customer service and employee engagement were not where they needed to be. Anecdotal comparisons with competitors showed that we weren’t necessarily any worse than them, but we wanted to be better than the average of a mediocre bunch!” So it was that, in 2012, the company became members of the Institute of Customer Service and began to work towards ServiceMark accreditation.

“We were particularly keen to improve employee engagement levels because we understood the link between engagement and customer service and wanted to create that virtuous circle, which could then help differentiate us in the market,” Steve says. “So we were clear about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t have the framework to deliver it on our own.” The Institute and ServiceMark provided that framework. That was the real value add. The company achieved ServiceMark in 2013 and has recently been reaccredited for a further three years to 2020. Satisfaction scores have improved in both the Business Benchmark survey of customers (from 72.5 to 78.7) and the employee survey (from 79.6 to 80.6).

Culture shift

The process, which Steve describes as challenging, generated a number of key insights and changes. “We realised that we needed to shift the culture slightly because we had a very operational mind-set,” Steve explains. “But sometimes the customer doesn’t care as much about operational nuances as we think they do. They just want to know what their data shows, not so much the technical detail behind it. So it was about aligning our operational delivery with customer service more effectively.” There were also some significant internal changes that came about as a result of ServiceMark and the recommendations provided by The Institute as a result of its independent assessment. Firstly, in order to improve collaboration between teams, IMServ reorganised how the teams sat in the office to reflect the’virtual data production line’ of their services to the customer.

Staff empowerment

Secondly, they introduced a system of management business information boards that showed the KPIs for the operational teams and performance against them and started a schedule of regular team talks in which these boards were discussed. “This improved performance awareness and collaboration between teams,” Steve says. “Importantly, the KPIs were not the Board’s KPIs, they were derived by the teams themselves, according to what mattered in their own roles. So there was an empowerment process at play in giving staff the ability to shape what was measured and managed.

Another area of focus was on improving two-way communication with the company’s meter technicians and readers, remote workers who represent nearly one third of the workforce. “Their engagement scores were low. Improving their engagement also improved their efficiency, so there was a double benefit,” Steve observes. In addition to ServiceMark, the company has also undertaken some of the Institute’s ServiceFocus training programmes after learning and development came out with low scores in the employee surveys. IMServ has also appointed its own training manager to help in the development and delivery of training.

Top quartile

The result of all these efforts is that the company is now in the top quartile for service amongst its peers, meeting their original objective. “It’s not exaggerating to say that there has been a complete turnaround in employee engagement and customer satisfaction since we began the process,” Steve says. “We already had things we wanted to change, but working with The Institute has significantly helped us on the way and enabled us to really put a focus on it.

Working with our Client Relationship Director has helped us think differently and more broadly as a management team.” The payback of all these initiatives has been palpable. Having lost a major retail customer a few years ago because of service issues, they have recently won them back and the customer is very satisfied with service. IMServ hasn’t lost a major supplier or energy management partner in the last three years. “We grew revenue by 10% last year and it’s up 20% this year to date. It’s difficult to establish a precise link of course but I have no doubt that if you create that virtuous circle of engagement and service, it feeds off itself,” Steve says. The company now also runs two major projects every year, one on the customer side and one on the employee side. This year’s customer project is around installing a new CRM system and also dealing with complaints more effectively, while the employee project involves the company’s internal ‘WeEngage’ team running Food For Thought sessions to air any issues and ideas amongst staff.

“A few years ago if you walked around the office, you could sense that things could be improved,” Steve reflects. “Now, walking round you can sense an energy and a feel-good factor. We know we can’t ever afford to ease up, that if you stop continually emphasising service things can go backwards, but we’re certainly on the right path.”

As autumn advances and the nights draw in, we all begin to switch our heating on to take the chill out of the air. But instead of wall-mounted radiators, more are turning on underfloor heating , a system that emits an even warmth through the floor.It’s something that’s becoming more widespread, and not only with more people pursuing self-build dreams of the type made popular by the TV show Grand Designs. It’s more affordable than some might think, costing around the same as luxury radiators, is more efficient and does away with those irritating cold spots! Based in Honiton, Devon, Nu-Heat is the UK’s largest supplier of designed underfloor heating systems.

The company started out in 1992 employing just a handful of people and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a team of more than 100. With over 70,000 systems installed, the company has also branched out into integrated renewables such as heat pumps and solar thermal systems.Nu-Heat designs bespoke systems for each project, working from house plans, and as well as single new build or renovation jobs, also works on bigger trade and commercial developments. The company works with a network of registered installers around the country.

Customer service journey

Customer service has always been important to the company and in 2014 it formalised this by becoming a member of the Institute of Customer Service. Christian Oram, Sales and Marketing Manager at Nu-Heat, explains: “We’ve always looked at the customer service journey throughout the process from first contact through to completion of a job. We pride ourselves on being an ethical sales company that takes a very consultative approach.

The industry has become more competitive over the years and we realised that bringing customer service to the forefront of what we do will improve customer satisfaction and give us a real competitive advantage. It is another way we can stand out from the crowd. The difference between eight out of ten and nine out of ten for customer satisfaction is huge.

On joining the Institute, Nu-Heat ran an initial benchmarking survey both externally and internally. The external results were pleasing, with a customer satisfaction score of 84.6%. Internally, however, it was much lower at 62.7%.”We realised that we had much more to do on the internal side,” Christian says. “Whether we were just being too harsh on ourselves, or whether we were not in fact communicating well enough through the company about the emphasis we place on customer service, it gave us the spur to up our efforts. So we began to increase the visibility of our customer service policies and processes, including beginning a formal feedback process internally for service challenges and successes.”

Steering a path

That wasn’t all the company did, though. “We also set up a Customer Service Steering Group, made up of Board members and senior management (including myself). The Steering Group sets strategy, looks at high level customer service challenges and discusses root causes. Then we created a Customer Service Focus Group made up of people from across departments to develop and implement any changes to our processes. In addition, we created internal customer service champions, started a recognition scheme and began sending out monthly customer feedback emails to all of our people.”

Nu-Heat then worked towards The Institute’s ServiceMark accreditation, and successfully gained it in December 2016. It is the only heating company in the UK to hold the accolade. Not only that, but the company achieved a Distinction, one of only a handful of companies in any sector to do so. The company’s external score had risen to 88.8% – a satisfying increase given that it was already starting from a high score, while the internal score shot up to 88.9%.

The ‘9 out of 10’ goal

“We were very pleased with this,” Christian says, “but we want to keep pushing ourselves to do better! We’d love to get to 90%. That’s why we’ve now embraced a ‘9 out of 10’ initiative where every member of staff sets themselves an improvement goal that would help us get to that 9 out of 10 score. It can be something big or small. For example, my first one was ‘Don’t interrupt people’ as I had a habit of doing that! My current one is ‘Establish a structure and process so everyone in my team is clear what their role is’. People have really embraced it well. Since joining The Institute, the customer service ethos has become firmly embedded in the company”.

Through following the advice of their Client Services Director at The Institute, every member of Christian’s 40-strong Sales and Marketing team, for example, has a customer service objective amongst their 4 or 5 key personal performance objectives for the year. The company’s HR manager has also become an accredited trainer to deliver The Institute’s FirstImpressions customer service training programme, and all of Nu-Heat’s people have been through it. “We’ve caught the training bug now!” Christian laughs. “FirstImpressions was our first company-wide learning and development training and now we’re rolling out leadership training too.” The company also actively participates in National Customer Service Week (1st week of October) with a variety of team-building and recognition activities through the week. “We’ve taken part for the last three years now,” Christian says. “It’s something we look forward to and everyone can enjoy.”

Happy returns

Christian is also clear that there has been a real return on investment for Nu-Heat from working with The Institute. The company has grown market share steadily through the last three years. Externally, repeat business on the trade side has grown by around 15%. Internally, as engagement scores have risen so sick leave has dropped significantly down by around a half. “There’s no doubt that membership has been really good for us. We make the most of it, with our ServiceMark Distinction accreditation on all our quotes, our website, our brochures and our trade show stands. Customers notice it and comment on it. It’s a point of differentiation, a real USP. Internally too, it has proved its worth. People like working for a company that is genuinely trying to be the best it can be. They want to be a part of that and are motivated when they can see you are listening to them and valuing their point of view.”

Part of AIM-listed Restore plc, Restore Datashred employs around 400 people and operates 13 ‘destruction centres’ around the UK where paper records are securely destroyed. The company also disposes of hard drives and computers, although a ‘wipe and recycle’ service is separately offered by another division within the Group. Around 250 staff are drivers, collecting materials from customers, with the rest being depot operatives, customer service staff at a call centre in Purfleet in Essex as well as other admin staff, and a telesales operation in Manchester.

Symbolising what we believe in

It was in 2012 that the shredding business, then owned by a different group, was first asked to take part in an Institute of Customer Service survey. The score was good – and the company decided that it could put itself forward for one of The Institute’s flagship accreditations, ServiceMark. Commercial Director Debbie Pugh explains: “We realised that we had a high enough score to take ServiceMark on and that it would be a great way of testing whether we were as good as we thought we were! We could see that obtaining the accreditation would be a massive differentiator for us, something that could become an important part of our marketing strategy. But perhaps more importantly, we could see that the discipline of doing ServiceMark would help us get a framework in place for what good customer service looks like and embedding it across the whole organisation so that it encompasses all parts of the business. It would become a badge that symbolises everything we believe in.”

Restore Datashred was successful in obtaining ServiceMark in 2012 and achieved reaccreditation in 2015. It is the only shredding provider in the UK to hold the accreditation, which involves three elements: an employee survey, a survey of customers, and an assessment by an independent assessor from The Institute of Customer Service.

A challenging process

As Customer Experience Manager at Restore Datashred, Helen Prentice has been integrally involved with the accreditation. So how did they find the ServiceMark process? “It can be quite challenging,” she says, “especially as we have depots across the country so the workforce is geographically spread. The main challenge was getting everyone to see that ‘customer service’ is not just something that happens in the customer service centre – it happens everywhere. So it was about getting the drivers to make the connection, to see that what they do on a daily basis is customer service. We went out around the country doing presentations and workshops in every depot. That worked really well – it helped people see the importance of what they do, which is quite empowering. It was a lot of work, but you learn as you go along, you adapt and change your approach as you need to.”

Learnings and benefits

A number of useful learnings have also come out of the process. Helen explains: “Our customer survey results were actually higher than our employee survey, with customers scoring us 81.6 (out of 100) and employees 75.9, but one area for further work that the customer survey highlighted was to improve the way we recorded complaints when there were any. We were dealing with complaints effectively, but not recording them well enough. So we changed that and now have a system where complaints are detailed together with a record of what was done about it and then, crucially, a follow-up happens with the customer about a month later to re-engage with them and make sure everything is still OK. We don’t just make the assumption that they are happy – we go that little bit further and check back in with them.”

The process generated some internal learnings too. Debbie says: “It made us realise that not everyone knows what you think they know. For example, in the employee survey it asks whether they think the Board discusses customer service. I was expecting 100% of people would say ‘yes’. But they didn’t. That showed us we had more to do to communicate about both the Board and the way that customer service is a key strategic issue for us.” There have been clear external benefits too. Apart from providing a strong marketing message, the ServiceMark accreditation has helped the company in tenders because it has given them a higher Quality score.

With regard to the ServiceMark accreditation Helen says: “We have highlighted a unique selling point within our bids and tenders; demonstrating proven excellence in customer service from an independent body; and since achieving the accreditation our quality score has improved over 15%.”

Everyone is responsible

But despite all the advantages, Debbie is clear that taking ServiceMark is not for the faint-hearted: “ServiceMark sets a high bar. There’s nowhere to hide with the survey responses! The standards are tough to achieve and if you take your foot off the gas, it will be reflected in the results. With a business like ours, that is quite regularly acquiring other smaller businesses, you have an influx of new staff periodically so another challenge is making sure they all get the service culture. It’s a process of constant education – you’ve got to appreciate that things don’t just stand still.”

It seems that Restore Datashred is certainly on the right track, with the company’s scores improving quite significantly between 2012 and 2015. Back then, employees scored 66.6 out of 100 – and three years later that had risen to 75.9. Customer satisfaction also rose – from 75.9 to 81.6 in the same timeframe. They are now set to go for the next reaccreditation in 2018.It’s not only about ServiceMark, though. The company has also run FirstImpressions customer service training sessions for staff as well as a number of managers taking the ServiceManagement course. More broadly, they are in the midst of rolling out more training for drivers and depot staff through a mix of video materials, e-learning and assessment quizzes. They have also incorporated customer service criteria and measurements into their recruitment process – to ensure that new staff are suited to the service culture. All in all, the company has fully embraced the service agenda. As Debbie says: “There is no one who isn’t responsible for customer service.”

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.”

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