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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.

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.”

Peter Sinden and Heather Smith, from insurance firm LV=, talk about what the UKCSI and membership of The Institute means to them.


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.”

The company’s operations are extensive. It services some 2.4m domestic households and 160,000 businesses in Scotland. With a turnover of £1.2bn per year and employing around 3,750 staff, it is the fourth largest water company in the UK. With such a large customer and geographical base to cover (30,000 square miles), it is not surprising that Scottish Water has a very busy workload. It deals with, for example, around 40,000 sewer blockages a year. Service standards, therefore, are an absolute priority.

High aspirations, Scottish Water’s commitment to customer service is in part driven by its regulator, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, who sets the service (and efficiency) standards that it must meet during each regulatory period. The company has in fact set itself even higher standards that it aspires to reach. It benchmarks itself not merely against other utilities but against other leading service providers in different sectors.

Peter Farrer, Chief Operating Officer at Scottish Water, who has responsibility for both operations and service, says: “Customer service is fundamental to what we do. We have proven that you don’t have to be a private company to deliver leading levels of service. We’ve also shown that, with the right focus, it is possible to drive up both customer service and operational efficiency at the same time.” The company has taken customer service seriously for a long time. Nine years ago, it introduced a ‘Customer Experience Measure’ whereby customers who have dealt with Scottish Water receive a survey asking for their views on their experience.

When this started out, it was done every six months to a sample of 1,000 customers. In the last few years, however, the company has significantly expanded this so that any customer interacting with the company receives a survey, sent to them by the same channel as they contacted the organisation through (phone, email, social media etc). Response rates are impressive, with around a quarter of surveys being completed, meaning that the company receives 1,000 to 1,500 pieces of detailed customer feedback every month.

Driving culture change

This expansion of the Customer Experience Measure is one of the things that Peter Farrer has introduced since becoming a Board Director in 2009. But he has also deepened the level of information captured so that a customer’s satisfaction can be taken right down to an individual operator level in the contact centre or the field. League tables are produced at an individual, team leader and manager level.

“This has driven a real culture change. It’s one of the ways we’re doing things that not many other utilities are,” Peter explains. “Nobody wants to be at the bottom of the league table! But we don’t just use the information for coaching purposes around areas for improvement, we also use it for positive and motivational purposes, such as positive reinforcement when a customer praises an individual or team for great service. It gives us such a rich seam of information. We have recently introduced the Customer Experience Measure for businesses too.”

Longstanding member

Another important facet of Scottish Water’s commitment to customer service is its membership of The Institute of Customer Service. Again, this is an area that Peter has driven significant changes to since becoming Chief Operating Officer. Scottish Water is in fact one of The Institute’s earliest members, joining in 1999. But for many years the company largely confined itself to working with The Institute on the training of its front end customer service staff.

Peter became a Board Member at around the same time as Jo Causon became CEO of The Institute. As one of The Institute’s largest members, Jo came to visit Peter early in her tenure. “We made a great connection,” Peter recalls. “I was very impressed by Jo’s passion and enthusiasm for improving standards of customer service, and I think she was impressed by our focus on it too.” Jo invited Peter to become a Vice President of The Institute. The Vice Presidents don’t sit on the Board itself but meet regularly in an advisory capacity. “Being a Vice President means that I rub shoulders with other senior executives from some of the best customer service organisations in the country,” Peter says. “We can share learnings and experiences, and I can take things back to try them at Scottish Water.

Matching the best

The company also makes much greater use of some of The Institute’s products and services such as the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), which surveys 10,000 individual customers of organisations across 13 sectors. The Institute has also provided an additional benchmark based on the responses of Scottish customers in the UKCSI. “Previously we didn’t utilise the UKCSI, but now it’s one of our fundamental business measures,” Peter says. “We use it as a means to benchmark ourselves not just against other utilities but against leading providers of other essential goods and services. Utilities are one of the poorest performing sectors in the UKCSI so we don’t want to just be the ‘best of a bad bunch’, we want to match the best, full stop. We have to be realistic though, because we’re always going to struggle against the likes of Amazon or John Lewis with whom customers have such regular interaction. That’s why we are targeting leading levels of service provided by other providers of essential products and services like Food Retail. Water is still a ‘silent service’ for many, but we’ve been doing pretty well, near the average across all 13 sectors. That’s good, though we still have further to go.”

The company has also achieved ServiceMark, a national accreditation awarded by The Institute, that recognises an organisation’s achievement in customer service – and was in fact the first large multi-site organisation to obtain it. Last year it gained re-accreditation. Peter reflects: “Whereas the UKCSI is in effect a lag indicator of how you have been doing, both ServiceMark and the employee survey ServCheck, are cultural indicators of how you’re performing. So they are really important to us too. ServiceMark, with its absolute scores that you have to meet, sets a high standard. We have also spent a lot of time with The Institute redesigning our various in-house training programmes for staff.” Another area the company has been involved in is The Institute’s forum on providing service to vulnerable customers. This has led to it linking up and working closely with electricity distributor Scottish Power Energy Networks. “That’s one of the many spin-offs at all levels from our involvement and participation with The Institute,” Peter says.

Holding up the mirror

Results have been going well. When Scottish Water first featured in the UKCSI nine years ago, satisfaction using their own real time Customer Experience Survey tool was at 60%. Now, they are consistently hitting 90% or more. The ‘Your Voice’ employee survey meanwhile, which is run independently, has an 80% return rate with engagement scores improving from 50% to around 70% in the last five years. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that working with The Institute has had a fundamental impact on our progress,” Peter says. “The regulator plays an enormous role, setting the standards we have to meet, the hygiene factors if you like. But with The Institute we have awoken to the art of the possible, setting our own agenda on how far we want to push service standards over and above the regulatory targets. The Institute has held the mirror up for us and made us look across all of the other 12 business sectors too. They have given us some lightbulb moments.”

Whether it’s known as Marks & Spencer, ‘Marks and Sparks’, or simply ‘Marks’, the M&S brand is an icon of the UK retail environment. Like any brand that has stood the test of time, M&S has had to change with the times. In 2004, the business embarked on a strategy to infuse what had been a ‘product-centric’ approach with a culture of customer service. That strategic drive remains in place to this day, reflecting the wider move in UK businesses towards the new, ‘relationship economy’. As Head of Customer Service at M&S, Jo Moran was originally in charge of promoting high standards of service in the traditional retail arm of the business, but since 2008 has taken on responsibility for the entire organisation.

Great service is part of the brand

Jo heads up a management team that focuses on customer service centres, together with a smaller team that focuses on the retail experience. Both teams are geared around ensuring all M&S employees deliver the consistently great customer experience that is so much a part of its brand. While the service values are consistent, there is huge range and variety in how they might be delivered. As Jo says: “I’m responsible for customer service across the brand. How that looks and feels in our store, in our customer service centres, customer contact by phone or email, letters, social media, even down to the home deliveries experience.” With the challenge of ensuring customers experience the same service values across all these touch points, Jo and her team use The Institute of Customer Service’s National Customer Service Week (NCSW) to remind everyone that they are truly involved.

A drumbeat throughout the week

NCSW runs during the first full week of October and M&S have been taking part since 2012. Jo describes it as ‘a marker in the diary that you know everyone is going to get behind.’ “Each year has been better than the last, both in terms of the NCSW experience and its business outcomes for M&S.” She says: “This year has clearly been the best yet. The support and structure coming out from The Institute provided a real drumbeat throughout the week, that we could build around.” Jo announced the NCSW early to her heads of region and frontline managers with both emails and conference calls. “We had a longer run-in around the communication of the week” she recalls, “so we could galvanise people and do more around recognition and rewarding great service.”

A framework for engagement

M&S used themes The Institute provided, running from ‘understanding your customers’ and ‘dealing with problems’ to ‘recognising the business impact of customer service’, to generate a toolkit suggesting daily activities for retail stores and service centres. Meanwhile, for the duration of the week, M&S used its internal social network, Yammer, as the place for employees to share their customer service stories and experiences and a budget was raised to reward customer service excellence wherever it was found. In just seven days, M&S recognised and rewarded 567 individuals who had provided exceptional customer service. The national event provided a framework to further promote customer service within the company and see staff actively engage with its values.

I can see the return on investment

M&S has been a member of The Institute for the last five years, and has just renewed that membership for a further four, to gain further assistance as the business continues to move with the times. Being a retailer with one foot on the High Street and one foot in the digital space brings its own particular challenges. “Online is a faster moving environment” says Jo. “How do we act in a more agile and responsive way on customer feedback particularly in regard to social media? They are ahead of us in terms of multi-channel; customers think multi-channel just as a matter of course, and how we join that experience up is really important.”

Jo believes the best approach is to take a broad view, using insights from The Institute to spot examples of good practice wherever they may be. Meanwhile, the company’s own training materials are accredited by The Institute, to ensure they always reflect the latest research. “It’s essential to look outside your own sector” says Jo. “The Institute gives us an independent, UK-wide perspective on customer service. And it’s valuable to get that external review and verification on how our people are trained.” Ultimately, it was Jo’s decision to renew M&S’s Institute membership “ it wasn’t a difficult choice. I can see the return on investment from the work we’ve done so far” she says. “I was happy to sign that budget off.”

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