The customer comes first

Now more than ever organisations have to understand what clients want and how to service those needs. By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Eighteen-year-old James Bradley of HSBC was one of the winners of this year's National Customer Service Awards, revealing how even relatively new employees in this business area can make a difference to the success of organisations of all sizes. His employer reports how Bradley's absolute dedication to his customer service role has had an impact on how the bank is perceived, as well as how customers are treated, both of which have an impact on the bottom line.

Little wonder that customer service is becoming increasingly ingrained in boardroom decisions, says Lorraine Agnew, programme director for the Awards, which were presented last month at a ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London and which aim to celebrate the growing achievements of customer service. "In fact, more and more businesses are expected to provide shareholders with detailed information on the quality of their customer service, with many dedicating a specific section of their annual reports to this area."

This growing concentration is driven partly by customers becoming more sophisticated in their requirements, partly by action by regulators and partly by products becoming increasingly similar.

Don Hales, chairman of judges for the awards, believes that this year's awards demonstrate the trend towards organisations trying to understand what customers really want. The Royal Bank of Scotland is an example of a company responding to customer needs, he says. "Until recently, there was a rule than customers could not pay in more than £5 in coins in any one transaction. This was to prevent queues forming and local traders from bringing in their takings - something that should be done at a bank. But the organisation recently realised that quite often, people save up, say their 20p coins and want to pay them in. Now, each branch makes its own decision, usually based on the queues at the time of the transaction. It's a good example of how companies are replacing stringent head office rules with more flexible options that meet individual customers' requirements."

Another trend revealed by this year's awards is the move towards companies recruiting customer service staff according to attitude rather than aptitude, says Hales. "Instead of taking on someone in a customer service role within retail because they have a history of working in shops, employers tell us they are more interested in people with the right approach to customer service. The former is far easier to teach than the latter."

The emphasis on improving customer service is particularly prevalent in areas of British business that are currently suffering, with three of this year's awards won by people in the rail industry. "There is an inherent issue at the moment about the level of disruption on a day-to-day basis, which is higher than it's ever been," admits Shona Ruffin, an award winner who works for Midland Mainline. "This provides more reason than ever for rail companies to communicate with passengers when and why things are going wrong and what we're doing about it. Customers accept that things aren't perfect, but they want reassurance that we're not being complacent."

The Institute of Customer Service adds that the public sector is also increasing its focus on customer service. "A growing number of local authorities are realising that just because they are in a monopoly and don't have a profit motive, it doesn't mean that customer service isn't important," explains Paul Cooper, business development manager. "It affects the job satisfaction of employees and the user satisfaction of customers, as well as the quality and reputation of the authority itself."

Louise Gray, one of the award winners who works for Liverpool City Council, agrees. As part of a team that has revolutionised customer services at the council, she has led initiatives which have increased accessibility and improved services, as demonstrated by customer feedback.

IT is playing a growing part in the efficiency of customer service, adds Paul Cooper. "Good technology can improve waiting times for customers, as well as the quality of the service they receive. That said, many companies are quicker to throw money at computer systems than training staff in customer service, which is far more crucial. This is an area where we'd like to see improvements."

NTL, another of the award winners this year, points to its biggest trend this year of localising customer service. Spokesman Malcolm Padley explains: "If a customer contacts one of our call centres, we feel it should be local so that it can be responsive to local issues and needs." This has delivered better results, he says, not only for customers but for NTL itself which is now more competitive and profitable.

BT Customer Service Professional of the Year

As a mutual company, Yorkshire Building Society takes customer service especially seriously. Pete Sowden, 49, the member relations manager, has been at the forefront of providing superior service while keeping operating costs as low as possible.

"During the 29 years I've been at this company, I've worked in a variety of operational and customer facing areas, which I believe has given me an excellent grounding for my current customer service role.

My team specialises in mortgages and savings. Traditionally, it's been very easy to get embroiled in the day-to-day business of making sure that customer enquiries are turned round. You don't get much of a chance to sit back and take an overview of what the service really means to the business. But because the company has given me this particular role, I can now apply a strategic view and have the practice, theory and methodology for acting on it.

In fact, when I applied for this job, it was as complaints manager. But we agreed that in addition to complaints, my role could look at improving service quality across the organisation.

I have helped achieve this in a number of ways. For example, we have six key indicators - six things we use to measure our success. Service wasn't one of them. Now it is.

The results have been impressive. We have been able to prove that a customer who rates us as excellent in terms of service is likely to have a longer membership with us, have more account holdings with us and to recommend us to others."