Granada back from the blink

The TV rentals arm has focused on improving its repair service. Roger Trapp reports
EVERY business now acknowledges the importance of customer service. And yet very few seem to get it right.

This is partly because of rising expectations: customers are much less ready than they used to be to make allowances and expect the same standards of service from a bank as from a shop.

But it is also something to do with how companies deal with customer service initiatives. It is not enough simply to declare that a company will henceforth be customer-focused and hope that the staff will respond to the message.

Few people know this better than Roger Mavity, the chief executive of Granada Technology Group, the television rentals wing of the leisure group headed by Gerry Robinson and Charles Allen. Mr Mavity and his team have just completed a programme designed to improve the way this business deals with its market.

The starting point was that although the rentals operation was good at making a profit from what was a declining market, because of rising television ownership, its level of service could be termed adequate rather than good. And since service is a big part of the rental proposition, Mr Mavity and his colleagues saw getting it right as key to future success.

Having formed this view on moving to the business from Granada's motorway services operation in 1995, Mr Mavity ordered a review of what, by any standards, is a formidable undertaking. Analysis revealed that service amounted to a pounds 60m overhead spread among 31 service centres around the country, with about half of its more than 2,000 staff on the road at any one time.

More important, there was a high failure rate on calls. For a variety of reasons, repairs were not carried out when they were supposed to be and many of those which were done were not effective. The result was frustration for the customer and further calls and cost for the company.

Close examination of the problems led Mr Mavity, who founded and ran an advertising agency before joining Granada, to the conclusion that two key issues needed to be addressed.

The first involved making the service staff more available to the customer. This in turn required three big changes: adopting shift working so that the company could cover the hours before customers went to work and after they came home; giving service staff mobile telephones (and encouraging them to use them to keep in touch with customers); and equipping them with hand-held computer terminals so that they could be given their lists of calls and routes from the call centre and check off work as they completed it.

The second issue centred on rethinking the role of the people carrying out the servicing, so that those making the calls became more like salesmen and those that were not suited to such an approach became technicians working on repairs in the workshop.

The idea was that the engineer making the call would initially seek to repair the set, but if the job could not be done within, say, five minutes he would replace it with a similar set or offer the customer an upgrade at a lower-than-usual rate. The faulty televisions would then be sent to the workshops, where they would be repaired and issued to other customers.

It all sounds simple enough. But, as Mr Mavity and his colleagues found, making it happen was a lot more difficult. Many employees were resistant and some left to be replaced by others who were comfortable with the new set-up.

Then, there were practical issues - notably, replacing the service engineers' traditional estate cars with vans so that they could carry a greater stock of televisions. But, as Mr Mavity acknowledges, that caused problems for engineers who used the estate cars for social use.

Nevertheless, the management claims to have won over the unions in a partnership that has been hailed by the Trades Union Congress as a model. But that was not the end of the problems. A pilot scheme begun in Bristol in February 1997 quickly revealed problems. But Mr Mavity and his colleagues were convinced that the idea, if not the detailed application, was right and tried again in Wakefield and Southampton.

One of the key lessons they learned was to take the exercise steadily, instead of trying to push it through. Accordingly, they didn't go for an overnight change but introduced it gradually, postcode by postcode. It was "sanity-driven rather than ambition-driven", Mr Mavity says. This time, the initiative, dubbed Project Solutions, worked quickly and the concept was rolled out nationally.

Moreover, the results have been impressive, with a 14 per cent jump in productivity claimed. In particular, an innovation that formed part of the changing role of the engineer - putting engineers in the call centres to deal with apparently straightforward problems - has saved 115,000 visits a year.

To Mr Mavity, probably the most important indicator is the rise in calls serviced in one visit, up from 72 per cent to 90 per cent. He said: "It is quite difficult to get an absolute proved link between good service and sales results. But we're doing better at keeping customers than we were."