The winners of the first Management Today/Arthur Andersen Best Practices Awards for Service Excellence come from a variety of businesses, including the public sector. But they are united by adherence to four basic principles identified by Andersen. These are:
Corporate focus - how an organisation defines, communicates and demonstrates its personal commitment to customer satisfaction;
Market understanding - how an organisation gathers information to understand the current expectations of its customers and anticipate their future needs;
Process alignment - how effectively the business is structured to deliver its services and products to satisfy customers;
Shared values - how far everyone in the organisation is committed to meeting customer needs.
More than 1,000 companies from all over the country applied for the initial self-assessment questionnaire, and 226 entered. After seeking much more detailed information the judges drew up a shortlist of 45 organisations to be visited.
Their travels produced eight regional winners - including the eventual overall winner, Greenock-based health insurance company, Cigna., Others were cutler Richardson Sheffield and the much-feted Braintree District Council.
Cigna, which has already featured in these pages, was considered to stand out because it was a textbook example of 'customer focus' - it treats customer satisfaction as the priority driving everything in the business.
This approach is manifested in the company's policy of fining itself if it fails to meet its own service standards. Though some clients see the payments as a gimmick, they apparently appreciate what they represent.
And the management of the company - greatly slimmed down in recent years as it has taken empowerment to the point of allowing employees to hire and fire each other - feels its approach has been a significant factor in the turnaround from the disaster that followed the acquisition of another insurer in the mid-1980s.
The small company category winner, Richardson Sheffield, makes Laser knives - the cooks' favourites. Commitment to the customers there means that the sales director, Kathy Sanchez, spends most of her time representing them.
Because the people she acts for are so demanding, they are encouraged to become involved in the development of new products. And as long as sales prospects looks attractive enough, the management appears to be prepared to go to almost any lengths to secure an order. Gordon Bridge, the managing director, takes the adage that the customer is always right to the extent of always replacing a damaged knife - 'even when it's been totally abused'.
When it came to the winner of the the not-for-profit organisation category, Howard Barrett, leader of Andersen's customer-satisfaction practice and one of the judges, said Braintree council was providing 'the sort of local government that I want in the area I live in'.
But perhaps the ultimate accolade is that the winning qualities seen in these and the other commended organisations, such as the Automobile Association and Birmingham Midshires Building Society, are being added to the best practices 'knowledge base' that Andersen has been building up at a cost of millions of dollars in recent years.
As Jim Wadia, managing partner of the UK firm, said at last week's awards ceremony, this would help Andersen improve as a professional services group itself and enable it to pass on tips to clients.