Public Services Management: It starts by answering the phone: Direct lines into public service agencies and privatised utilities are pointing the way to improvements in service, writes Liza Donaldson

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THERE was a time when to tangle with a public service bureaucracy was akin to diving into a sea of paper. Telephoning was a particularly fraught business, often a sentence to hang on indefinitely.

This impression is borne out by a survey conducted in the autumn of 1992 by Teleconomy, a telephone training and quality monitoring organisation. Tele conomy found that central government took the customer hostility prize by having a worse record for answering phone calls than industry, which performed best, local government, which came second, and utilities, in third place. Ranked at the bottom, working up, were: the Department of Social Security, Cabinet Office, Crown Estates, Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Employment. A later survey showed hospitals were also poor in responding to phone calls.

So, three years into the Citizen's Charter - which promises more responsive public services - are they becoming more customer friendly?

Teleconomy's verdict was yes - not surprisingly, since the company is now training staff from a number of government agencies in the art of being customer friendly. However the company declined to say which agencies they were, 'because they asked us not to' - which seems to fly in the face of the Charter's vow to be more open.

Nick Smith-Saville, marketing manager for Teleconomy said: 'Being customer friendly is about putting yourself in the customer's shoes - empathising with them, giving them respect and making sure that, if you cannot help, the call is smoothly transferred to someone who can.'

He explained that more people today ring up organisations than visit them in person - typically about 50 callers to each visitor. 'Switchboard operators and extension users,' he said, 'are the shop window' of any organisation. He said improvement is most evident in privatised services like BT which handle customer queries on the spot with new technology - queries that used to take all morning by phone.

His view is shared by Malcolm Franks, chief executive of the 1,300-member British Quality Foundation. Mr Franks said: 'In fairness, public services have become more customer focused in parts. The privatised industries in particular have moved mountains in the space of three to five years.'

He explained that the foundation is dedicated to total quality management, which means a customer focused philosophy. Later this year the foundation will make its first UK quality awards, which from next year will embrace the public sector. Customer satisfaction will carry the most marks - 20 per cent - as one of nine criteria. In the meantime he singled out the Post Office and the health service as making remarkable strides toward being customer friendly.

At the Post Office, Bill Cockburn, the chief executive, said: 'The philosophy for all employees is to aim to delight their customers, day in and day out.' He added that a commitment to quality meant striving to meet what the customer wants. 'This has involved a transformation from being an inward product-oriented organisation to an outward market-led and customer-focused one.' Networks of customer care centres have been set up. Restructuring has been geared to making services more responsive to customer needs.

In a MORI poll for the National Consumer Council the Post Office scored better than the utilities on customer satisfaction, with 71 per cent satisfied - second only to private coach companies. But fewer than one in five rated PO standards as very good, so there is room for improvement. The same survey showed customer ratings of the health service even higher, with 80 per cent satisfied. Philip Hunt, director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, said: 'I reckon we are doing better than central or local government. I am not saying we are perfect - we still have some way to go.' He added: 'I am convinced that being customer friendly helps sick people get better more quickly.'

Brighton Health Care Trust won itself a place in the history of customer friendly services by appointing the first NHS patient advocate, with the job of solving problems and being a friend to patients.

John Spiers, chairman of the trust, said: 'I made the appointment because I think that my job is to be here to respond to the patient. That is the only reason I am here. My job is to give patients a better deal.'

In June the NHS is due to publish tables to show how each hospital and ambulance service is performing against six indicators, chosen by the Department of Health. For local government, a range of 70 performance indicators will have been published in local newspapers by December. The Audit Commission, which is overseeing the task, says this development is unique in public services and will enable consumers to make comparisons of costs and standards with nearby councils.

For example, wide variations in the time it takes to assess cases of children with special needs will raise questions and spur action.

Another study of telephone answering times, to be published next month, shows that some councils are aiming to answer phones in a tenth the time that others are setting as a goal.

London's Brent Council, which has just won the total quality award of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, aims to answer phones in five rings or less. The council's 98 business units have their own direct lines, many of them free.

The council recorded good and bad practice on sound and video tapes to help train its staff in customer friendly skills. Margaret Jewell, who worked for Brent and is now a consultant, said customers of the housing department were called in to give their views. These were injected into making the service better - a policy applauded by the British Quality Foundation.

But perhaps the award for the most improvement in customer friendly services should go to the Benefits Agency. It has won ten Charter Marks, the Citizen's Charter quality kitemark, to lead all other public organisations. Among the main criteria for these marks are customer friendliness, courtesy and helpfulness. The agency, which last year had the most complaints to an ombudsman of any government body (apart from the much larger health service) has an ambitious programme for improving its switchboards. It plans to replace about half of them - about 160 - by next month, with some 8,000 direct phone lines already installed.

Mike Bichard, the agency's chief executive, said the year ahead remains daunting but exciting, with the aim of 'sustaining the improvements in quality, the standards of adjudication, and the accuracy and security of our service'.

And so, perfect customer friendliness remains an ideal, but one worth the effort.

(Photograph omitted)