Best practice: Customer service

Today’s monthly series reveals how managers deal with business problems to
enhance performance. In this issue, Eddie O’Reilly, head of service quality at
AIB Retail Bank Support, explains how the bank changed its approach to customer
service, making it a cornerstone of its long-term business strategy

AIB Group is Ireland’s leading banking and financial services organisation. It
operates principally in Ireland, Britain and the US. The group employs over
31,000 people worldwide in more than 1,000 offices and 5,000 people in its 300
outlets in the Republic of Ireland.

Three years ago, a
local initiative by a region in AIB and sponsored by that region’s general
manager led to staff there setting out on a journey to consider how service
quality could contribute to the management and growth of the business. The main
focus of the work has been to motivate staff to maximise the value of customer
relationships, with the first step being to build a reputation for
dependability, accuracy and getting the basics right.

The initial impetus to
implement changes came as a response to customer feedback. Good customer
service is an understood "good business practice"; however staff
sought to address finding ways of making that principle meaningful. AIB had,
for many years, taken regular customer assessments to gauge the level and
standard of service in the bank. Historically, customer responses resulted in
action plans being drawn up by management to improve the areas highlighted by
the surveys. Despite initial enthusiasm for the suggested changes, it was easy
for the plans to be left by the wayside as new priorities took their place.

How we implemented the

The bank needed to
find a way of improving – and maintaining – its customer service, so invited
Martin Reddington of Irish Quality Centre to help on a consultancy basis.
Martin suggested that the bank actually ask staff what they thought the
barriers to good customer service were. This was a crucial step. Instead of
telling staff they needed to improve their level of customer service and what
to do, they were to be included in the whole process.

It became obvious
staff had seen the results of the customer surveys as simply adding to their
workload and not always as an opportunity to identify where AIB needed to
improve in order to develop the customer perception.

Asking staff what they
thought the problems were also highlighted issues management had been unaware

In many cases for
example, the problem lay not with the bank, but with its suppliers (ie, their
internal support departments). By improving communication at this level,
frontline staff could deliver a better service. Service Level Agreements were
put in place with the key supports, and these involved two-way commitments.
Branch personnel undertook to complete applications and correspondence to a
desired standard, and in return, the support departments then committed to a
specific response time, together with a quality delivery.

Staff were asked where
they thought mistakes were being made, and in most cases the problems
identified matched those cited by customers. It soon became obvious that it was
the front-line staff, dealing with these problems daily, who had the best idea
of how the bank was performing on customer service.

Having identified
these areas, standards were put in place to achieve a level of consistency in
all outlets. These standards are referred to as "Quality Standards",
an example being that "customer-written enquiries need to be responded to
within 24 hours."

The next area to
address was the daily work practices of staff and management, and to identify
areas of duplication and non-value. Flip charts were used for this exercise,
and were placed in an area of the branch where staff could write down their

Over 300 ideas were
suggested and implemented in the first year, the majority of which were ideas
and best practice that could be implemented locally. Some other ideas, which
would involve higher-level policy or technology changes, were routed to the
relevant department and work is continuing to implement these.

Items such as
centrally generated reports, or procedures that were in place for many years,
were challenged, and in many cases, changed. This gave a clear message to staff
that they could influence the way their work was organised, and they could feel
empowered to challenge "the way it has always been done".

Any time that was
freed up was re-dedicated to the benefit of the customer, and importantly,
enabled staff to meet the "quality standards" they were setting

Standards around the
image of the branches were introduced, with the emphasis on "everything in
its place and a place for everything". By looking at the branch through
the eyes of the customer, items such as signage, customer waiting areas and
queuing areas were improved. A branch image audit template was developed for
each branch, which worked to meet a 90 per cent  standard. Staff discovered the best approach was everyone taking
responsibility for their own work area, and this teamwork approach led to many
creative and innovative ideas.

Positive outcomes for
the business

What started as a
small initiative at a branch level has now been developed into an almost
nation-wide programme, and service quality has now become one of the five key
functions in AIB Retail Bank.

As a continuing
programme of improvement, AIB has also embarked on a comprehensive training
schedule to ensure staff have the skills to meet the various standards being
asked of them.

A need was identified
to "drill down" into individual competencies, and having done this,
AIB realised there was a need to provide a focused and effective training
programme. The bank is already feeling the benefit of this strategy, with
skills levels having risen by an average of 25 per cent.

The area of the bank
where the improvement scheme has been initiated came out as number one in
"accuracy" in the subsequent customer survey. The most recent customer
feedback showed that the branches involved in the programme filled eight out of
the top 10 positions in the retail bank. Implementing the changes at AIB has
given staff new motivation, secure in the knowledge that their opinions and
suggestions will be listened to and asked for.

Tips: Generating excellence in customer service

Ask frontline staff, they will know what the problems are.

– Don’t forget to
provide training/mentoring/coaching to address the basic skills of staff.

– Make sure you get to
the very core of the problem with your research and think about what can be
changed on a local level first before trying to change an entire company

– You must have solid
management commitment to the improvements

Best Practice Club

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is a professional knowledge network, pooling the ideas and advice gleaned from
a diverse and global membership which spans manufacturing and service
industries as well as the public and private sectors. Through a combination of
education and shared experience, members are able to identify and adopt best
business practices.

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Irish Quality Centre
Tel: + 353 1 6762701

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