Best practice

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. In this issue, Malcolm Graham-Jones, head of customer relations at Bristol & West, gets to grips with customer service

Bristol & West is one of the UK’s major providers of financial services and employs 2,800 staff across a network of 132 branches and six direct business channels. Acquired by the Bank of Ireland Group in July 1997, it was among the first to launch a direct savings call centre – in 1988 – and has been particularly successful in attracting “affinity” savings funds tailored to specific customer groups. Thanks to initiatives such as these, in the trading year to March 2000, the company generated a profit before tax of £135m, an 8.6 per cent rise on the previous year.

Good though these results are, competitive pressures have been eating into our margins over the past few years, requiring the business to take corrective action. On the savings side, new entrants such as Tesco and Egg had targeted financial services. Rapid take-up of new technology, meanwhile, concentrated everyone’s attention on distribution costs. Increased legislation and more knowledgeable customers meant that we needed to respond to requests for information more efficiently. And de-mutualisation under the Bank of Ireland was making shareholder value a more critical business driver.

Quite apart from these factors, changes in regulation and higher volumes of business were naturally generating more queries, making it harder to justify a written response in each case. All in all, it was the perfect environment for complaints to flourish.

In short, we needed to deal with the increased demands on our customer services function in an efficient manner while ensuring the information it received was more widely – and profitably – used across the organisation.


The road to improvement


In a move that had far-reaching consequences, it was decided that the directors of savings & investments and our director of lending would now take responsibility for our key product areas from cradle to grave. Before, the company had been divided into new business operations and administration, a segmentation which left many customers feeling they were being passed from one department to another.

The restructure made a positive difference and, with support areas supplying performance benchmarking, customer feedback analysis and overall quality control, we now clearly understand the challenges in front of us.

IT systems have also made an enormous difference to our service performance. Before, when customer information was largely paper-based, many concerns got bogged down within the organisation and never reached the stage where they could be actioned. To overcome this, we developed a monthly service quality report that monitors customer service against key performance indicators. At present this is a paper document but we are very close to moving it onto the Bristol & West intranet.

Of equal importance is the Respond Complaints Management System, which tracks and reports on the progress of all complaints received. The software allows complaints to be segmented by product and distribution outlet, enabling us to benchmark our performance accurately and easily.

The restructure in mid-1999 also brought the creation of a dedicated customer service division and my appointment as head of customer relations with responsibility to act across the whole organisation. Also, existing complaint coordinators in the business had their roles developed further to maintain ever closer links with the customer relations unit. Each coordinator has responsibility for specific product groups – for example, mortgage administration, underwriting and so on – which proves particularly useful when a complaint passes across several areas.


How has our service improved?


We now have a developed technological platform, allowing us to manage all complaints in customer relations linked to key coordinators around the business. Soon, we will be able to send complaints across the network, which is likely to take at least two days off current processing times.

Even so, technology could be better used. To be truly cost-effective, we have to cut the amount of paper being processed, something that may involve considerable investment in document scanning equipment.

Stringent management on a weekly basis of our complaints performance data – particularly where cases are forwarded to the business by the customer relations unit for action – has improved overall business service performance by 20 per cent, according to customer response figures.

We must, however, maintain progress. It is far too easy to slip back into our old ways because everyone is always so busy, dealing with customers and day-to-day issues. Again, technology can help here, as we develop our complaints platform using all the available company network and intranet systems to put us in a leading position over the next 12 months.

Besides having a view that we want to be the best, regulation requires us to change to meet the requirements of the new Financial Services Ombudsman, namely that all businesses’ service propositions have to become much clearer. At root, however, the engine for genuine change is our view that the customer is key. We aim to ensure they remain so, irrespective of the pressures that our market throws at us.

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