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Customer Service Excellence: Learning from the public sector

14th Nov 2008
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In a drive to improve customer service, earlier this year the UK government launched the Customer Service Excellence (CSE) standard. Neil Davey explores what impact it is having in the public sector - and what the private sector can learn from it.

By Neil Davey, editor

Customer service functions in the public sector are frequently viewed as over controlled, over measured and under funded. Yet it is far from the poor cousin of private sector customer service. And for those businesses willing to invest some time and effort to actually put government customer service under the spotlight, there is plenty to chew over.

"The main difference is clearly the lack of commercial imperative in the public sector," says Paul Scott, solutions director at Merchants Group. "By this, we mean for private sector organisations, contact centres represent a cost and revenue generation facility and will be measured that way. For public sector organisations, service and service quality are the main drivers."

Photo of Paul Cooper"One benefit of the CSE standard is that you know yourself whether you are doing better and improving your customer service, and the other is that it provides organisations with an easier tool to benchmark with other people."
Paul Cooper, Institute of Customer Service


Earlier this year, Merchants Consulting's 2008 Global Contact Centre Benchmark Report revealed that the public sector was holding its own in this capacity, scoring above the industry average on customer satisfaction, speed to answer and abandoned call rates. But the general consensus has been for some time that there was still work to be done. And it was with this in mind that the government launched the Customer Service Excellence (CSE) standard – a practical tool to support and drive public services that are more responsive to people's needs.

In development since 2005, the standard is designed to replace the outgoing Charter Mark scheme and has taken its lead from Sir David Varney's Service Transformation review. This report concluded that the public sector could be more efficient, more joined-up and have a stronger focus on best practice to provide a better service for citizens and businesses. As a result, the CSE operates on three levels:

  • As a driver of continuous improvement, allowing organisations to self assess their capability using the scheme's online self assessment tool and pinpoint areas and methods for improvement.
  • As a skills development tool, that allows individuals and teams to explore and acquire new customer skills.
  • As an independent validation of achievement by allowing organisations to achieve CSE standard accreditation to demonstrate their competence.

Standard bearers

Upon its launch, the CSE announced 17 'standard bearers' – early adopter organisations that worked with the cabinet office to provide insight into issues related to meeting the standards requirements. One of these was Sheffield City Council (SCC). Having established an overarching Outstanding Council programme, based on a number of programme-led organisation transformations, the SCC met a target of all of its services achieving Charter Mark accreditation by the end of 2007.

With the announcement of the CSE standard, the SCC made the decision to move over as quickly as possible to the new accreditation. As customer service manager at the SCC, Andrew Fellows has been working with all of the council's service blocks to put in place the measures necessary to help them move across to the CSE.

"As an organisation there are a number of key ambitions that the council has set itself over the last few years, which change as we move forward," explains Fellows. "There are two key ambitions that we set ourselves. One of them is having real customer focus within the organisation and the other is having a talented and effective workforce – and we very much see the two being linked together. The CSE is a means for helping people achieve this. As well as things like customer insight, it is very much focused on areas like the culture of your organisation and that obviously includes the people that work within the organisation. So the CSE standard provides a framework for both assessing where we are in relation to that and also a tool for driving forward improvement in that area."

Photo of Helen Murray"CSE's emphasis on continuous improvement and ongoing skills development, and its focus on delivery, timeliness, information, professionalism and staff attitude, are as applicable for private industry as they are for the public sector."
Helen Murray, Verint Consulting


As a standard, Fellows also believes that the CSE is more beneficial to customer service improvement than its predecessor. "There were areas in Charter Mark which were very good, but also areas that were a little bit outside the 'customer focus' – things to do with financial management and community involvement, which although important aren't directly linked to service," says Fellows. "The CSE standard is built around customer insight and customer satisfaction so we feel it is a vast improvement on Charter Mark as a tool to assess services. And it is a more rigorous standard."

Aberdeen College represents another of the CSE's standard bearers, having met all of the requirements of the Charter Mark before updating to the new accreditation. "There are 57 elements to the new standard and the way the college approached this was that a small group of people, led by myself, looked at each of the individual elements to establish whether we met the criterion or not," explains the college's Ian Jardine. "We looked for evidence we could meet each and then recorded it. Some organisations might decide to respond to it on the day that the assessor comes along, but the line we took was to look at the guidance provided and pull together our response in advance.

"The principle benefit for us has been the encouragement provided to staff by the confirmation that their customer service is of the highest order – the external validation," continues Jardine. "But there is no question of resting on your laurels. You daren't. A change from the Charter Mark is that there is now a requirement for an annual 'health check' so that you can't get the standard and then do nothing for the next three years. You have got to maintain the standard that you have set."

Lessons from the public sector

With over 70 public sector organisations now certified as CSE holders, it's clear there is a strong drive for customer service professionals in the public sector to achieve the Customer Service Excellence standard as an independent validation of achievement. Paul Cooper, director of the Institute of Customer Service, believes there are two big benefits to the new initiative.

"One is that you know yourself whether you are doing better and improving, and the other is that it provides organisations with an easier tool to benchmark with other people," says Cooper. "Although of course there is a bit of rivalry within local government, they are not really competing with each other because they haven't got the same customers. Therefore they are able to look across and see that if something is being done well elsewhere, and can learn from it."

"The private sector should understand that they can learn a lot more from the public sector than they actually do."

Paul Cooper, Institute of Customer Service

Nevertheless, some suggest that the response to the CSE hasn't been uniform. For instance, Helen Murray, director of consulting at Verint Consulting, has witnessed some negative reaction. "I see some mixed emotions with regards to the stand – some seeing it as yet more hoops to jump through but others embracing the standard as a great way to show their citizens that they are striving towards an excellence model." Jardine concedes that accreditation is time consuming – but worthwhile nonetheless. "The fact that the pass mark for the CSE stand has increased perhaps does make it a little bit more difficult," he agrees. "But on the other hand, perhaps it enhances its credibility a bit more too."

There may also be wider implications for the government's customer service crusade. Public sector organisations such as the Sheffield City Council, for instance, have a number of strategic partners from the private sector, and these businesses are now also finding themselves swept along by the campaign for continuous improvement. "By working with them, a number of our strategic partners have now received Charter Mark accreditation or are working towards CSE accreditation," says Fellows. "We want to ensure that wherever in future we have a strategic partnership with a private sector organisation that we encourage them to make the same standards as ourselves. So if they are delivering a service on our behalf, we want them to be working to the CSE standard."

With the CSE application open to any organisation that delivers a service to customers in the UK, there is certainly the possibility that we could witness a growing number of businesses with CSE accreditation. But the general consensus is that there is unlikely to be a stampede.

"CSE's emphasis on continuous improvement and ongoing skills development, and its focus on delivery, timeliness, information, professionalism and staff attitude are as applicable for private industry as they are for the public sector," says Murray. "For the private sector particularly we think it's necessary for organisations to supplement initiatives such as Customer Service Excellence with more focused Customer Experience Management programmes that can help you fine tune the customer experience so that it can lead to an organisation's desired business outcomes. But whether they should use CSE as a tool to do this or some of the more established tools from the Customer Contact Association (CCA) for instance remain to be seen."

Cooper is similarly sceptical about the possibility of large scale private sector adoption in the near future. "A lot of private organisations tend to shy away from government initiatives, so I think it will depend upon the initial success and whether it suits the requirements of those organisations," he explains. "And also it wouldn't work if your call centre is overseas or remote or it has been outsourced. However, I would encourage people to do it. I don't see any downside to doing it."

Irrespective of the CSE's impact in the private sector, the government's ongoing campaign to improve, train and reward customer service should underline one fact – the public sector can hold important customer service lessons for the private sector. "The private sector should understand that they can learn a lot more from the public sector than they actually do," concludes Cooper. "There is a lot of good stuff going on in the public sector. Although everybody says that the belts are being tightened, when they want to do something, the public sector can fund it – and there is probably less politics in some local authorities than there is in some big businesses!"



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