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In December 2011, Guildford Borough Council (GBC) became one of the first councils in Surrey to gain the Customer Service Excellence (CSE) hallmark. GBC is also one of only a few councils in the UK to achieve CSE certification for the entire organisation.

Councillor Tony Rooth, Leader of Guildford Borough Council, says: “This prestigious award recognises our hard work in improving our services and responding to our customers’ needs.”

GBC chose SGS United Kingdom Ltd to carry out its CSE assessment. The two organisations have been closely linked since 1995, when GBC first achieved ISO 9000 for its operational services. SGS CSE Assessor, John Frankcom, says: “In some other local authorities there are usually only a small number of services – sometimes as few as one – where commitment can be demonstrated, but this is not matched at corporate level. At GBC I found commitment to CSE across the organisation.”

CSE explained

Customer Service Excellence is a management tool used to continually improve customer service. CSE focuses on:

  • Customer Insight – understanding and determining customers’ needs and preferences, and developing services to meet them;
  • Organisational Culture – ensuring staff and procedures are customer focused;
  • Information and Access – ensuring information provided is accurate, detailed, up to date and accessible;
  • Delivery – optimising service implementation and outcomes, and resolving problems;
  • The Timeliness andQquality of Service – responding to customers effectively, and monitoring service speed and quality.

‘Various standards’

In 2008, GBC’s recycling and parking services gained CSE certification. At this time, GBC’s customer service initiatives took place largely at departmental level. Some services also have quality standards such as ISO 9001, Lexcel and Green Flag.

GBC has two cross-organisation awards: Investors in People and Equality & Diversity Level 3. In 2009, GBC’s management decided to implement CSE across the organisation.

Derek Trawber, Business Support Manager at GBC, says: “We didn’t have poor customer service before but, being such a large and complex organisation, we did have differing standards and procedures.

“We wanted to use CSE throughout the organisation to make the customer experience more consistent, learn from good practice and constantly improve quality and customer satisfaction. We didn’t want to add any more individual service certificates – it was all or nothing!”

Assessment and certification

In the pre-assessment period, GBC’s preparations included appointing customer service ‘champions’ and organising briefing sessions, a customer service day and mock assessments.

Held on site, SGS’s assessment involved a review of GBC’s documentation, systems and procedures, and interviews with council customers, staff, management and partner organisations.

In its assessment, SGS found GBC to have a deep understanding of, and commitment to CSE. This was found from senior management through to operational and front-line staff.

Derek Trawber of GBC says: “We found the CSE assessment process very positive, with SGS’s staff always saying they were ‘looking to catch us in, not out’. At the end of the assessment we thought the assessors had been very fair and correctly identified our strengths and weaknesses.

Shortly after the assessment, the lead assessor returned to provide detailed feedback to each service to help them with their improvements – we found this very useful.”

Three months later, SGS’s assessor returned again to review the progress with GBC’s action plan. This plan addressed the few areas of partial compliance identified in the assessment.

GBC was pleased with the service received from SGS: “We have always found SGS staff to be professional, fair, supportive and knowledgeable of the local government environment,” says Derek Trawber. “We’ve had great help and support from SGS’s CSE team.”

GBC gained CSE certification in December 2011. Covering the whole council – 15 front-line and support service units – this award is valid for three years, subject to SGS carrying out annual reviews. During this time GBC must address any dips in performance, constantly improve its services and consult with its customers.

Customer service initiatives

GBC’s CSE certification has provided a focus and framework to raise the profile of customer service and drive improvement.

In 2010, GBC established a central customer service centre (CSC) to handle mainly recycling, refuse and street cleaning related enquiries. Since expansion, the CSC is staffed by a flexible team able to deal with enquiries by phone, e-mail, web and in person. Since staff are trained to the same customer care standards, the CSC provides an efficient and consistently good customer experience.

Also formed in 2010, GBC’s central complaints system has replaced departmental complaints handling. It is now easier to monitor complaints, identify trends, learn and take action.

In its new Customer Charter, GBC is committed to customer service standards such as: being approachable, attentive and fair; answering phone calls within four rings; and seeing visitors within five minutes.

GBC’s other customer service initiatives include:

  • Launching a ‘Get Involved’ community engagement hub on its newly expanded and improved website, aimed at all customers including hard-to-reach customers;
  • Implementing other council-wide customer service standards, systems and procedures, such as using the same system for dealing with and using customer comments, compliments and complaints;
  • Sharing best practice and ideas in meetings, briefings, workshops and events;
  • Producing a new style guide, using plain English and generally improving written and verbal communications;
  • Focusing on customer service in staff recruitment, training and development;
  • Publicising service standards, targets, performance and improvements;
  • Implementing service-unit annual service plans and, within these, customer service projects;
  • Encouraging staff feedback and suggestions;
  • Reducing avoidable contact and, if contact is still needed, encouraging staff to take responsibility for resolving issues quickly;
  • Encouraging cooperation between different services when they have a shared interest in serving the customer;
  • Measuring and analysing customer satisfaction.

Continual improvement

GBC’s greater customer focus is noticeable, and not only with its customers. In GBC’s recent Investors in People assessment, the assessor commented on how customer orientated staff are throughout the council.

“While we’re proud to achieve the CSE standard, this is only the start,” says Derek Trawber. “CSE is central to the continually improving customer services strand of our ‘Better place, better Council’ transformation programme.”

This programme aims to create a council that is streamlined, efficient, customer and quality focused, and cost effective.

Derek Trawber says: “As part of our drive towards providing first-class services, we’ll go on using customer insight, promoting a customer service culture, improving information and access to services, setting standards and targets, and measuring and monitoring progress. We also still have a lot to learn from other organisations, both public and private.

“We’re using CSE as a model to raise our standards of service. We’ve come a long way – we’re now a much better organisation – and, of course, we still have a long way to go. CSE is, and will be, at the heart of everything we do.”

David Hill, GBC Chief Executive, says: “The award recognises the work we have put in to improve services to our customers and the systems in place to support it. However, we are not complacent and aim to provide consistently excellent services all the time. We will continue to challenge ourselves to build on our success and meet the developing needs of our customers.”

Advice to other organisations

“Take your time, but go for it!” says Derek Trawber. “CSE is a really practical tool that focuses on all the important aspects of customer service. If it’s used in a systematic way, it will identify any organisation’s strengths and weaknesses and give structure to an improvement programme. Most organisations will be surprised how much of what they’re already doing meets CSE requirements.”

ABOUT SGS

SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. SGS is recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 70,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 1,350 offices and laboratories around the world.