Features: September 8th, 2006

Transforming Customer Services

Just four years ago, Salford City Council’s Benefits customers were receiving what amounted to a 19th century service. Customers stood in line waiting for service and often couldn’t get through by phone. Managers are the first to admit that service was fragmented, policies and procedures were weak and PI delivery was poor. Life for the staff was little better. Although they believed they were delivering a good service to the customer, staff were not sufficiently supported.

A poor Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) report seemed like the last straw – but in fact it proved the catalyst for completely transforming services and setting a new standard – a new style of service to define a modern organisation. A crisis meeting about tackling the recommendations in the BFI report led to a decision by the then Chief Executive, director and lead member to give ‘carte blanche’ for change and improvement.

Some 30,000 residents of Salford are entitled to benefits including the elderly, people with disabilities, young families – and they are genuinely in need of help. So it was decided there and then that ‘standing in line’ would in future NOT be part of the deal in Salford – either for customers or for staff.

Business planning

A clear, simple business plan was developed to turn around the service in three years. Lead officers and teams worked together until all actions were successfully completed. The plan is revised regularly and is now monitored quarterly by a senior member of staff who reports on progress to managers and DWP.

Because so many improvements had been put into place following the inspection, Salford was able to deal effectively with the introduction of Performance Standards. Once again an action plan was formulated with details of staff responsible for ensuring the standards were met and to deadline

Oganisational change

Managers made a number of organisational changes, which improved services as follows:

  • New teams were put in place to reflect different types of work, overseen by team leaders promoted internally from the ranks,
  • Benefits were made central to priorities by placing them within Customer Services.
  • Management of 11 locations was centralised under a single management team.
  • Call handling was integrated within a corporate call centre.
  • Improvement plans were put into place, with clear accountability for all staff.
  • Re-engineering of services was made a priority with the specific aim of improving relationships, quality and responsiveness.

Improving performance

In order to improve Best Value Performance Indicators Salford considered available resources, current procedures and systems

As a result two new performance monitoring posts were created by transferring resources from another area. The team now gather data that shows where targets are not being met. Monitoring is carried out weekly and has improved performance across the service.

A new Quality Control team, again by transferring personnel, was created to undertake quality checks on all work. Staff are informed of their individual performance every quarter, and managers use this information to determine individual training needs and in staff appraisals.

Cultural change

Salford managers launched a staff development group in 1999 to improve service delivery. The group is made up of officers, supervisors and managers, who all volunteer to meet on a regular basis, leave titles and grades outside the door, and talk about how to improve the service for our customers. It also became a forum for staff to improve their own skills by getting involved in new areas of work.

It would be impossible to list all the service improvements and changes the group have identified and implemented, but the majority have been at a negligible or low cost and all for the benefit of the customer. Some examples are:

  • extra facilities for ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.
  • verification training for library staff.
  • fast track reception area.

Innovative management styles were developed to inspire team members to strive for continuous improvement. This led to changes for staff including:

  • Comprehensive training plan linked to the organisation’s aims and objectives, and the development of a Learning Support Group.
  • A policy of sharing skills and expertise through mentoring, job shadowing, job swapping and buddy system.
  • A rewards / recognition strategy which includes extra flexi time for good work and staff breakfasts to celebrate success.
  • A commitment to work life balance including an extensive home working scheme and staff health walks.
  • Management pledges, which underpin all of the above.

Salford managers now think about the whole person, not just the employee who turns up to work for X hours a week. The huge success of Salford’s home working scheme is as much about the difference it has made in improving work-life balance as it is about improving productivity

The family business

These improvements created a ‘family business’ feel and a significant culture change, where employees feel empowered, and where they have gone on to fulfil their own potential and ultimately that of the organisation. Salford managers say this is due to:

  • A sense of belonging. Officers are given the opportunity to contribute and see things through.
  • Credit is given where credit is due and to the person with the name on the piece of work.
  • All managers offer compassion and support to officers when it is needed.
  • Staff are encouraged to take risks and ‘just go and do it’ – and there is no public inquiry if mistakes are made.
  • Managers listen and involve – and this makes the difficult decisions / the bigger challenges easier to deal with.

Consultation

Managers now consult and involve staff in all service developments, communicate well with them through awareness sessions and away day events so that they are fully aware of business objectives – and regularly test their satisfaction levels.

As a result of Salford’s different way of working there have been significant changes for every single officer, and because officers were consulted there was little if any resistance to change. For example, 100% of the staff have changed their role and 100% of staff have changed accommodation – all in the last four years.

Approximately 50% of staff have received an external personal qualification to assist in their development, and the majority of staff are currently involved in at least one form of training.

Partnerships and cross boundary working

Officers are constantly involved in partnership and cross boundary working, because they understand that it can make a real difference in people’s lives.

One example of a successful partnership is the city’s Primary Care Trust, with whom the benefits service works innovatively to deliver flu vaccinations to older people, a no smoking campaign, a full benefit check and much more. So, as part of the day job, not only is Salford maximising the potential for increased prosperity amongst pensioners, but can take pride in saving lives.

Accolades

The work of the last four years has produced improvements for everyone. The results are tangible and beyond all expectations. They include:

  • Four star CPA rating for the last three years
  • Charter Mark
  • Beacon status (The ‘Oscars’ of local government!)
  • IRRV Benefits Team of the Year
  • IRRV Best of the Best Award
  • The MJ Award 2005 – Customer Service Achievement of the Year
  • Investors in People – Ambassador status

Where do we go from here? Salford is never complacent and always eager to improve – and is now working on a new set of challenges.