Features: November 21st, 2008

By Ossie Hopkins

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Attitudes to customer service are changing. The customer is no longer passive and grateful for what is received, but demanding with a growing sense of empowerment. In the midst of this fundamental social change it is not sufficient to simply ‘improve’ customer service. A more radical approach has to be adopted. The author describes the role of the Institute of Customer Service in fostering skills and promoting innovation in developing new models of service delivery.

I liked Geoff Mulgan’s article in the March 2008 issue of the PMPa Review: partly because of an intellectual elegance which we’ve come to expect from the Young Foundation; but mainly because it affords the opportunity to offer an alternative reality. Geoff cites a number of elements he sees as missing in ‘a mature service-based society’ and examines what might be done to repair the omissions. His starting point is that ‘we have very few institutions truly devoted to service, to understanding it, fostering skills that make it work and innovating new models of service delivery’. But this is exactly what the Institute of customer service (Ics) does.

Professional conspiracies

First, let’s scrutinize the concept of ‘professionalism’. We’re on a journey here, and it’s not one which progresses evenly from start to finish; but rather one which proceeds by fits and starts in its ascent towards the peak performance. George Bernard Shaw started it a century ago by stating the case for the customer succinctly in The Doctor’s Dilemma. ‘All professions’, Shaw said, ‘are conspiracies against the laity’. And which of us, even now, hasn’t suffered some slight from the sort of expert who does her or his profession’s reputation no good by ‘knowing better’. Retaining the medical metaphor, fast forward to BUPA’s delightful cartoon of the receptionist explaining gently to the GP that ‘The patient will see you now, doctor’. Hardly a journey we’ve completed, then!

The weakness of the old professional model, as Geoff rightly observed was that it ‘presumed a passive and grateful public, rather than a demanding and empowered one’. But then it always would when professionalism was defined, at worst, by the array of letters after the name; and those outside the magic circle felt excluded and patronized.

Helping people grow

Consider, then, the dilemma of those who set up the Institute of customer service (Ics) in 1997. How to appeal to thousands of potential members: doctors, nurses, teachers, the parking attendant as well as the finance director; those whose working life had never included a first chance, let alone a second one? And all in the interests not only of the individual, and of their employer, but also, ultimately, the customer. Not to mention the emotional as well as the intellectual appeal required—enticing what Barack Obama characterized in his April 2008 Philadelphia speech as the ‘bargainers’ as well as the ‘challengers’.

It’s simple really. For any innovation in any organization to be successful, it has to answer the question: ‘so, what’s in it for me?’ At the heart of the Ics proposition lies the learner, who can develop service expertise through our professional awards/NVQs in customer service.
Then there’s scale. One of the reasons local authorities, for example, fail to engage their communities as effectively as their best efforts deserve is that those efforts rely on so few. In a large council, for instance, there may be just 1% of the total human resource with ‘ambassador’ in its job description.

Quadruple the proselytizers via the incentive of national recognition and services could truly revolve around the customer with the help of thousands of ‘customer service professionals’. Then light the Ics touchpaper by keeping the conversation going and you can get continuous customer feedback to assess whether you’re better than you were.

Innovation for all

Geoff Mulgan rightly calls for more innovation. The Institute of Customer Service research programme is authoritative and relevant: it’s commissioned by our organizational members (including over 100 public sector bodies) and it is undertaken by university business schools—Warwick, London, Bournemouth, Brighton and Aston for example.

But innovation doesn’t just take place in higher education institutions—our top award is for innovation. Stephen Hughes, chief executive at Birmingham city council, said that his recent award was a chance to demonstrate that customer service is a key priority for his council and that an accredited qualification is a valuable and important signal that things are changing.

What of Geoff’s third challenge— fostering the skills that make for excellent service? Defining what service skills are and enhancing understanding of their range and complexity requires customer-facing people to develop skills which are high, not low-level—friendly staff who listen to customers but are also self-confident, self-aware and self-motivated. It needs also an environment which provides and encourages leadership, with customer-friendly systems and processes and managers who genuinely support staff.

With more than half a million jobs designated as customer service by 2014 and a growth rate faster than any other sector, they’re the future. And we—like Geoff Mulgan—see them as the ‘priority for the next decade’.

Ossie Hopkins helped to establish the Institute of Customer Service in 1997.