For most of us, the name ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) conjures up images of large industrial disputes, as it seeks to bring together employers and unions to resolve high profile, and often bitter, disagreements between employers and their staff.
What is less well-recognised is that much of its work is undertaken with small companies, providing open and in-house training courses and advice on a broad range of HR issues. In particular, employers have increasingly turned to ACAS for help in understanding and dealing with the unprecedented weight of new employment legislation introduced at a national and European level over the past decade.
As a non-departmental body funded largely part by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), ACAS had previously provided some consultancy as a complimentary service. However, five years ago ACAS decided to launch a fee-based consultancy and training service as a means of extending the reach of its unique knowledge base into the business community without added expense to the taxpayer. Last year, to better manage increasing demand for its services and to ensure a consistently high quality of service across the country for its customers, ACAS decided to centralise its back-office customer service activity. The customer services team was born.
“To meet a new set of revenue targets and service goals we needed to manage our customers in a different way,” confirms customer services team manager, Debbie Hill. “Adopting Huthwaite International’s CARE model has given us greater control of our customer interactions, allowing us to provide better quality customer service.”
“Having a practical model to work to means we can audit calls much more effectively. Now all our staff have more confidence when engaging in conversations with customers. This widens our opportunity to discover ways in which we can help them, as well as spotting broader trends in the marketplace.”
For Huthwaite consultant, Guy Aston, the early success of the CARE-based approach at ACAS has been especially impressive in starting to build tangible value for the organisation’s offering.
“In a tough economic climate, selling any product or service has become more difficult,” he says, “with the result that service quality has moved centre stage, requiring all staff to contribute to the creation of real differentiation for the business in its chosen markets.”
“In looking to enhance sales in a public sector setting this has been challenging for ACAS, making the role of the administration and customer response team even more crucial in establishing real customer value.”
Backed by research
In creating a centralised administration team to manage the end-to-end bookings process, ACAS turned to Huthwaite to create a common platform for effective customer handling skills and a consistent approach to customer care.
“We had heard really good things” says Debbie Hill “from our colleagues involved in earlier sales and account management training delivered to our Regional Business Teams.”
“To ensure all staff bought into this skills improvement initiative at a time of significant internal change, it was essential that the training was delivered well,” says Huthwaite consultant, Guy Aston.
“As with our sales and negotiation improvement programmes, the CARE model is based on thorough field research, identifying behaviours which ensure the customer has a positive experience of the transaction – ideal for anyone in a call centre environment. By giving staff the confidence to engage with customers and ask questions, the new team can also create more value in each transaction and, where relevant, identify other areas in which ACAS might help customers in future.”
Based on observations of a wide range of customer service interactions - from computer retailers to financial services call centres to hotel foyers - the powerful CARE model is designed to improve the effectiveness, quality and consistency of customer interactions. Similarly, as with all Huthwaite improvement programmes, the model is implemented in a way that ensures participants spend much of the course putting the model into practice through tailored role-plays.
Training programmes have been completed and the response from each division has been uniformly positive. “The roll-out of the new centralised team has been completed on time, staff have gelled well and have rapidly acquired improved customer service skills,” confirms Debbie Hill. “The staff themselves have, without exception, responded positively and we have passed recent audits by our internal team and by the National Audit Office with flying colours.”
For ACAS, central to the success of the CARE-based programme has been the ability to deliver a positive customer experience by showing empathy with their issues and concerns. “By actively listening to the customer, we understand their exact requirements and can then provide an appropriate response,” she believes.
“The training has delivered a new way of working for us,” concludes Hill. “Although hard work, the training was highly interactive, with lots of participation directly related to our everyday experiences. This gave us an easy transition back at work as we were able to put our new customer handling skills into practice straight away and embed them as a standard way of working – to the benefit of both ACAS and our customers.”