September 05, 2016

Customer Service Excellence at the University of York

By Jackie Knowles, Head of Customer Services

The University of York Information Directorate gained the Customer Service Excellence accreditation in March 2014.

This post will explore the preparatory work we completed in order to achieve the initial award and ongoing work to maintain and embed CSE into our business as usual. Discussions will cover how the tool has proved useful as an agent of cultural change and as a driver for continuous service improvement. It includes some reflections on how this piece of work has had an impact on how we engage with our users, and with each other, and discusses lessons learnt along the way. Our ethnographic and UX work (discussed elsewhere on this blog) contributed to three Compliance Plus awards in the most recent assessment.

Why CSE?

CSE is a practical, evidence driven, tool that tests in great depth priority areas for customers (delivery, timeliness, information, professionalism and staff attitude). Emphasis is placed on developing customer insight, understanding the user’s experience and robust measurement of service satisfaction. We started our journey towards CSE here at York in 2011 and the drivers at the time were:
To maintain our competitivenessAcross the HE Library sector in particular, there was evidence of an increase in the number of institutions gaining the CSE accreditation. With the rise in student tuition fees and associated increase in expectations, CSE offered a practical way of demonstrating quality and value for money.
To formalise good feedback that we were receiving about our customer serviceOur customer surveys and feedback schemes indicated that we were getting good feedback about our services and were well regarded by our users but we knew we could do better. By seeking a formal recognition of our high levels of customer service, we could promote our offering more effectively and we could also target areas of weakness that the tool would help us to identify.
To move forward our cultureWe had a desire to place customers at the heart of everything we do across the entire department and cement a commitment to continual service improvement. CSE was a framework we could use to stimulate that change.

Our project approach

CSE is a ‘big undertaking’ and to do it right you need to dedicate resource towards it, both to complete the work that you need to do to be ready for assessment, but also to get customer focus and CSE embedded into the way you work. We chose to establish a core CSE planning team of three individuals who were responsible for preparing the department for the assessment.
The main tasks for the core team fall into two areas:
  • responsibility for the logistics of preparing for the assessment, collation of evidence and creation of the documentary submission for the assessor
  • responsibility for engaging all staff in the concept of CSE
The core team put themselves at the heart of the conversation about CSE to help create interest in the process and empower others to get involved, developing our desired culture of users at the centre of everything we do along the way.

The paperwork

Our first ever CSE submission ended up being an enormous piece of work and ran to over 70 pages in length. We used Google Docs to create the document as it allowed us to work in a collaborative way to pull everything together. Within the collaboration we also tried to be organised, editing and selecting the strongest evidence as we progressed, and keeping a handle on everything we might want to use - simple things like setting up a system that assigned unique evidence reference numbers made a big difference. As time has progressed we have got better at editing and preparing a more concise written submission for CSE, and in 2016 we moved to the ‘rolling programme’ form of assessment which looks at the third of the standard every year as opposed to cycling between larger and smaller scale assessments. This has been a really positive move for us and our project approach suits the constancy of effort required to prepare an equal amount of elements on each annual assessment.

The first versions of our documentary submissions were very thorough (we had so much evidence we had to tell ourselves to stop) and it was a very factual and heavyweight document to digest. It wasn’t particularly engaging for our staff and we didn’t think many people would want to sit down and read it page by page. To offset this, we decided to introduce the concept of writing case studies to bring some of the evidence to life. These are short snappy articles that highlighted our key pieces of evidence and brought good practice to the fore – they helped tell our story and were circulated to staff to give them a flavour of our evidence and to engage with the assessment contents.

Preparing for the big day

The countdown to the big day each year starts with a push on staff communication. We circulate messages summing up progress, organise Director briefings on CSE and offer drop in sessions for staff who have been identified as taking part in the site visit. We have developed a FAQ document to share with staff which is updated annually with our key themes; we don’t want people to learn a script but we needed them to have good awareness of key aspects of our most recent activity and themes we are concentrating on.

The site visit assessment itself is a two day programme of tours, interviews with staff, focus groups with users, time for observation, and discussion about processes. Each year we also opt to add in extra time to our final assessment in order to arrange a showcase for our assessor. For this, we select half a dozen of our strongest pieces of work that really capture our best practice and asked those involved to give a ten minute presentation to the assessor in order to bring their story to life. The addition showcases remain one of the best decisions we made around CSE, it demonstrates confidence to our assessor and widens the number of staff we can involve in the assessment itself.

Success and beyond

The Information Directorate has held the CSE accreditation since March 2014 and as each year comes around we celebrate our success and thank our staff,  but we also take the time to reflect, analysing the preparations we make in the run up to the assessment and conducting lessons learnt about the whole process each year. We ask our staff what they have felt and thought about CSE and explore how things have gone for different groups and individuals.

The positives we have found included:

All the talking and thinking we do around our CSE preparations means we tend to have identified our weaknesses and have started to think about them before we even discuss them with our assessor.

Case studies and showcase
The use of case studies has been liked by everyone and the showcase brought celebrating good practice to the heart of the process, deflecting any criticism that achieving the standard would just be a box ticking exercise. In fact, we have become so fond of showcasing that we now arrange them two or three times a year as part of our overall approach to staff development and communication.

Robust planning
We run our CSE project like a military campaign -  those of us on the core team become surgically attached to our clipboards for the duration of the assessment. We walk the programme, plan contingency, arrange a whole array of  little extras that keep things running smoothly. This means we not only provided a structured programme for the assessor but have things like access to the secure areas of the building arranged, refreshments on tap, meal vouchers provided, an office base set up with IT and wifi access and a welcome pack of documents laid out on the desk.

Reflecting on the bigger benefits

Since achieving CSE we have also reflected on the wider benefits the process has brought to our department:

CSE helped with skills development among our staff, allowing individuals and teams to explore and acquire new capabilities in the areas of customer focus and customer engagement, thus building their capacity for delivering improved services.
CSE has brought us together as a department. The celebrating and sharing of good practice was something we entirely underestimated and we have improved cross departmental working and engagement as a result of it.
Achieving CSE has also enabled us to proudly promote our excellent levels of customer services to our users and other stakeholders across the university. In part, we have also been able to link our CSE accreditation to improved results in both our internal surveys and the NSS. All the indicators suggest that it has been a good thing to do and that we are changing our culture as a result.

The future

As many institutions will know, CSE is a commitment for life and at the time of writing we have just successfully completed our second revalidation assessment. We maintain a project approach to CSE and retain a core team to drive the process forward. Good practice is continuing and we are looking to gather evidence at all junctures.

Further embedding CSE into how we operate is now the task in hand. Indications are that this might involve stopping calling and labelling everything "CSE" and instead, fully cementing our customer focus in the way we work. Overall the CSE message is very much alive within the department and our underlying approach and attitudes have been changed for the better.

This post is an updated and adapted version of an article that was originally published in Sconul Focus Issue 64 in September 2016.

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