Top Leaders Masterclass: ‘Customer Service’

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Recently a Waitrose opened in the town where I live. I was delighted as I have always enjoyed shopping at John Lewis (but couldn’t put my finger on why). There sometimes isn’t as wide a choice of products as other supermarkets – although they do have more unusual goods – and sometimes they run out of the very thing that I need. But I keep going back. Why? Because it’s just a genuinely nice place to spend time. The people who work there care about what they do and it feels like they care about me. I can park easily. The products are high quality.

How do they do it?

I found out from Simon Fowler, Managing Director of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street, at the Customer Service Masterclass. He painted a picture of a well-oiled retail machine led by happy, engaged, motivated staff – or ‘partners’, as they are known. He described the partner-customer-profit cycle which drives staff engagement: happy and loyal customers equals profit and competitive advantage, even in a period of austerity, but it is down to the partners to create that environment for customers and it helps that partners, as co-owners, take a share in the profits they create. I was also struck by how clear he was about recruiting staff for behaviour, explaining that skills can be learned but behaviour is difficult to change. He also emphasised the importance of personal accountability at all levels. Partners who work there really understand why they are there and believe in what they do. The final point which struck me was how open the business is to those who work there. Partners can challenge up to the very top and they are listened to.

Surely such an operating model wouldn’t work in the NHS? Tricia McGregor, Managing Director of Central Surrey Health, a social enterprise delivering community services, shared her experience of setting up an organisation based on a similar customer service model. She agreed that an engaged and motivated workforce is critical to success. She also reinforced the need for business transparency at all levels, explaining that if everyone has the same information they’re likely to reach the same conclusions. She went on to emphasise the need for empowerment and with it a certain amount of liberation – but also personal accountability. But we should never underestimate the need for strong leadership and a clear vision. What is also clear is that creating such an organisation takes time, drive, staff involvement and a LOT of hard work, but all in a good cause – better patient care and better patient experience.

So far, so good. Then Julie Bailey from Cure the NHS, a patient group which came about in response to the problems at Mid-Staffordshire, articulated a picture of the NHS where staff are not empowered, where the quality of care is not good and can be at times dangerous, and where lessons never seem to be learned. She emphasised the need to empower staff and for front line staff to take a lead on understanding what patients and carers want and implementing the changes that are required. It struck me that she had described the complete opposite to the system in place in John Lewis.

So as NHS leaders we all have a challenge. It is up to us to do things differently in order to put patients first. We need to recruit and motivate staff to believe in what they do and where they work and we need everyone to be accountable for their actions at all levels. We need to speak up when we feel things could be better and encourage others to do the same. We need to work together to deliver high quality care first time, every time. And we need to make the changes now.

For inspiration, I suggest you go shopping…

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