The Gatehouse Blog

Delivering unrivalled customer experience at Northumbrian Water

JOIC

Jane Clayton, Head of Employee Communications at Northumbrian Water Group, led a year-long campaign designed to directly influence the customer experience.

Northumbrian Water Group is made up of two separate water companies: Northumbrian Water, based in the north east of England, and Essex and Suffolk water, which operates in the south. Overall, we have 3,200 employees and another 300 contractors and agency workers.

Our vision is to be the best in our industry and beyond. Being in a heavily regulated environment, we have very clear metrics to measure our progress and find out how we compare with other water companies. One of them is the service incentive mechanism (SIM) which measures customer service performance and is published by Ofwat, the regulator of the water sector in England and Wales. Although our overall performance is very good, we have been second or third place for SIM in the past few years. In 2016, we decided to try to make it to the top spot by launching an ambitious customer-focused campaign.

A strategy informed by customers and employees

The start of the campaign was to understand what customers expected of us. We held focus groups with over 500 employees and contractors (most of whom are also our customers), as well as 100 customers. We listened to their thoughts about how to take our service to the next level.

We used their input and articulated a clear customer service strategy built around four commitments: ‘Keep your promise to me’ (“If you tell me you’re going to call me back, do so”), ‘Make me feel special’ (“When I call, know something about me beyond my customer reference number”), ‘Care about the environment’ (“When you finish a job, make sure you put everything back in place.”), and ‘Tell the community what you are doing’.
None of what we heard was a surprise to us, and we were doing a lot of it already. These four areas became the guiding principles we wanted everybody to live by internally.

Living Water, Loving Customers 

We launched our Unrivalled Customer Service strategy at a conference with our top 80 leaders in early 2016. Our CEO introduced it to them and asked them to explore it, critique and expand it a little bit further.

We then used our Team Talk cascade process to roll it out to the whole business. Twice a year, we do a special edition called Team Talk Takeover where we focus on a specific topic to give it some real focus and get everyone thinking about. We gave managers facilitation packs to run their own 90-minute session – this included some giveaways, collateral such as wall charts to print off, and DVDs. The objective was for our people to explore the four areas, so we gave them two hands-on exercises to make this happen.

First, we asked every employee to think of a time when they had delivered an unrivalled customer experience, write it down on a postcard, and share it with their team. Each group had to select the best story, record it on their phone and post the resulting video clip onto Yammer, our internal social network. We distributed selfie sticks to people with the best stories to encourage them to take selfies with customers. We received hundreds of stories, including pictures with customers who had been delighted by our service. Our campaign had a dedicated hashtag, #Livingwaterlovingcustomers and a big smiley icon using bright colours to use throughout all our communications.

Second, we asked teams to create their own customer service improvement plans using the four key areas. This got them to think of what they can do and the objectives they can set for themselves over the next two months. We reviewed all individual plans to identify best practice stories and share them with the business. The campaign created so much energy around the business at that time. People were talking about it, and over the coming months we tried to build upon the momentum. Performance plans have been discussed in each Team Talk session since then, and we have asked our top 80 leaders to hold people accountable for delivering them.

“The campaign created so much energy around the business at that time.”

Since the launch of the strategy and the campaign, our service levels have kept on improving. We were absolutely over the moon that in the last wave of the Service Incentive Mechanism, all our scores had gone up, and we were in the top spot for that particular wave. More than that though it put us in first position on a rolling basis for 2016/17. We now have to keep all the hard work going to stay there, though we know we can do it and with the last wave being measured at the end of January there’s still much to do and everything to play for.

Since the launch of the strategy and the campaign, our service levels have kept on improving. We were absolutely over the moon that in the last wave of the Service Incentive Mechanism, all our scores had gone up, and we were in the top spot for that particular wave. More than that though it put us in first position on a rolling basis for 2016/17. We now have to keep all the hard work going to stay there, though we know we can do it and with the last wave being measured at the end of January there’s still much to do and everything to play for.

Our Net Promoter score (which indicates the willingness of customers to recommend us) has gone up two points, to 48.

Make My Day campaign

The community piece was probably the one we had put the least focus on, so in October 2016, we launched our Make My Day campaign.

We asked our customers and employees what would make their day and looked at which of our community groups deserved special attention. A panel of fifteen employees from across the business selected customers and communities we should really thank. For example, Café JJ, a community café run by people with special needs and learning difficulties in Darlington, aims to deliver a five star service, even though none of their staff has ever eaten in a five star restaurant. We arranged for their 25 employees to go to Rockliffe Hall, a local five star hotel, for afternoon tea on us. We also helped a little boy with cerebral palsy reach his funding target to afford a beach wheelchair.

With a budget of just £10,000, we managed to touch 3,000 people. The campaign inspired a few people to pitch in and give donations, so we made our initial budget go a lot further. Some employees went the extra mile by offering to deliver things themselves, such as building an access ramp to help one of our employee’s wives get in and out of her home more easily in her mobility scooter.

Everywhere we went, we took pictures and posted them on Yammer, so our efforts were visible to the whole company throughout that period. Our in-house videographer captured stories on film, so by 7pm every night, we had a summary of the day on our YouTube channel. The next morning, people coming into work could see the amazing things we had done the day before.

Lasting impact

Today, Living Water, Loving Customers is still the big thing that people are talking about on Yammer, with selfies with customers being posted every day.

In 2017, we want to take the messaging further. We plan to carry out a review of how well our customer service strategy has been embedded and see how we can shift things even further. We have just invested in a new system, which will consolidate all client information in one place and enable our Contact centre staff to help customers with any aspect of the customer service, from sewerage issues through to questions about billing.

From a personal point of view, being part of the steering group has allowed me to influence our customer service performance, as opposed to just communicate it. It’s been amazing to be able to demonstrate how you can drive this from a communications perspective and show the value that my  team can bring to the table when they are considered as an integral part of the organisation.

Biography – Jane Clayton     

Jane Clayton is the Head of Employee Communications at Northumbrian Water Group (NWG). Along with her team of four comms professionals, she is responsible for leading communications to inspire and engage over 3,200 employees, who deliver clean clear drinking water to the taps of over 4.5 million customers in the north of England, Essex and Suffolk.
In three years, Jane and her team have delivered an award-winning IC strategy which has completely changed the landscape of internal communications in this utility. They also use a variety of low-cost communications channels to engage and inspire the NWG team to ‘live water’ and ‘love customers’ on their journey to achieve their vision of becoming number one in the water industry.