When no problem means no problem

We were out for lunch the other day at a great place called The Shibden Mill Inn, just outside Halifax in West Yorkshire and just down the road from Shibden Hall and park.


Shibden Hall, set in 37 hectares of the Shibden valley, is a six hundred year old medieval timber-framed manor house. A Grade II* Listed 15th century house is one of England’s oldest and was built in 1420, five years after the Battle of Agincourt. If you want to read more about the house and gardens the link is here.

The Mill Inn itself dates from the seventeenth century and so has been part of the local area for over 300 years. Opposite the mill is Red Beck, the stream that powered the mill once in days gone by. The website describes it perfectly; “The flow of water now adds to the inviting nature of the Inn’s outside area, a tranquil setting to enjoy dinner al fresco or a few summer drinks.” Unfortunately it was raining on this day but when the weather is good, it’s idyllic sat outside.Shiden Mill Inn

I was surprised how busy it was for a Monday but given it’s reputation, quality and service it probably comes as no surprise. In fact,  among other accolades, it was awarded the prestigious title of Les Routiers Inn of the Year 2011. So there we were eating lunch when a member of staff came over to check if everything was ok. “It was” we said “but could we get another drink please?” “No problem” the waitress replied and then it hit. She actually meant that it was no problem. Now it wasn’t a difficult request but that didn’t matter. What she was able to convey was a genuine sense that it wasn’t a problem or nor would anything else be should I ask as a customer. It wasn’t a stock phrase she was using, it came across as it was truly meant. Then I sat back, watched and reflected on the service moments that were happening all around me and had done since we’d entered.

The service was relaxed, unhurried, friendly, genuine, attentive yet effortless and the staff displayed a sincere desire to serve and serve well. It stood out significantly compared to many of the other service experiences I’ve encountered recently. It felt as luxurious as the interior of the Mill itself. Now it could be argued for example, that the experience of buying a sandwich in an express supermarket outlet for lunch doesn’t need to be like the service at Shibden Mill because of the volume of customer, value of transaction, the smaller amount of time people spend in the outlet and that customer’s just don’t want that level of service in that situation. I disagree. Think how much better the quality of our daily lives and experiences would be if everywhere delivered Shibden Mill service. I for one would be an advocate.

And the result? A blog post and a serious recommendation if you get chance to go. Oh and the food’s great too! Here’s the link


Case study: Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL) – pursuing customer excellence in a challenging environment

Managing 2.85 million customers in an increasing competitively environment whilst adapting to a backdrop of decreasing local authority budgets and funding is some juggling act that would leave a lot of organisations in deep water. Not KAL though– they are on the offensive and are pursuing both customer excellence and innovation to deal with the coming challenges.

KAL logo

About KAL

KAL manage 12 major sports centres and swimming pools on behalf of Kirklees Council in the region. They are organised as a charitable trust and so all profits are reinvested into facilities, their ongoing development and growth initiatives to bridge their funding gaps following their approach of ‘invest to save, invest to grow’. As an organisation they are managed by a Board of Trustees who come from a range of backgrounds to help develop and drive the strategic direction of the Trust.

In March 2013 they exceeded 2.85 million customers, tracking way ahead of their 2014 business strategy target of 3 million customers. All this despite a challenging financial landscape. Turnover for the last financial year was £12.8,m up from £8.5 in 2007/8, despite a cut in funding from local authority of 32% over the last 3 years. Currently for each person that visits a centre, the council pays roughly 59 pence per head. 5 years ago it was £1.

As if these challenges weren’t enough to content with, the competitive landscape for Health and Fitness is about to change significantly in Huddersfield alone.

The competitive landscape for health and fitness

Budget gyms are now the ‘new kid on the block’ with two new planned openings in Huddersfield town centre alone by DW and Exercise for Less in the next 12 months. KAL have already hit back by developing their own ‘Smart Fitness’ package for £14.95 per month which has already attracted over 12,000 members. In addition KAL have their own brand new site development at a cost of £35 million due to open mid-2015. However the competition doesn’t end there though. The University of Huddersfield has approval to build a £22.5 million brand new leisure facility and will open the doors up the general public in addition to the student community in spring 2014.

This is all in addition to a number of smaller gyms and facilities in the Kirklees area. One such facility was the Fitness First gym at Lockwood Park, where Huddersfield’s Rugby Union team are based. After getting into financial difficulty last year which also threatened the sustainability of the rugby club, KAL agreed to take on the facility with its member base and majority of staff. After an initial refurbishment it was rebranded and officially opened in January 2013. Kirklees has certainly has its fair share of leisure facilities!

Customer experience is key

So with expanding competition and customer membership, and with products broadly similar in nature and in price, customer service is increasingly going to be a key differentiator in helping KAL stay ahead. Gym shop

This was first recognised back in 2011. The Commercial Board had been informed of the 32% cut in budget over the next 3 years and so had a funding gap to fill. The outcome was the ‘Big 8’ ideas to boost revenue, innovation, diversification and customer experience.

 Mystery shopping to diversify

Once such idea was to introduce mystery shopping but with parallel aims. The first, as you would expect from deploying a mystery shopping programme was to improve customer retention, raise service standards across all 12 facilities and to be able to audit processes for consistency such as the fitness suite visit experience and the membership sales process. The second aim, was to retail the system on to other businesses to use, and so generate additional income.

KAL’s approach was to go to the market initially and purchase an ‘off the shelf’ mystery shopping programme. However they quickly realised that the cost would be prohibitive. Undeterred, they decided to commission their own web based system and so iiD Solutions was born. A subsidiary consultancy business offering insight, intelligence and delivery to other businesses across industry using the mystery shopping software platform for data collection and analysis, tried and tested on the KAL organisation. This approach saved KAL a significant amount of money. In fact the life time cost of the system is actually less than a year’s subscription to an existing commercial package. iid logo

Mystery shopping visits are conducted monthly across all sites using a team of shoppers. Site managers have access to the system via their own log on, and can check their own scores and results, their progress over time and how their site compares to the others in the group to inject some healthy competition into pushing standards higher. The managers can also look at specific areas within their facility such a reception area, pool area, or café to help further drill into identifying areas for improvement or praising staff for exceeding standards.

Monthly results are also reviewed by the Commercial Board in their strategy meetings and there’s an expectation as to a minimum target of achievement by the sites. The numbers tell a positive story. Average mystery shopping scores on product knowledge of staff are up 3% over the last 12 months and fitness suite visit experience is up to 84% demonstrating that the KAL teams are actively engaging and using the feedback from the shopping data.

Annual customer satisfaction focus

This is an additional source of data around understanding for improving the customer experience. The back bone of any customer experience programme is a customer satisfaction survey which KAL conduct annually. 2013 saw over 1600 responses across a robust representation of members across all 12 sites. Again, the numbers tell a positive story amidst the back drop of increasing competition and rising customer expectation, not to mention the increase in membership. Year on year scores are up with the biggest increases in ‘overall satisfaction of staff’ to 87.4 and ‘overall satisfaction of information provided’ to 81.1.

KAL also measure Net Promoter score and 2013 saw a 3% increases to 32%. Interestingly, the health and fitness industry average is around 22%.

Staff are key to the customer experience

Despite the increases in satisfaction around staff from this year’s satisfaction survey, KAL aren’t standing still on staff development recognising the importance of all staff in delivering a great customer experience. In April this year, KAL joined the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) which is 2 year programme they’ve committed to, underlying their seriousness at developing the total customer experience. KAL now have 5 of their own staff as approved ICS trainers and the plan is to rollout training to 80 people between September and December this year. Of those 80, 50 are front of house staff, sales and membership, who will each undergo the 3 day ‘First Impressions’ course, in addition 30 Front line and Operations Managers will undergo the 4 day Service Management course. From 2014, all remaining staff will undergo ICS training to ensure a consistent level of service across all facilities which should see them ahead of the competition in service delivery.

And to the future

2014 also sees the start of the next 5 year strategic planning cycle. KAL have now established a ‘setting the pace group’ to gather further ideas and promote employee engagement. To date they have also;

  • Established a set of KAL values
  • Conducted KAL roadshows across the 12 facilities
  • Created an “Active Thinkers” group to consider and improve key issues
  • Promoted an inclusive culture encouraged by Managers. Staff views are actively sought via staff councils, staff surveys and site visits.


All this will add to the solid foundation already established, and further promote their cultural change within the organisation to further deliver on their philosophy of ‘best of public, best of private’ approach to business with a clear link to improving the customer experience as a differentiator.


KAL’s summer marketing campaign focussed at getting more people into activity used the strapline around ‘imagine, believe, achieve’ Three values that I think KAL themselves use to drive the business into the future.


Thanks to Joe Baker, Business Improvement Manager at KAL for his input into the case study.

Article first written for the July 2013 edition of Customer Experience Magazine.


Removing service level guarantees

I recently received a letter from my bank informing me of a number of changes to my current account terms and conditions. I don’t usually read the small print as more often than not the changes are to wording in the terms and conditions themselves rather than fundamental changes to the account. However, one of the changes particularly caught my eye and it was entitled ‘Service level guarantees’. Service GuaranteeMy immediate reaction was to expect the bank to outline how it was committing to improving service levels but once I read, and then re read the text, that’s not what the letter said.

The opening sentence of the paragraph read ‘We are removing the Service Level Guarantees’. Not improving them or even raising them to a higher standard – just removing them. The paragraph went on to say how my right to express dissatisfaction or complain hadn’t been removed and how well established their procedures were to allow me to do this should I need to. Interestingly, they didn’t say exactly what the service level guarantees were so curiously, I dug out the terms and conditions booklet which I’d efficiently filed without reading. The booklet itself, whilst looking small, opened out to be 5 sides of uber small print containing 20.2 clauses, non of which as far as I could see outlined any service level guarantees. So I was left to phone the bank and ask them.

It transpires after a conversation with Bernadette, that the bank wasn’t removing service level guarantees. Confused yet? It was removing guaranteed financial payments for service level failures, the minimum being £15. So for example if the bank set up a standing order incorrectly or failed to issue a new card within the published timescales then they would automatically pay out. Instead, the bank would look at each incident in turn and judge whether a payment was warranted or not. I jokingly asked whether the removal of the automatic payments was because the bank were paying out a lot of money and were they trying to cut costs but that wasn’t the reason so Bernadette informed me.

Apart from the confusing and unclear wording on the letter. I’m not sure what I think about this. My initial reaction, based on part skepticism, part experience is that the bank were trying to wriggle out of it’s obligations to service level delivery, and in part I still think this. If the bank were truly focusing on service delivery, they shouldn’t be worried if occasionally they slip up and have to pay out on a previous commitment. I understand times and situations change and the need for review but attempts to change promises like these rarely provoke a positive response and can feel like an erosion of both brand and service. Interesting, this letter came to me in the same week the bank’s new Chief Executive announced the need to add £1.5bn to the balance sheet in part due to losses from 12 commercial loans (£900m) inherited in a building society take over in recent years. Coincidence I’m sure.Red traffic light

However, in fairness, having worked in financial services where service level penalties are common,  and used in my experience for all the wrong reasons as a stick to beat up suppliers, they’re notoriously difficult  to operationalise, to measure and manage and they tend to become the focus of too much attention. One such customer account had in excess of 80 service level measures, a number of which were deemed critical, upon which failure brought an automatic financial penalty wheres the rest worked on a sliding scale. The majority of measures and the data collection wasmanual which in itself was a cottage industry. Time that could have been better spent serving the customer. There was a palpable sigh of relief every month in the organisation when the results were published and all the traffic light measures were ‘green’. The opposite, if any were red not to mention the pressure and fear they created internally -not a great climate to work under. It also drives cost up which ultimately gets passed onto the customer so they loose there too. If the bank gets something wrong, just put it right – quickly and efficiently.

As a customer, I’m not really interested in guaranteed financial penalties.  If I was in a supplier relationship I might want financial penalties for service level failures, but personally I don’t think it drives the best behaviour or cultivates the right relationship. So removing something I wasn’t aware of existed is no bad thing but it does make me question the reason why,  which in turn makes me trust the brand less and introduces doubt, and that’s not what I’d be setting out to achieve if I was the bank, given the current climate.