Customer service goes to Parliament …Getting Government Involved in the Quest for Service Excellence

In my readings on, and engaging with those who have some idea of, the inner workings of the UK Parliament, I am informed that APPGs work pretty much like select or special committees. As opposed to Standing Committees that are a permanent feature of every Parliament, Select (or Special) Committees are created to delve into critical issues that have emerged but fall outside the ambit of any of the Standing Committees. I personally believe Customer Service is a critical issue in this country that needs to be tackled with all the resources available to the nation, including the power of our Parliament.

Although in the UK, APPGs are more of an informal body, they are still recognised formally, at least by the House of Commons, though its membership comprise of members from both Houses. The total number of MPs and Lords in the APPG on Customer Service are twenty-two. There are two co-chairpersons as well as two vice-chairpersons who oversee the Group’s activities.

The APPG on Customer Service has a secretariat which, incidentally, is the Institute of Customer Service, UK. The Secretariat organises meetings about once every quarter and at every one of these meetings different aspects of customer service are discussed. Five members present can form a quorum for a meeting to start. A typical APPG on Customer Service did not last for more than two hours. Also at such meetings, industry experts are invited to do presentations to the parliamentarians followed by a group discussion among the members and invitees. After these discussions, the Group makes recommendations for government or particular industries.

Since its inaugural meeting in July of 2014, the APPG has discussed very important topics and made some very important recommendations. One of the earliest meetings in October of the same year was on the state of customer service in the utilities sector. Invitees to this particular included more than thirty executives from some of the UK’s top utility, automobile and construction companies. Top executives from companies such Southern Water, Thames Water, Wales & West Utilities Limited, Volkwagen Group, Smart Energy GB, Skanska, E.On, Northern Gas Networks Limited, etc.

After that meeting, the Group’s next meeting tackled the transport sector. In keeping with the trend, executives from some of the major transport companies were invited.  Representatives from companies such as South West Trains, National Express Group, Heathrow Express, Southeastern Rail, etc. were present. They discussed ways in which the transport sector could enhance trust and reputation among customers.

Another sector that the APPG on Customer Service has tackled is the Healthcare Sector where the topic for discussion was Customer Service in Healthcare. Invited guests included top executives from The Health and Care Professions Council, Royal College of Nursing, 3M Health Care, MacMillan Cancer Support, Institute of Business Ethics, etc.

The Telecom industry is another one that has been tackled in one of the meetings of the APPG on Customer Service. Those in attendance include executives from Ofcom, Sky UK, BT, Vodafone, etc. The discussion centred on how to ensure that customer satisfaction grew in the industry while at the same ensuring that the industry kept up with the changing demands of customers. Some of the experts present at the meeting gave their views on what they believe were the key things that the players in the Telecom industry had to do to ensure that they kept their customers satisfied.

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The importance of the financial services sector to the UK economy was underscored with a meeting of the Group sometime in 2016. The discussion centred on the failure of the sector to record improvements in the customer satisfaction index according to the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) which surveys 10,000 consumers every 6 months. Of the 13 sectors of the economy that the survey touched, banking had ranked 7th.

This, the APPG felt, was not good enough for an important sector such as banking finance. Invitees to that particular meeting included representatives from banking giants such Santander UK, Barclays, TSB, Cambridge & Counties Bank, Co-operative Bank, Nationwide Building Society, among others. There were also representatives from regulatory institutions such as British Bankers Association and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Aside specific sectors of the economy, the APPG on Customer Service sometimes also tackles general issues such as complaints handling by businesses and the skills needed to drive employability in a future economy. There has also been a meeting on the role of regulation on the quality of customer service after it came to light that, in general, heavily-regulated industries mostly did not fare well on the UK Customer Satisfaction Index.

It is clear from all ongoing discussion and the subject matters discussed at APPG on Customer Service that it is serious business. The people behind the APPG understand that the role of customer service to the fortunes of their country is too important for them to leave anything to chance.

The question is if customer service is not equally important to the growth of this country. If it is, what stops us from tackling the challenge from the level of the Legislative arm of government?  Are we, as a people, not interested in ensuring that there are standards of service provision that every service provider must adhere to? One thing these standards do is that it pushes all industry players to up their game. And that is why it is important that those who make and pass our laws make it a point to be interested in the quality of service provided by these industry players.

Someone might argue that these things might just be talk shops for parliamentarians to voice out their opinions and business leaders defend themselves—without much being achieved in the end. I beg to differ. Even if it is just mere talk, it would still be worth it since we are, at the moment, not having enough constructive discussions about the issue of poor customer service in this country.

On the few occasions that the topic is broached in the media, it would be because of some bad experience that someone has had. Such emotion-laden discussions do not go very far. We rarely discuss customer service in the way where concrete measures are advanced to bring lasting solutions to the challenge. Therefore I am of the view that if the Legislative merely engages industry in such discussions it would be worth it.

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Also our Parliamentarians are supposed to represent each and every one of us. Therefore when the representatives of the people begin to invite business leaders to such meetings and make them aware of the need to tackle the issue of poor customer service with all seriousness, these business leaders will know that things must change.

Additionally, if the Media—the fourth estate of the realm—adds its voice to the issue and takes up the task of making enough noise about the proceedings of such meetings, business leaders would have no choice but to sit up. When the airwaves and print are full of what transpired at a meeting where a particular industry or sector was the main topic for discussion, the leaders of that industry would know that the citizenry means business.

It is a true that the very successful in the world, be they countries, organisations, or individuals know and do something that the unsuccessful do not know and therefore do not do. It would be difficult to convince anyone that the quality of customer service in this country is better than that in places like the United Kingdom. In other words, they are more successful at the quality of customer service they provide out there.

It is not a difficult thing to realise that actions like the setting up of an APPG on Customer Service are some of the reasons why a country like the UK will fare better than we do in terms of customer service. What is baffling is that it does not take much to do the things that need to be done to get this country where it needs to get to—at least, in the area of customer service. However, we always seem to suffer to pull these little things off.

The issue of poor customer service is one that has plagued this country for years. It affects all of us and the best we do is to talk a about it in our homes and offices among family, friends and acquaintances. On a personal level, I have been writing this very column for close to a decade and still very little has changed. This is simply because we do very little about the situation. Customer service does not rank very high on the national agenda and thus we are under no pressure to do something about it. We leave the issue for only businesses to do something about the situation.

But as can be seen from elsewhere, those elected to represent the people are really getting involved. These people know that poor customer service does not take a person’s political affiliation into account. Those who offer customer service do not ask for one’s party card before serving the one poorly or excellently. By engaging business leaders in frank discussions, elected political office holders are pushing the narrative to another level. This is what we need to do in this country. We need to ensure that, no matter what, customer service goes to parliament. I am really looking forward to attending a Parliamentary Select Committee on Customer Service one of these days.

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