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Written by Caroline Davies on 1 January 2015 in Features
Features

When Virgin Media's customer service team agreed to train volunteers at last summer's IPC Athletics European Championships, it was win-win, says Caroline Davies

According to the 2011 Family Resources Survey1 there are more than 11 million people in the UK with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability, with the most commonly reported impairments being those that affect mobility, lifting or carrying. With more than 4.5 million customers, Virgin Media serves customers across the country with a range of impairments and requirements.

To help staff best serve these customers, Virgin Media has a number of ongoing initiatives. It appointed Paralympian, Richard Whitehead MBE as its accessibility ambassador, has a national partnership with disability charity Scope and offers specific training to promote awareness and knowledge of disability issues amongst staff.

As a result of this awareness, Virgin Media’s customer care team in Swansea sought the opportunity to become the official Volunteer Partner for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics European Championships. This offered 38 Virgin Media staff the opportunity to become accessibility experts by gaining first-hand experience working with some of the world’s top para-athletes before sharing new skills with others across the business.

Having agreed to be the official Volunteer Partner of the Games, things took a twist when the IPC asked Virgin Media to deliver its industry-leading customer service and accessibility training to all of the 450 volunteers, dubbed ‘Swansea Champions’, creating a united team of volunteers to support the Games in the space of a month.

We get lots of recognition for our approach to customer services, so when the IPC asked if we could train all 450 volunteers, it soon became a question of what could we do to support the Championships and not just what they could do for us. It was important to us to create a training programme that was both engaging and creative for the Swansea Champions, but also to meet the IPC’s mission to deliver the best experience possible to athletes and visitors. It may have needed a bit more time, but it was the most naturally Virgin thing to do.

Applicants were filtered on location to ensure that local volunteers were engaged and had the opportunity to further develop existing skills. In fact, 80 per cent of the Swansea Champions came from Wales.

Following the recruitment process, Virgin Media was faced with a number of challenges to ensure its training programme was suitably targeted to the wide range of individuals who had applied.

Many volunteers had a hugely diverse range of talents which meant Virgin Media had a big task of assessing individuals’ skills in great detail to ensure each volunteer was appropriately assigned to a position. This meant that each volunteer could thrive and provide the best possible service within their individual role. Roles for volunteers ranged from working with VIPs and assisting with medal presentations, to working with anti-doping teams, the media, hospitality and transport.

In addition to an assortment of skills, volunteers brought vast experience from events including the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, providing valuable insights to include in the training. This, however, came with the challenge of ensuring training was fresh and engaging for those with experience from previous sporting events.

With volunteers from 18 to 73 years of age and many with disabilities, Virgin Media developed classes relevant to all participants, ensuring they felt part of the team. For those with learning or physical disabilities, Virgin Media tailored exercises using a song produced for the Championships. Called Good As Gold, it was created using poems written by school children with disabilities and was used as a focal point to inspire volunteers. 

Three training sessions were run per day over the course of six days with programmes being adapted to ensure everyone remained enthusiastic and engaged. The training days were the first opportunity Swansea Champions had to meet each other and covered customer care training, disability inclusion training and orientation training. They also focused on key audiences including athletes, spectators and other external groups such as the media, transport and emergency services.

During the training sessions, the Swansea Champions attended numerous workshops where they were given the skills to provide a superior service throughout the six days of intense competition. Sessions included coaching on leaving a great lasting impression, working through scenarios such as what to do in poor weather conditions, role playing and examples of good and bad situations which may have risen. Virgin Media also introduced its random acts of kindness scheme which encouraged volunteers to go the extra mile when working with athletes and spectators and share these with their team members each day.

Once the allocation of roles had been assigned, Virgin Media worked with each team to help them bond and drive excitement ahead of the Games through exercises such as seated baton relay races.

In addition, gold and silver medallist, and former world champion para-cyclist, Mark Colbourne was enlisted to share his inspirational story of strength and persistence to combat news that he would never be able to take part in any sport again following a harrowing paragliding incident. Providing motivation and encouragement, Mark shared his experience and told volunteers how, since his accident, he focuses on what he can do rather than what he can’t do – a motto he lives by.

Following the completion of the training programme, the Swansea Champions came together to put their award-winning customer service skills into practice in their new roles and offer their assistance to athletes and up to 13,000 visitors who attended each day. The volunteers’ accreditation passes were also equipped with the top six tips needed to provide a number one service for everyone involved in the Championships such as remembering to smile, communicate appropriately and effectively, focus on the person rather than their impairment, and ask if you don’t know.

Michelle Beech, head of centre, Swansea, at Virgin Media felt the Swansea IPC Athletics European Championships was a great way to teach employees about the importance of accessibility. She said: “First-hand experience is often a more effective way of learning about an issue or subject than traditional training. For us, being the official Volunteer Partner for the IPC Athletics European Championships helped many of our people learn more about working with and serving those living with a disability than they could have otherwise. Our volunteers are already passing on their skills and experiences, and provide even better service to our customers. That fact our people also trained hundreds of external volunteers in best-in-class customer services, has helped our people take real pride in the business and what they do in their day-to-day jobs whilst driving our reputation as a company.”

Not only did the Games provide a great opportunity for employees to understand accessibility needs in the workplace through hands-on experience, the employees involved found the training both motivating and touching.

I was among the 38 employees who led the volunteers at the Championships. I found the volunteering programme a truly inspiring experience. Becoming trainers was a great opportunity which allowed us to re-focus on our brand values by training more people on accessibility rather than just improving our own individual skills. The Games provided huge insights about those living with a disability and has helped people from across the company to increase their learnings, which will in turn help them to change perceptions and attitudes about such an important issue and become experts in teaching others about accessibility.

According to an internal satisfaction survey carried out independently by the IPC Athletics Department which aimed to evaluate all aspects of the Games, the volunteers were the most highly rated part of the Championships. The questionnaire, which targeted athletes, sought feedback on a range of services and activities at the Games and saw the Swansea Champions being awarded with an average score of 4.8 out of 5. In addition to this, in October 2014 the IPC Athletics European Championships was awarded Best Volunteer Campaign by the Swansea Bay Business Club.

Virgin Media initially became involved with the Championships as a way for its employees to gain hands-on experience and improve their understanding of the importance of accessibility. However, due to an unexpected twist, those looking to learn became the trainers, sharing their own expertise whilst broadening their horizons as individuals and as a company, beyond initial expectation.

Reference

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-resources-survey-201112
About the author

Caroline Davies is team manager at Virgin Media Swansea

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