Reaching for the stars

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Written by Seun Robert-Edomi on 1 April 2013 in Interviews

In our series on L&D practitioners who picked up prizes at TJ's 2012 Awards, Seun Robert-Edomi talks to Elior UK, winner of the best customer service programme

An organisation that equipped its employees with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver "exceptional" customer service was recognised at last year's TJ Awards.

Contract caterer Elior UK was the winner of the best customer service programme of the year award, collecting gold ahead of the likes of BSkyB and Specsavers Optical Superstores Ltd.

The firm was lauded by category judges for engaging workers throughout the business and delivering a programme that was innovative and simple.

Sarah Cook, category judge and managing director of The Stairway Consultancy, said: "The judges were impressed with Elior's approach to customer service training, which focused on the customer experience, involved a thorough needs analysis, engaged employees throughout the organisation via the use of service champions and was innovative yet simple in its delivery approach."

When Tim Hammond took over as Elior UK's chief executive in 2011, recognition of brand identity and what it stood for in the marketplace was lacking. Business was suffering as a result, with contract retention rates having fallen to 84 per cent against a target of 95 per cent. There were no defined service standards across the business and no systems in place to accurately measure the level of service that customers were receiving.

A business review of the company was carried out, which showed that customer service was not being focused on enough and suggested that there was a need to increase the amount of site-based training done each year. In addition, Elior's annual engagement survey in 2011 found that there was a five point drop from 2010 in how quickly the organisation was perceived to respond to changing customer demands.

To combat the situation, Hammond and his team decided to create and implement a programme that could make Elior UK famous for customer service. This scheme would address the falling contract retention rates and achieve better customer satisfaction scores.

The two-day service champion course included 13 short interactive modules and:

  • required champions to be facilitators, not trainers, and to encourage buy-in and engagement from their peers
  • made champions aware that, as great service providers, the skills they already had were highly transferable
  • required an exceptional level of buy-in from the leadership and senior team.

The programme was launched by the leadership team to all site managers through a week of road shows. It was conducted in a relaxed, informal way that encouraged facilitation. Operations managers were fully engaged, attending day one of the training and giving an introduction, which, in turn, reinforced the programme's importance among the rest of the employees.

Externally-measured customer satisfaction scores demonstrated the programme's success, with a score of 76.3 per cent for service against an initial target of 75 per cent. Contract retention rates rose to 97.5 per cent, compared to a target of 95 per cent. Some sites had generated sales increases of up to 8 per cent and attributed this to the programme as their engagement and interaction with customers improved.

Anne-Marie Hearne, category judge and national training manager, customer service and service systems, at Waitrose, said: "The programme clearly had the support of senior management and has brought about improvements in customer satisfaction and retention and business growth."

Speaking about their success, Michele Moore, head of people development at Elior UK, said: "Although we have received both internal and trade recognition for this programme, it means a tremendous amount to us to receive the external recognition of our L&D peers and specialists in the domain of training and customer service. We are also delighted to be able to present this independent assessment of our programme as evidence in our tenders and sales bids."

The programme delivered "tangible results" in all the targeted areas, and that's what made it a winner, Moore revealed.

"Our initiative was original, effective and meets the needs of the business. It has delivered tangible results in all the areas we were aiming for (customer satisfaction and loyalty, contract retention and improved sales) and in areas we hadn't quite anticipated: staff morale and retention.

"We have also paid a lot of attention to the elements needed to support the programme like follow-up, measurement, internal communications and recognition. It has received tremendous support from all levels of the business," she said.

A key factor in making the programme innovative was the fact that the "short and dynamic" sessions suited the learning styles of most of the company's employees.

"The standards that lie at the heart of the programme were devised by a focus group consisting of representatives from all levels and all parts of the business. The programme acknowledges and honours the fact that many of our front-line employees have a wealth of experience and a great desire to do the best job possible. The key was to design it in a way that established standards that deliver our brand promise but allow everyone to add their own personality.

"To encourage engagement and empowerment, it was decided that champions would not be the line managers, but instead would be people from within the teams - supported by the line managers.

"The sessions are short and dynamic, suiting both the requirements of the business and the preferred learning style of the majority of our employees. Furthermore, the sessions are positioned as conversations around the standards, drawing on the experience of the team and building on current best practice at site level," said Moore.

She stressed that companies attempting to implement a similar initiative should consider what needs to be focused on for change to stick: "It's important to have a vision and to build on what is currently working well, while keeping the programme simple and making sure that it is top of everyone's agenda and seen to be a company strategy. For example, our chief executive mentions it in all his communications to the wider business, while our finance director starts every business review asking about progress.

"Think about what else needs to be addressed for the change to stick; get buy-in at different levels and listen to the feedback," she concluded.

For more on this year's awards, visit


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