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WORK LIFE - CLOSE TO HOME

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If you want to look after your customers, then you need to take a look at the way you look after your staff, says S...
If you want to look after your customers, then you need to take a look at the way you look after your staff, says Suzanne Hill

Three years ago, Portsmouth City Council's housing department embarked on a complete review of its appraisal, training and human resources functions in order to improve customer service.

We needed our team to understand that the priority is always the customer. The fact that those coming to the housing service generally have no alternative does not mean they should not be treated as customers with choices and priorities.

Our first step was to overhaul the way in which staff are assessed. In a move away from the traditional examination of qualifications, we turned the spotlight on what the organisation needs from its staff. We then created a framework of values as a basis for the measurement of staff performance and customer care. The nine areas in which staff are now evaluated include customer service, business management, self-management and team working.

We then looked at our training needs and the best way to deliver them. It did not make sense to try to deliver all the training in-house so we shared implementation with TMI, a people development company.

We closely monitor the development of our staff, with six-monthly appraisals making us better equipped to spot poor performance and deal with it quickly. Those that do well are rewarded with promotion and pay rises. Some 60% of staff have been promoted in the last year.

No longer using qualifications as a way of assessing new recruits has removed obstacles and as a result we now have a far more diverse team, offering a range of different skills. One particular benefit has been the increase in numbers of ethnic minority staff, so the workforce better reflects the community it serves and allows us to relate to more customers.

The induction process has dramatically changed. We have introduced offline training which enables us to take raw talent and develop their skills in a more responsive way. Over eigh t weeks, new staff undertake a mixture of formal training, shadowing, group activities and buddy coaching to ensure new starters are able to grasp and run with the core values of the department. Our strategy of putting people first is used to consolidate and reinforce staff understanding and commitment to customer service

Retaining the culture we have created over the past three years is now a high priority and it is important to remind existing staff of our values and their importance. The council's annual staff conference provides a forum for information sharing and team building, with news about Portsmouth City Council as well as national issues and trends being discussed. It acts as another opportunity to build on training, giving staff the chance to commit themselves to their training and development and get up to date with what's happening in the council. Inviting external speakers to the conference makes the experience fresh and relevant.

The housing department sees itself as having two types of customers - the external, who come to use the service; and the internal, the staff who work there. It has strived to create an environment through which customer care is the central theme and it continues to work towards ensuring each customer receives the highest standard of service. We believe we are achieving this goal by encouraging staff to improve through training, so they can then pass on their new expertise and confidence to their clients. Customer satisfaction rates stood at 80% in 2002-03 and 71% of staff in the housing service reported overall job satisfaction.

In the end, while the whole exercise seemed huge at the start, it has actually been pretty straightforward because it is based on common sense and a simple credo - the customer is our priority.

Suzanne Hill

Training and development manager,

Portsmouth City Council

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