Southern Water : Customer call centre transformation


Southern Water is a water company in the southeast of England providing services to 4.5 million people. With a UK turnover of £716.2 million and a SIM run rate of 64.5, Southern Water was 17 out of 21 in the industry ranking. Darren Bentham, Chief Customer Officer, was determined to move from a fearful, mostly regulator-focused company, to a highly collaborative customer-focused company. He wanted to move from the bottom quartile of industry rankings to the top half. That would require achieving an annual SIM score near 75 and a qualitative score of 4.5 (out of 5), a nearly impossible leap in 18 months’ time since each quarter’s score receives the same weight.



Our Approach

Step 1 (first half)

Establish clear transformational and operational goals

VISION accepted Darren’s operational goal of reaching the top half in SIM score for the annual score reported in April 2014. VISION decided to measure progress toward that goal by regularly asking customers who called the Call Centre to answer Ofwat’s qualitative question and then reporting those results early. But VISION had to conduct a diagnosis of the as-is culture to determine the transformational goal.

Step 2

Develop the account of the as-is culture and propose a new mood and style

VISION found that Southern Water had developed a classic fear culture where everyone acts as though they are walking on egg shells. There were no robust assessments of performance. Managers avoided accountability, did not make promises, and wrote vague reports. This lack of accountability was particularly pronounced in the Call Centre where managers had good methods based on historical data for predicting call volume (and could do far better), but fearing pushback if mistaken, they did not send people home or call in trained people from other departments. Team leads focused on reporting numbers of calls and call resolution times but had no time for coaching. Calls themselves were highly scripted and transactional, lest anyone say anything that would lead to a complaint. Still everyone sought to get along with everyone else. VISION assessed that it was looking at a culture with the mood of fear and collegial style. The chief values were safety, security, and remaining dutiful to Ofwat. If there were any signature practice, it was that of the Legal and Regulatory Team’s regular interpretation of Ofwat advice and rules in a way most contrary to Southern Water’s interests.

VISION used anonymised assessments, followed by direct assessment sharing among the senior members of the Customer Service Team to raise awareness of their state. To managers dwelling in collegial fear culture, listening first to anonymised and then to direct, personal assessments seemed frightening, even cruel; however, once they got through it they found themselves admiring each other and wanting direct conversation.

Step 1 (second half)

VISION set a transformational goal of creating a culture with a cultivating (nurturing) style and a mood of admiration that would value frank communication and taking care of customers’ concerns.

The key measures would be VISION mobilisers’ assessments of peer-to-peer conversations, the qualitative score received on calls with customers, and the number of “wow” calls on average per agent.

Steps 3 and 4

Identify, amend, and pilot an old practice that manifests the to-be mood and Invent an organisation-wide signature practice.

In the past, call centre team leads had spent much more time coaching members of their teams. The leads still saw the need for coaching but just did not have time since there were constant crises about over the rate of abandoned calls. Consequently, VISION customised for Southern Water a peer-to-peer learning team practice.

Likewise, in the past, Darren Bentham had spoken far more incisively and directly. VISION created an agenda item on Operational Review meetings for direct sharing of assessments. To model and hand-over directive behaviour, VISION’s Engagement Manager took over the call abandonment promise, the morning huddle on resourcing, and staffing planning meetings.

Step 5

Deploy the valuable, mood-changing signature practice.

The call centre learning teams were the most influential signature practice. Our facilitators first gave call centre staff a new framework for managing calls. Instead of scripts, they were to listen to identify the customer’s concerns behind the stated transactional reasons for the call. They then focused on listening, negotiating, promising, and seeking declarations of satisfaction.

A VISION learning team mobiliser would listen to each group’s calls from the preceding day and select two or three for the team to evaluate. Having one’s whole team evaluate the call created a significant break with the old fear culture. Once the agents got used to peer-to-peer assessment, they found themselves admiring each other, their customers, and themselves. The key measure that mattered to call centre staff were the number of wow calls, calls where the customer expressed extraordinary satisfaction, for instance, “You guys have the best customer service I know. You should give lessons on customer service to lots of companies.” Generally, by the eighth week of learning teams, every member of the team started producing wow calls. They were announced daily at morning huddles.

VISION also deployed the new practice of Operational Review meetings and led the Call Abandonment meetings and resolution efforts in a frank and directive fashion.

Step 6

Design a new commitment network

At Southern Water, the Call Centre, Complaints, Collections, and
Operations were silo-ed even though each silo had staff who could fill in. We collected all these areas together under a single main promise to get to the top half of the industry in customer satisfaction and thereby help each other area. VISION developed the protocols for joining the Call Centre team to relieve abandoned calls, developed practices in the Call Centre for anticipating complaints and having a complaints specialist call before the customer issued a complaint. Collections people changed their promise to assuming that customers wanted to pay and then promising to find a way to enable them. Call Centre staff took on some of the preliminary collections calls. VISION set up tools to track promises made and kept and published promise tracking results daily.

Step 7

Deploy the design

With a large team, VISION mobilised the design in a year.

Step 8

Create client change agents

With each eight weeks of learning team training, VISION would train client facilitators to take over the learning teams once we completed our eight-week boot camp. VISION’s Engagement Manger trained two deputies in decisive, directive decision making around call abandonment. Darren and his team became used to making tough assessments.

Step 9

Measure and evaluate impact

By December 2013, Southern Water had a SIM run rate of 78 and hit 75 for the year. Abandoned calls went from an average of 10,000 per month to 8,500 per month by the end of 2013. The qualitative SIM score ran between 4.4 and 4.5 by the end of 2013. Productivity improved by 10%.

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