DBS Law recently gained the Customer Service Excellence standard, becoming one of the first private sector organisations – and the only legal service provider – to do so. The award was presented by business improvement consultancy emqc, which is licensed by the Cabinet Office to deliver the quality mark.

The certification is based on rigorous assessment of service delivery, staff and management procedures, and most importantly, feedback from customers. The assessors probed everything we do in much the same way as Ofsted inspect a school. It was quite nerve-wracking, but news that we had ‘made the grade’ was a relief and a reward for five years of implementing institutional and cultural change.

In our business, ‘customer’ is a word that is rarely used; traditional language is important to our profession. ‘Clients, matters, files, respondents, practice, heretofore’ – these words define us and guarantee our status. Sadly however, our use of language is also a barrier to the public, who are used to the language of customer service.

Our collective resistance to the linguistic scourge of the modern world has made us vulnerable, too. We have been easily assailed by competition from claims farmers and retail corporations, and it has helped the government bring in divisive changes to the justice system with little resistance from the public. It was the realisation of our ‘otherness’ that made us embark on a journey into customer service management. It all began by asking clients about our service. We encouraged them to compare us with other, more commercial service providers such as supermarkets, online retailers and banks. We came out close to the banks – and since this was back in 2008, that was bad news.

So, we asked clients what they needed to make their experience a better one. They were emphatic in their responses. They wanted plain speaking and straightforward explanations of process. They demanded to know how much it would cost and – of course – how long it would take.

They wanted to know their case-handler’s name and how they could contact that person easily when they had a question or needed reassurance. They said we should go to them and not the other way round – and that if they called us they did not want to listen to a tape, or be given options and buttons to press. And they certainly did not want to wait for us to reply at our convenience.

It was clear we needed to make radical changes, so we did. We introduced a call response team given the name ‘Elite’ to denote its importance. Elite members were selected from our young legal executives for their drive, enthusiasm and language skills. Their training included entrenching respect and empathy for every caller. Recognising the ethnic and cultural diversity of the community we serve, we introduced 365-day access to the first response team.

The customers’ second contact with us was face to face. We created a home visit team who were on the road every day. They were also trained to a high standard. They were patient and down-to-earth and were not there to sell, but only to listen, sympathise and then explain the process without gloss or hyperbole.

Satisfied customers who signed the necessary documentation in their homes would subsequently be assigned a case-handler who would call and introduce themselves within 48 hours. The customer was told how they could contact their personal legal representative and was assured they would be called back within 24 hours if the representative was not available immediately. Customers were asked to choose a preferred method of communication for updates on the case. Important developments, of course, are taken care of in writing, but the customer could also opt to receive texts, emails and phone calls too.

A shift in values

Procedural changes are simple to make and management edicts are easy to write – the problem is always getting buy-in from your people. We decided we needed to put our money where our mouths were and make a value shift in the firm. We looked at the way we were doing community outreach as the basis for making us a people-focused business. We had been involved in charitable activities for many years, but this was sporadic and mostly involved running or slimming to raise money for worthy causes.

So we decided to create a stronger link between our business and the community. Road safety is a major theme for us because of our experience of dealing with the aftermath of car accidents; so we chose to support Brake and the Midlands Air Ambulance. In partnership with Birmingham City Council, we produced a schools road safety show delivered by our staff to thousands of children in the city. We even asked our friends at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to produce a road safety concert for us, which 3,000 children have seen so far.

We do not just fund these projects. All our staff, managers and directors are given time off and encouraged to take part. This is the key to developing the empathy for others we were looking for. Probably the most efficient project for achieving this goal is our involvement with The Prince’s Trust. We are a Patron and fund a trust enterprise course in the West Midlands. This gives unemployed young people training and loans for starting businesses.

All this may seem to other businesses a strange move for a provincial solicitors’ firm to make. The investment is significant both in terms of capital and time and it is clearly not our core business. However, the outcomes for the young people and for us as a business have justified the decision.

About the standard

The government wants services for all that are efficient, effective, excellent, equitable and empowering – with the citizen always and everywhere at the heart of service provision. With this in mind Customer Service Excellence® was developed to offer services a practical tool for driving customer-focused change within their organisation.

The foundation of this tool is the Customer Service Excellence® standard, which tests in great depth those areas that research has indicated are a priority for customers, with particular focus on delivery, timeliness, information, professionalism and staff attitude. There is also emphasis placed on developing customer insight, understanding the user’s experience and robust measurement of service satisfaction.

For more information, go to the website.

Source: Cabinet Office

Our funding supports a scheme to promote self-employment and enterprise among disadvantaged 18-30-year-olds from the region. This investment is combined with practical support for training young people and mentoring afterwards by our commercial and financial experts over a four-year period.

The spur for this was our concern about the growing crisis in youth unemployment in the Midlands, and the shock of the riots in 2011. But what drew us further in were the benefits to our staff. The tutors and mentors are invigorated by the enthusiasm and interest of the young participants. They never fail to be moved by their stories of struggle and lack of opportunity. Our business has benefited enormously from what I call a ‘goodwill glow’. Our staff are proud of themselves and proud to be able to say they work for a firm that makes a real difference in their community. I can certainly recommend this approach to other businesses as a positive method for boosting productivity.

Performance-related pay

So how else did we get staff to buy in to the customer service culture? Changing the bonus scheme was fundamental. Previously it was determined by exceeding individual target earnings combined with overall company performance. We changed it so customer feedback now accounts for 33%.

Unlike other performance-related pay schemes that are designed merely to cut the wage bill, we needed this to be perceived as fair. So, to reassure fee-earners that the assessment was objective, we asked every customer to take part in our survey and not just a focus group. This was not as onerous as it sounds, since we had already decided to do it anyway to properly evaluate progress in improving our service.

Training and motivation have obviously been important for keeping everyone focused on customer service improvement as our primary objective; together with regular performance reviews by managers and team leaders. We give prominence to our internal and customer communication stories of high performance by our legal representatives and they are always backed up by customers’ glowing praise and the grateful thanks of management.

For managers, the most difficult decision to make was agreeing to have the results of our customer service surveys independently audited and published every year. Waiting for the results is like sweating on the birth of your first child – exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Sceptics will point out that awards do not pay bills and probably wonder what we get out of this that is tangible. Well, 84% of our customers say they would recommend us to a friend and their satisfaction levels are over 90%. This has translated into more instructions over the last five years.

Our cases are being dealt with more efficiently and more profitably. Our income has risen by 170% since we began our customer service journey; we have a low turnover of staff; and we have just started an acquisition programme through which we aim to double in size over the next two years. I put much of this down to us embracing the customer service culture to become a people-focused business. I urge others in the profession to do the same.

Rob Bhol is chief executive officer of DBS Law, a Legal 500 firm with Lexcel accreditation

Rob Bhol

Rob Bhol