The Voice of the Customer - Nygel Scourfield, Managing Director of FirstPort Property Services

We’ve all been there. You contact an organisation hoping to deal with a real person. Someone who can understand your query and give you the confidence they are dealing with it. What you’re met with is an offer of an email response, which ends up being complicated, convoluted jargon that you suspect the person writing doesn’t even fully understand, leaving you with your head in your hands wishing you hadn’t bothered.
Every time this happens the trust a customer has in your organisation is eroded a little. Eventually that trust will be completely gone, and your relationship with that customer is no more than a (very poor) transactional one.
The Property Services sector is far from immune. Most of our customers don’t understand exactly what it is we do for our management fee, and that’s largely because we don’t tell them. We’re great at quoting extremely complicated leases to justify why we do what we do, but do we actually take the time to sit down and explain this, in language that they understand? The answer is almost always, no.

The trigger

I was asked to work with FirstPort in the Summer of 2015 after being approached by CEO, Nigel Howell. Nigel had a dilemma. He was being told one thing by the formal surveys and evidence that was being presented to him – that customers were, on the whole, happy with the service FirstPort was providing and satisfaction results were high. But this didn’t quite add up with what Nigel was seeing with his own eyes, through the complaint emails he was personally receiving and the discussions he was having with customers. Nigel did something that everyone in this industry should do. He decided to stop believing what the numbers told him, and to start listening to customers.
Nigel appointed me to find out what customers really thought. I asked customers what they needed from their Property Services company, and the answer was unanimous – ‘I want to speak to a real person’.
Now, let’s be clear, our customers don’t want, or expect us, to be meeting them every day, but they do want this option should they have a problem or issue that they need quickly resolving. They want this because they want a relationship built on trust. They want to know if we say we will do something, it will be done. It’s not a lot to ask.

A mountain to climb

At FirstPort, we’d identified the issue – that we were not consistently giving our customers what they wanted, and trust was eroding.
We then needed a plan on how we were going to change things and the journey we would take to get us there. We compared our journey to climbing Everest and clearly defined the path we needed to travel to reach our goal – the summit.

Before we started this journey, it was important that we first recognised the efforts of those around us who have already got us to ‘base camp’. Because we were not starting from the beginning here - FirstPort had a solid foundation, with committed and passionate employees, and we needed their full support to help us reach the summit.

It’s time to get real

One of the first things we did on our journey was to get our employees to go out and talk to their customers, not sit behind our complex leases or computer screens and assume they know the answers. From these discussions, we identified four things that our customers wanted – the very things that, if we achieved, would get us to the summit – which were:

  1. For their Property Managers to be more visible and to engage with them directly.
  2. To build positive relationships with our contractors, who are an extension of our team and play a vital role in representing our brand.
  3. To receive invoices that they could understand and clear instructions on what action was required.
  4. A seamless and easy way to contact us – via a support centre – should they need us. (FirstPort did have a customer support centre but this was not working as effectively as it could)




Support Centre

The business recognised the challenge ahead to get us to the summit, but it was down to all our employees to recognise their individual role in getting us there. They wanted change, but we needed to be in a positon where they wanted to change. A big part of achieving this was making it safe for people to change. We took time to listen to our employees and embed our Values through the annual appraisal process and better team support networks and, as a result, engagement levels increased and customers benefited.

Adding Value

An important tool in our climb to the summit was the introduction of ‘Value Add Rules’. Here’s how it works. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would I pay or invest time in this activity?
  2. Does it change something for me?
  3. Is it done right the first time?

You need to answer yes to all three for something to be truly worthwhile to a customer. If it’s zero then there’s no value to the customer and you need to question why you’re doing it.
Of course, within an organisation, there’s always going to be tasks that have little or no direct value to a customer – for example, managing employees’ payroll. This type of task should be no more that 20% of any employees’ workload.

A new way of working

Using this model, we created a ‘new way of working’ for FirstPort employees, making sure activity was more customer-focused. We had to make some organisational changes in order to help our employees do their job more effectively, including launching a comprehensive eLearning portal focused on areas they needed further support and guidance in, and engineering our technology to make it easier for people to work remotely and be more agile.
The results have been hugely positive including a significant reduction in emails and complaints, improved contractor ratings and increased time on site – now our Property Managers spend at least 80% of their time at their developments, speaking to customers.
We also had a number of external accolades last year including: a five-star rating from the British Safety Council’s Occupational Health & Safety Audit; finalist spots at the Institute of Customer Service Awards and RESI’s Property Manager of the Year; and individual wins for our employees at the Property Management Awards. Over 2,500 of our employees were also nominated for a WOW! Award, which is the only independent awards process for great customer service based purely on customer compliments.
So, as you can see, things are certainly moving in the right direction, but we should never be complacent. What FirstPort has done very effectively however is regain the trust back from their customers and when you do that, whilst you’re not quite at the summit, the view is still pretty amazing.