Managing Client Relations in a Mandated Reform Environment



Corporate services reform of the Western Australian public sector emerged as a key finding of a functional review of Government, conducted in 2002. The review reported considerable benefits, both financial and non-financial, to be achieved through a "Whole of Government" approach to corporate services delivery.

In particular, considering the Government’s different customer groups, the review suggested creating three shared service organizations:

  • Health
  • Education and Training
  • all remaining "general agencies."

This article will map the journey of perhaps the most ambitious of these shared services organizations: that aiming to provide corporate services functions to over 100 general agencies, with a diversity of business mandates and activities. This organization has become known as the General Agency Shared Services and is hosted by the Department of Treasury and Finance (WA).

Diverse functions, stakeholders, legislation and existing software have made for an eventful start-up period for our shared services center, which commenced processing in July 2006. Two years later, we have learned valuable lessons both in implementing our shared services and in managing client relations.

Lesson 1: Get the vision right 

Developing the critical success factors has provided an invaluable framework in planning for the success of the shared service center organization. The SSC actively generates business strategies that develop functional abilities through organization-wide business planning.

From a functional perspective, the critical success factors identified during start up are relatively easily described, but challenging to implement. The focus of the corporate service reform is greater cost efficiencies from aggregation, standardization and process simplification, which also adds a layer of complexity.

These success factors still guide the business planning two years after start up:

Services

  • Deliver reliable, value for money, services that support clients’ business needs
  • Ensure services meet audit requirements
  • Focus initially on core business services successful implementation
  • Plan future improvements

The challenges of business planning around these factors lie in the broad range of clients we service; the real diversity of the business needs are very apparent, both pre-transition as well as in delivery of services. Small, highly specialized agencies require the same attention and service quality as do the larger central agencies.

By remaining flexible, adaptable and really understanding the clients’ business requirements through a sophisticated interaction schedule, the SSC has successfully maintained service levels during the transition of 24 business entities (approximately 4,000 full-time equivalent staff serviced).

Customers/stakeholders

  • Listen and respond accordingly to meet stakeholder, client and customer needs
  • Develop a strategic understanding of client requirements and the capacity to respond
  • Focus in collegial, professional customer service

The SSC presents a unique offering in WA, in that a dedicated client relationship management team (CRM) has been established. This team collects intelligence around client business requirements and critical activities, providing service reports that inform both client and SSC business. This client and account management approach provides the interface between the strategic and service delivery levels of service management. With this dual overview, a responsive information conduit is developed, fostering a sense of trust and driving partnering behavior.

The CRM team are responsible for managing the service level agreement (SLA). Quarterly reporting on the performance measures outlined in the SLA are provided to the client agency by the CRM team. The report monitors whether actual service delivery is in accordance with planned services (as documented in the SLA). Continuous improvement initiatives are implemented on the basis of this feedback. Performance measurements, customer and client feedback, advice from client agency account managers and partnering forum discussions provide the information necessary for the SSC to improve its service delivery.

People

  • Develop a professional, customer focused and motivated workforce aligned to values and business imperatives

A rigorous approach to training and developing our SSC staff has been the focus of our Year Two strategic plans. Performance development planning is in place for all staff, a high quality induction program ensures that the vision, mission and values of our organization are clearly disseminated and the customer service
ethos is being driven forward through more advanced reward and recognition programs, employee wellness schemes and technical customer service training tailored to the needs of our SSC.

Lesson 2: Communicate, communicate, communicate

Several key governance forums were charged with leading the reform initiative and communicating key messages back to their agency staff. It was recognized that communication planning and the distribution of the right messages needed to occur continuously throughout the project.

Effective communication planning achieved the following benefits:

  • building employee ownership and readiness to change by keeping employees across the
    client agency updated, involved, informed, motivated and engaged
  • minimizing employee fear of the "unknown," anxiety and the spread of miscommunication
  • providing accurate, timely and relevant information throughout the project lifecycle
    to targeted internal and external stakeholders
  • soliciting feedback and gaining involvement from employees to increase support and reduce resistance

Change communication has been identified as a major priority for the shared services project implementation team, and to support our clients further, work is being undertaken on the following key success criteria:

  • We need to develop a strategic and customised change plan to provide focus and direction to the shared services project team on how best to implement and communicate the elements of change management to
    government agencies
  • The strategic change plan will be used sector-wide to engage and prepare the agencies for the change to shared corporate services. It is to include steps for governance, implementation management and evaluation strategy. Evaluation should be both formative (process) and summative (impact) evaluation
  • The plan developed is to be evidence-based and linked to agency needs identified through a consultation process with a sample group of agencies and SSC staff involved in transition and service delivery
  • We will develop a process to identify cultural barriers unique to each agency to enable strategies to be implemented and risk management plans devised

Lesson 4: Know your clients

Knowing our clients is vital to the success of the shared services initiative, but it is imperative that we are able to share the information gathered and have good internal communications methods to disseminate this information internally

As we progressively roll agencies into the shared services center, understanding the client agencies’ business objectives will remain the responsibility of the CRM team, who will:

  • Establish regular meetings with client agency leads at appropriate point prior to roll in
  • Liaise with transition team to understand any roll in issues
  • Research and populate our client information system
  • Attend Heads of Corporate Services (HOCS) meetings and other appropriate forums
  • Capitalize on the knowledge of agency staff recently appointed to the shared services center

A comprehensive briefing is provided to SSC staff at the point of the client "go live" date. Key messages include the strategic vision and business missions of the agency, a profile of its staff and of transactional volumes from service areas. This information is also available online as a quick reference guide and a weekly update on the status of all clients is provided for dissemination to colleagues in shared services.

Lesson 3: Keep managing the relationship

After 12 months of operations, the CRM team recognized that the clients’ experience in interacting with the SSC had been overshadowed by key factors affecting customer satisfaction. According to the information that had been gathered through various client consultation points available, there were clear patterns in areas that required collective attentions.

To address any issues arising, the CRM team developed an appropriate feedback and education seminar together with the business area concerned. In performing in depth surveys and analysis, providing a forum for discussion and then following up on specific client needs, client concerns are now addressed in a collective fashion at a broad level, as well as on a granular level, with the client individually.

Summary

The WA Government has experienced a challenging start up period for the General Agency shared services. We are now already one quarter of the way through our proposed roll in schedule, and have learned valuable messages and lessons which are forming the basis of a continuously improving client relationship model.

About the Author

Claire Clague has worked in client liaison positions for over ten years, for the past five in the field of public sector reform. Her current post as Client Relationship Manager began at the start-up of the SSC for the West Australian Government, which will service over 100 client agencies when fully mature. With a private sector background in marketing and public relations, Clague has also worked as a change agent for the Department of Health in the UK, and is a qualified project manager experienced in public sector reform. She is a published author on health sector reform, and has developed a valuable skill set in negotiating for positive client outcomes.