Putting the Customer First – Public Sector Reception

Putting the Customer First – Public Sector Reception
Published: 17 February 2017

Liv Garfield, CEO of FTSE 100 utilities provider Severn Trent, was guest speaker and generally star of the show at the Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners Annual Public Sector Reception. In a break from tradition, this year's reception was held at our offices on Cannon Street overlooking the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. 

We welcomed over 100 guests from across Public Service - senior leaders from Central and Local Government, the NHS and independent health providers, Higher and Further Education, Charities and Not-for-Profit organisations. 

Liv spoke with characteristic candour and energy about the customer journey since becoming CEO after her previous successful tenure leading BT Openreach. So what did we learn? Without rehearsing her wittily and faultlessly delivered pitch, it's clear that Liv is an exceptional leader, effortlessly drawing on high IQ and EQ. She offered five points for our consideration; points which have guided her approach to ensure that not only has the customer journey at Severn Trent got better, but also that Seven Trent itself is a better place to be. Unsurprisingly, this has ensured her business is faring well against its utilities peer group. 

The "what" is refreshingly simple; the magic is in the "why" and "how" and that's what differentiates great leaders from good managers.

  1. Listen - we all know the "two ears and one mouth" principle but don't always apply that ratio to send and receive. Listening to all levels of an organisation grounds strategy in operational reality and keeps leaders connected.

  2. Remember the human interface - because it's a people business (all businesses are) and customers are people too. Treat people decently and trust them to do the right thing; setting the right tone and culture, modelling the values and behaviours and imbuing confidence and agility will outperform structure and process. Although, pragmatically, you need some of that too to ensure appropriate controls and good governance.  

  3. Refer back to the vision context - so everyone is clear why they are here and how what they do contributes to the broader endeavour and corporate mission. It's no different from the response JFK received from a janitor when he visited the NASA Space Centre in 1962; the janitor was clear on his role as part of the NASA's vision context. We're not all going to launch people into space, but we do all need to know where we are headed.

  4. The importance of personal resilience - and that is about wellbeing in the twenty-first century. Change is relentless, markets are competitive, and we all have competing and conflicting priorities. So, that means creating an environment where individuals are valued and nurtured is essential. And the same goes for your customers.

  5. Keep it in perspective - really; step back, take a breath and focus. Accept not everything is controllable but grip the bits you can and deal with them as best you can. It's not war, although it can feel like that sometimes! 

Of course there's more to it than the points above, and the lively Q&A robustly facilitated by Baroness Virginia Bottomley drew out richer detail, examples and anecdotes. We learned about the move from "rant to rave" and from "tragic to magic" as way points on the customer journey. The relevance and currency of Liv's leadership experience and customer-centric view resonates extremely well with the challenges and opportunities facing Public Service leaders in what may be most optimistically described as a dynamic environment. 

We are grateful to Liv Garfield for giving us so much of her time and herself. Thanks also to our guests and for the positive and participative manner with which they contributed to the debate around putting the customer first. Severn Trent may refer to people as customers and Public Service organisations may variously describe people as service users, patients, clients and stakeholders but the intelligent and considered application of the five points Liv outlined will ensure that the journey for those individuals is as good as it can be.

What is clear is that there are many similarities between the sectors and that good leadership is not exclusive to specific sectors. At Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners we understand and appreciate this, recruiting to senior leadership roles across the public, commercial and not-for-profit sectors both in the UK and internationally.

Jonathan Clark is the Managing Partner of the Public Sector Practice at Berwick Partners

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