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"The Development of the North Channel route between Scotland and Northern Ireland" by Alan Gordon, Route Director, Stena Line - Glasgow meeting of 28 September 2004

Stena Line's HSS Stena Voyager approaching Stranraerd

Stena Line's HSS Stena Voyager approaching Stranraer.

© John G. Fender 2011

Stena Line's Stranraer - Belfast route is today one of the most successful ferry routes in the UK, with high levels of reliability and customer satisfaction. The service is operated by two ships, the Stena Voyager and the Stena Caledonia and carries in excess of 1.4 million passengers, 265,000 cars and 135,000 tons of freight annually.

However, the route has not always been so successful. Stena line acquired the route with the take over of Sealink in 1980. In 1999, facing mounting losses on the route, the management realized that something had to be done if the route was to survive.

The problems identified included dissatisfied customers, poor service, communications, service culture as well as a lack of trust amongst staff. The company was at that time "operationally led" and it was felt that there was no future in the route with the existing direction.

In tackling the problems, a "benchmarking" exercise was undertaken comparing the company with the best companies in the USA and taking a number of key indicators into account, including such basic items as how staff interacted with customers, punctuality and cleanliness of facilities, as well as measuring the market share. To obtain information from customers, it was made easier for customers to provide feedback and forms that customers can fill in are widely available. Surveys of customers were carried out and this has continued with 100 customers a month being contacted by telephone and asked for their views.

Once the areas for improvement had been identified, management worked with staff, and training was undertaken. Fifteen key areas for improvement were identified, based on customer's complaints and action taken to improve these. As pat of the process, customers received letters telling them of the improvements, and this also helped to improve external communications. A Customer Care system has been introduced and the aim is to reduce customer complaints by 50% by the end of the year. Objectives are set for each year and the success factors are determined. Staff were empowered to make decisions without having to refer to supervisors and "Rapid Action Teams" were set up. Complaints are now responded to within 1½ days. Key targets are communicated to staff. Internal communication was perceived to be a problem area, so a staff newsletter was introduced and this is being developed further. Courses were provided for staff and funds provided for staff outings and activities.

The management style has changed with managers leading by example. When refurbishment work is undertaken on ships, staff and crew are fully involved from the design stage onwards. Some of the best ideas have come from the staff. However, for this to work, it is essential to have a "no blame" culture and this has helped to improve staff morale. All staff are equal, including the management. Upgraded working environments have been provided for all staff and all have been on service excellence courses. The company is investing in skills training and has developed 3 and 5-year plans for further staff development. Staff are made to feel valued and the introduction of long service awards had assisted in the process. For example, managers send personal Christmas cards to every member of staff. Staff also benefit from a range of other items, such as staff cruises and staff discounts. These measures have meant that staff morale has improved and staff feel valued.

Management needs to be able to continue to direct the course of action, although much of the work is delegated. Staff motivation is also important as is attention to detail. There is focus on key areas and it should be remembered that the whole organization is responsible for Customer Care. Management must listen to both staff and customers for this to work. However, it is necessary to have a structured approach to this as it is important to set targets and then measure performance, taking control measures as required to achieve the target. The philosophy is one where happy staff lead to happy customers and this leads to a happy financial position.

All of the measures introduced have led to the route returning to profitability with some 96% of customers recommending Stena line. Reliability has improved to the extent that only the severest weather disrupts the service. The number of complaints has fallen significantly and having spent the last few years changing the culture of the operation, the route is now profitable and the company is investing in new ports and terminals that will be built in the near future. The long term future of the route is bright and many of the ideas and practices pioneered on this route are being extended to other ferry routes.

Report by John Fender.


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