Museums + Heritage Awards Winner – Best Customer Service

The success of the ITV television series, Downton Abbey, has reinvigorated people’s appetites to discover what life was really like for servants and workers in our stately homes in the last century. In March 2012, National Trust property Ickworth House, Park and Gardens, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, revealed the real stories behind the daily lives of staff a century ago - living and working for the Hervey family in the extensive and now, restored servant’s basement below the iconic central Rotunda.

‘Ickworth Lives’ is an exciting and innovative project funded through the Heritage Lottery, Biffaward, Suffolk County Council and many private donors. It enabled the restoration and an innovative interpretation of the servant’s basement for visitors and brought this enigmatic property to life. It focuses on the period between 1911 and 1939, a period of immense social change which heralded the gradual decline of a ‘life in service’.

This project, right from the start has been about people whether it be the memories of former staff in the 1930s, local community fundraising, creating new and exciting volunteering roles or engaging with the 198,000+ visitors who came to Ickworth last year. A key part of this project involved contacting former staff, their families and friends to capture their memories and evocative tales of life below and upstairs. The resulting oral history archive has been immensely important in bringing the basement to life, interpreting the spaces and providing the key information to inform the exhibition.

The introductory exhibition has a 1930s silent film plus a ‘floor to ceiling’ visual display creating the mood of the 30s with advertising from the era and includes the photographs of the staff who worked on the estate donated by friends and relatives. As well as guided tours around the Basement, every month we go back in time with special ‘living history’ days to bring history back to life. Costumed volunteers perform the regular task of domestic servants and visitors can follow the footsteps of the housemaids, hall boys and Mrs Sangster the cook at Ickworth for over 50 years.

With the launch of this new visitor experience, we recognised as a property team that internally we needed to adopt new ways of interacting with our visitors but more importantly, we needed to challenge ourselves on our internal culture and profoundly review the service standards we were offering to visitors. Our focus needed to be on how our own people (30 paid staff and over 400+ volunteers) could transform the visitors’ day out into a truly inspiring one and bring Ickworth to life.

Within the Trust, we measure visitors’ enjoyment through regular surveys and comment cards. The Visitor Enjoyment measures indicated we faced a real challenge – we scored poorly in comparison to other properties, complaint levels were high and as a management team we had to acknowledge that offering exceptional service did not sit at the heart of our culture. With the opening of Ickworth Lives rapidly approaching – in January 2012, we commenced a radical overhaul of our entire service culture that sought to touch every aspect of our interaction with visitors, involving all of the team. The change culture was led by the visitor services team but involved all levels of management and staff and volunteers.

Key to achieving a positive change was ensuring that everyone shared the vision and understood what we were trying to achieve. At this time the Trust was launching its Values and Behaviours (V&B), that allied perfectly with our intentions as these overtly sought to inspire visitors. Consequently, throughout February, we appointed V&B ‘champions’ who undertook the massive task of training over the 400+ volunteers and staff in two hour workshops with a focus on how each individual person could make a difference. Part of the workshops highlighted the importance of body language and communication skills in the delivery of exceptional service. This element of the training has since been used in every session and included in our property induction days for all new colleagues.

Following the workshops, customer-facing staff had additional training in our own ‘service promise’. This sought to build upon the value of inspiring visitors by ensuring every staff member provided exceptional service, every time, for everyone, and acted as a role model for all our volunteers to achieve the transformational culture we sought.

To support this, we launched an initiative called “random acts of kindness”. This gave overt permission to staff to give something back to visitors whenever they wished to. The acts ranged from free offers of drinks to second-hand books; the idea being to surprise and delight visitors with unexpected kind actions.

“I issued a voucher for free tea to a gentleman who cycled 36 miles to visit”. Belinda

“Couple came from Newcastle and had really lovely day. Given a 20% off voucher and spent it on a Gothic Mirror in the Garden Shop”. Teresa

We also recruited a further 50 volunteers to meet and greet visitors across the whole estate. We recognised that a more diverse volunteer base would help us to engage in different ways and attract new types of visitor. New volunteer roles such as storyteller, buggy driver, actor – all helped us recruit volunteers with a wider age and demographic range.

We also wanted to manage better and use all our visitor feedback. Every year, we receive written feedback from 1000s of visitors but the management of this information was poor. In March 2012, we committed to:

  • Every written piece of feedback would be acknowledged within 2 days of receipt.
  • All positive feedback would receive a “random act of kindness”
  • All feedback would be taken seriously and acted upon.

And as a result of all this, what do our visitors say?

“We have had an amazing day. Our first visit. We were struck by the kindness of the staff. All so friendly and helpful. Our tour of the basement just made the whole experience complete. Thank you all.”

“We have visited many of your properties, the staff here are so friendly and helpful, they are the best we have come across, a credit to the National Trust”

“Can’t remember visiting anywhere where the staff were so friendly and helpful. Be proud Ickworth!”