Procurement at the University of Huddersfield — An Inspiring Customer Excellence Case Study

This is the first of our reports covering entries from the recent GO Excellence in Public Procurement Awards.  They are from the categories for which I was a judge, hence I read them carefully, and each was chosen to feature here based on how interesting we felt it would be to our readers (rather on whether they won the award or not). Today, let’s start with the procurement team from the University of Huddersfield.

That is a relatively young university, but one that has made great strides in recent years and won the Times Higher Education University of the Year Award in 2013 through its “teaching excellence, the establishment of a new innovation centre and its commitment to being a university that is at the heart of its home town.”

What we liked about this case study was the way in which a small procurement team was successful through aligning itself very deliberately with the wider goals of the organisation, and the needs of the stakeholders. When we met the team at the recent GO Awards dinner, we asked why they had entered. Here’s their Head of Procurement, John Thompson.

“I felt the team displayed and exemplary attitude, and in particular I’m proud of the way we balance value for money with customer service. We work hard to understand what the customer wants, and work within what is legal and good value to provide that.”

That focus led to the procurement team pursuing and achieving the accreditation for Customer Service Excellence (CSE) in 2014 – something that very few procurement teams anywhere have achieved. It is more usually seen as an accreditation for customer care functions, call centres and consumer facing businesses. As their GO entry explained:  “This drives innovation by stimulating the team to think about the customer’s needs and how as a team and as individuals we can improve our service.

There is also a CSE customer steering group with representation drawn from stakeholders across the University, who monitor continuing performance, offer support and guidance to procurement and review progress against the assessment performed by the external examiners. Other customer-focused initiatives have included training for users and a focus on clear documentation, use of P-Cards, and a quarterly Procurement Newsletter. The team publishes its annual performance report, procurement strategy and action plan online, so both customers and suppliers can monitor their targets and outcomes.

We asked Thompson what the major challenges have been.

“The University has become increasingly a research institution as well as teaching. So working with the academics, helping them deliver their agenda, but not being afraid to challenge – it’s getting that balance again.”

Technology has been a big part of the success too, with strong adoption of both effective P2P systems – rated very highly by external experts – and e-Marketplace development. But it is the customer angle that is particularly noteworthy here. This is the sort of comment (from the entry again) that captures the spirit of collaboration:

The fact that Procurement are prepared to allow technicians with specialist knowledge to advise them on supplies and their willingness to support staff in their decisions regarding choices means we have developed an excellent working partnership that generates good value for money for the University and best value for the division.” (David Wainwright, Technical Manager Drama)

Yet it isn’t about “being soft” with budget holders. In fact, adherence and acceptance by stakeholders to policies is very high, according to external reviews. Perhaps that comes from the feeling that the team is genuinely there to assist. If you have that “customer service” approach, then actually procurement policies are much more palatable to users – that is an important message to any procurement function, we’d suggest.

And the hard metrics are impressive. Impactable spend influenced by the procurement function is at 100%, procurement savings were almost 5% of non-pay spend last year, and 100% of orders are placed electronically or through P-Cards. Highly impressive numbers there by anyone’s standards. And finally, what about Thompson’s hopes for the future?

I still see suppliers dividing and ruling across the public sector - I’d like to see more collaboration in our sector and the public sector generally. We’re better off united! But we can’t forget our customers and stakeholders either.”

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