It is not by chance that the Cambridge Corn Exchange is the only concert hall in the country to have been awarded three consecutive Charter Marks in recognition of the quality of its customer service, writes Neil Jones.

It is a result of concerted efforts over many years to understand and respond to the needs of its customers. The recent award of the third Charter Mark is particularly pleasing, as it reflects the continuing improvements being made to customer care practice.

Fundamental to these improvements is the process of listening to customers. We actively encourage customer feedback ? through surveys, focus groups, comment cards, and even to the extent of producing leaflets which encourage our customers to make complaints and suggestions. More importantly though, we act on their feedback. Last season we introduced cough sweets in rustle-free wrappers at orchestral concerts at the request of customers who were fed-up with serial coughers disturbing the music; and this year, when customers complained that there were no coat hooks in the boxes overlooking the stage, we installed them soon after. But it isn?t just on the small things that we take action. Two of the problems most frequently mentioned by audiences are poor sight-lines from the back of the balcony, and the auditorium temperature in the summer months; so we are currently investigating the possibility of altering the raking of the balcony and installing air conditioning. These are just a few examples; the main principle is that any complaint or suggestion, no matter how big or how small, is both listened to and acted upon.

To achieve our latest Charter Mark, we had to demonstrate not only that we had sustained the service levels that brought us the last Award, but had taken steps to improve customer care still further. As just one example, through focus groups and customer comment cards the format of the season brochure was identified as being difficult for customers to use, so a new and more user-friendly design has been introduced.

As well as improving our general service levels, a number of specific key areas were identified as areas of significant potential development for the organisation as a whole. A wide range of improvements have been made to enable disabled customers to have full access to the building, including a ramped access into the building, a platform lift to enable disabled customers to access the first-floor bar and boxes, an additional disabled toilet, more seats available to disabled customers and a wider range of seats that can utilise the hearing enhancement system. The box office has been re-designed in response to customer feedback and to improve health and safety for staff. ?Real-time? online booking has now been implemented to enable customers to book tickets 24 hours a day. Internally, we have adopted the Business Excellence Model as our main continuous improvement mechanism. Even more resources have been devoted to the training of our staff and development of administrative practices, and fortnightly staff briefing papers have been introduced.

Our case for a Charter Mark has been strengthened by resounding support from our customers, who appreciate the fact that we are willing to recognise our shortcomings, ask for their opinions and react to their feedback. Back in 1998 71% of customers questioned in an audience survey described the level of service as either ?good? or ?very good?. Three years later, in a similar survey, customer satisfaction has increased to 97%.

Furthermore, 98% of customers rated the Corn Exchange as good value for money. With any luck, the main problem we will face when we approach the next Charter Mark application in 2004 is just how to improve on a 97% satisfaction rating!

Neil Jones is Marketing Manager at the Cambridge Corn Exchange t: 01223 457555 e: neil.jones@cambridge.gov.uk