This year we have been working with a small business which arranges UK internships for European students. The MD is based in Italy and part of her role is to sign the students up from colleges and universities across Europe. The Operation team based in Hove find the work placements and host families.
The business is highly seasonal – there are more students who arrive between April and June than the rest of the year.
Whilst the business has been running successfully, the company wanted to investigate whether there were any operational improvements to be made which would make the peak season less stressful for everyone, increase profits and/or allow the team in Hove to accept more students.
We talked to the team to see how they were currently working and found:-
- Central records relating to student bookings were limited.
- Resource planning. The team knew when students were arriving and when but they had no idea how many students were in the UK at any one time. This was relevant not only because the team needed to know they had enough beds and work placements available for the number of students booked, but also, how busy they would be dealing with any complaints or issues.
Also, each person had their own specific job to do which gave them a certain amount of expertise. However, this meant that there was limited cover available when someone was off or on holiday.
What did we do?
We met with the team and the MD to establish what was important and what they wanted to achieve. They wanted to stop the feeling of panic during the summer months. To be clear that there were enough work placements and beds for the students who had booked and not be overwhelmed by the number of inevitable queries that arose from the Students who were currently on placement. These could be time consuming, frustrating, difficult to resolve and emotionally draining. And finally, to establish whether any improvements might result in being able to accept more bookings and/or increase profit. We came up with a number of actions:-
- Record keeping – we set up two main spreadsheets. One that recorded all activity relating to student placements. When a student arrived and left, who was hosting their work and family placements, whether they had any special requirements. Another spreadsheet recorded details of all the quotes given. We then used the information from both to show on any given day how many students might be in the UK at any one time. We could then tell how many beds and work placements were needed on any given day. From a communication point of view, the MD could see the progress of each placement so didn’t need to email so much. And the team were less prone to panic each time a new booking was received.
- Cross Skilling. Each member of the team was trained in someone else’s job so that every role had a deputy. This allowed us to maintain customer service when someone was off and also, reduced frustrations in the team.
- Planning. We used the winter months to look at all aspects of how things were done, come up with ideas for and trial any improvements. Particularly things which might reduce the team’s workload during the busy months. This resulted in:-
- A marketing strategy that involved:-
- joining the local Chamber of Commerce to find new placement Companies and
- asking for referrals from existing companies.
This kept a steady stream of activity on the quality and quantity of placements.
- Holding skype interviews for all students to get a feel for the right placement. We spent some time looking at why we had complaints and move requests during a student’s stay and came to the conclusion that placements were more successful if we had interviewed a student beforehand rather than relying on their CV.
- Host Family Agreement – we looked at the most common complaints by students which were – being given processed foods for meals and standards of cleanliness. We produced new agreements which we asked our hosts to sign before we sent them any more students. This reduced the number of move requests because we were clearer with Host Families about the standards students expected.These last two actions improved customer service and also, reduced the team’s workload as it reduced the number of move requests.
- Data Cleansing –introduced a regular data cleansing exercise. Checking that host families and companies on our database were still interested in taking students and at the same time, identifying additional placements. This meant we had fewer surprises during the busy period when family/work hosts told us they were no longer accepting students.
- Encourage early bookings – by reminding people they were more likely to get the placement choices they wanted. Knowing earlier who had booked helped the team plan their placement strategy.
- Reduce the number of face to face evaluations – some students valued this but others were indifferent so we offered students an alternative via email. This reduced the number of face to face evaluations by a small but significant 10%.
- A marketing strategy that involved:-
- Operations Manual. We set up an Operations Manual which recorded all the processes. We then used this to ensure we didn’t start to drift from agreed procedures, something that had caused problems in the past. It also allowed us a base from which to continually test and challenge the way we did things, looking for continuous improvements.
- Communication The pattern of communication was mainly around emails between the MD and the rest of the team. If the MD wanted to know anything, she emailed. If she wanted to tell anything, she emailed. By everyone’s admission, during the busy period, reading emails was the first thing to go. So that was a bit of a recipe for disaster.So we did two things. We put the spreadsheets in place, reducing the need for email traffic. And we streamlined communication so there was more routine and fewer interruptions to daily working patterns. For instance, we set up:-
- Weekly operational meetings to look at what was working, what wasn’t and agree any necessary actions
- Weekly calls with the MD to exchange ideas and deal with problems. This reduced the number of emails back and forth between the MD and the team which helped reduce interruptions. It also
- Regular reporting so that the whole team were aware how the business was performing and when an update would be available (eg total number of students who had booked in the current financial year v target number for the year; the current position in the booking process of any individual booking).
So far, bookings in 2013/14 are up 20% on 2012/13.