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When you buy a product or service – doesn’t matter if it’s a bag of groceries or mortgage advice – you have certain expectations.

You probably expect an efficient service. And for the people you’re dealing with to be polite, helpful and knowledgeable.

You expect value for money and convenience.

There’s a caveat here. Our expectations vary depending on what we’re buying (we don’t expect the same convenience from an artisan baker as we do from a supermarket, but we probably expect more quality).

But typically, the businesses that succeed are the ones who understand what their customers expect from them – and then deliver.

Expectations of public services are no different. And if they are, they shouldn’t be.

Here at Wrexham Council, we’re undergoing a massive change. It’s full-on and fast-paced, and in the midst of everything it’s easy to forget why we’re doing it.

But we’re doing it because we’re trying to get that customer experience right.

Because if we get it right, we’ll become a more efficient and effective organisation.

 

setting standards

Way back in the autumn of 2013, we agreed our four ‘shape principles’ – the things that would guide us through change.

Wrexham Council's shape principles.

 

Our customers were right at the front of our thinking from the start. We wanted to put them first, and at the heart of everything we do.

This month we moved an important piece of the jigsaw into place.

We recently asked people what kind of customer service they wanted. On the back of that, we refreshed our customer care standards – spelling out two things in the process.

1. The kind of experience customers can expect from us.

2. The standards and behaviour we expect from our employees when dealing with customers.

Making sure colleagues understand this is really important. As employees, we all make a difference to how customers think about our organisation through the way we behave towards them.

When was the last time you looked at your organisation’s customer standards?

Do they still reflect your goals? Are they achievable? Do customers and employees know about them?

Questions worth asking.

 

keeping it real

So which is best…exceeding expectations, or falling short?

Neither. It’s best to meet expectations.

If you exceed expectations, your customers clearly weren’t expecting much…or didn’t know what to expect. That’s a problem.

If you fall short of expectations, well I don’t need to explain why that isn’t a good thing.

So when you spell out to customers and employees the standards your aiming for, it’s important to be realistic.

We know we can’t always give customers what they want, when they want it.

But we do know we can always be clear and polite with them, and not hide behind jargon and ‘council speak.’

So we spell that out.

And when we get it right – which we often do – our customers give us really positive feedback. Like this…

“I come in here often, and the service is always excellent.”

“Excellent response and very professional member of staff.”

“Attentive, polite and made me feel at ease. Very effective.”

“I have always had my problems sorted here.”

“Everyone very pleasant and helpful. Thanks.”

 

the contract

I’m really proud of the services we provide. And by relentlessly focusing on our customers, we’ll emerge as an even more effective and efficient local authority.

But it’s not all one-way traffic. We expect something from our customers too. Respect for our employees, who do a tremendous job dealing with enquiries.

So I think of it as a contract.

And as both chief executive of Wrexham Council, and a Wrexham resident who uses our services, I’ll be honouring both sides of the deal.

The new prison development in North Wales.

At first glance, maybe having Britain’s newest and biggest prison is nothing to shout about.

“It’s just a prison,” you might say. “Whose going to be excited about that?”

I am.

Let me explain.

Work on building Britain’s newest prison is well underway on Wrexham Industrial Estate. In fact, I was lucky enough enough to see progress first-hand on a recent site-visit.

On the site at the North Wales prison development.

The fact is, the benefit to our local economy is going to be huge.

It boils down to two things.

Business opportunities. And jobs.

While the prison is being built, the developers Lendlease will be looking to sub-contract to smaller firms for all kinds of materials and services.

While it’s unlikely that all of those contracts will be won by local firms, many Wrexham businesses will be in a brilliant position to compete for them.

Some local firms are already feeling the benefit. An example?

A significant contract was recently awarded to a Wrexham company specialising in steel works and erection.

And £10.6m in work has already been awarded to businesses within a 50-mile radius.

creating business opportunities

To help businesses understand the opportunities being created, we’ve worked with partners to stage networking events. And our business support team is encouraging local firms to bid for contracts.

But that’s just the construction. Once the prison is up and running, it’ll need all kinds of goods and services to keep it running.

Again, local companies will be able to compete for many of these contracts – we’ll be doing our best to encourage them.

All in all, the prison is expected to be worth up to £23 million a year to our economy.

So in 10 years, it may have generated £220 million for Wrexham and the surrounding region.

That’s a huge amount of money.

North Wales prison development.

creating jobs

I also mentioned jobs.

As well as opportunities for skilled workers, the construction phase is expected to provide around 100 apprenticeships.

That’s a great chance for people to learn skills on the job.

People like 18-year-old Daniel Davies from Penycae in Wrexham.

Daniel is training to be a civil engineer with local construction firm Jones Brothers. He spends one day-a-week at Coleg Cambria, and the rest of the week on site at the prison development.

He says: “An apprenticeship is the best way to learn skills and gain experience. And being paid is an incentive to work harder and progress within the industry.”

The point is, people like Daniel are learning important skills that will be retained in our local economy. That’s good.

Once its operational, the prison will provide around 1,000 jobs. Not to mention the jobs supported through contracts with suppliers and service-providers.

We’ve been working with colleges and universities to help make people aware of these career opportunities.

The video below was made at a recent student information day that engaged around 120 students and academics.

So is having Britain’s biggest and newest prison something get excited about?

Yes, actually. It is.

Watch this video.

Footage from an open air music event staged beneath Pontcysyllte Aqueduct a few weeks ago.

You could do this much anywhere, and it would still be memorable.

But the fact it’s staged beneath a World Heritage Site – and probably one of the most iconic heritage structures in the UK – makes it special.

Not because the aqueduct provides an incredible back-drop for a concert (which it certainly does), but because Pontcysyllte has a special significance for people in North East Wales.

There is genuine love for this structure, because – I suppose – it’s more than just history.

It embodies a spirit. It’s a testament to something in our DNA in this part of the world.

New thinking. Hard work. Enterprise.

the gift of identity

When Thomas Telford and William Jessop finished Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805, it was the tallest canal boat crossing in the world.

And though they lived in a different age to today’s visionaries – Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Elon Musk and so on – they belonged to the same breed. They were ahead of their time.

The techniques and ideas they developed at Pontcysyllte were game-changers that helped shape the world through their impact on engineering.

Locally, they helped keep the wheels of industry turning by allowing goods and materials to be transported across the Dee Valley.

Of course, railways gradually replaced canals as the main method of in-land commercial transport in the 19th Century. But Pontcystllte never lost its relevance.

It remained an important pedestrian link between the villages of Froncysllte and Trevor, and continued to support economic actvity in various shapes and guises.

Today, it’s as much a component of our local economy as it was in Telford’s time.

How so?

Tourism.

Along with Chirk Aqueduct, the Horseshoe Falls and the 11 miles of canal that make up the World Heritage Site, Pontcysyllte provides a major tourism attraction that’s still growing towards its full potential.

But over the past 200+ years it’s come to serve a deeper, less tangible purpose than economic prosperity (important though that is).

The aqueduct helps provide a sense of identity.

It reflects that spirit of invention and hard work in Wrexham County Borough that I mentioned earlier.

From John Wilkinson to the European Extra Large Telescope. From Elihu Yale to Nu Instruments.

We have many stories of enterprise, hard work and ingenuity to tell (see my earlier article ‘Blood, sweat and ideas’), but the aqueduct embodies the human spirit behind them all.

paying homage

So when 5,000 people gather on that field for Under the Arches every summer, sure – they’re there for the music, atmosphere, the party.

But I don’t think I’m being over-romantic in saying they’re also there to celebrate Pontcysyllte.

To pay homage to a structure that tells our story in Wrexham, and reflects some of the greatest aspects of our collective DNA.

PS…

If you’ve never been to the aqueduct before, you should go.

Around 350,000 other people visit it every year. And how can that many people be wrong?

pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk

People need services. But councils – which provide many of those services – are shrinking.

What are we going to do?

Here’s one idea.

Grow our communities, and enable them to deliver more services for themselves.

Now that might sound like a good way to dress up a bad situation, but there’s real substance to the concept.

And some councils – including Wrexham – are putting the theory into practice.

We recently launched Together in Wrexham – a drive to encourage more individuals, communities and groups to come together to make a difference.

Together in Wrexham

We’ll help residents who are willing to volunteer some time, knowledge or resources link-up with like-minded people to make things happen.

What kind of things?

Well, it could be something as simple as helping to coach a local football team. Or opening and locking up a community centre. Or helping an elderly neighbour.

It’s a new approach for Wrexham, but we’re not alone. Other councils with similar ideas include Milton Keynes and Worcestershire.

As it works, we’re seeing communities getting involved in delivering and re-designing some of the services that are important to them – resulting in better, more relevant services.

This is pretty amazing.

We’re talking about a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and local government, and it doesn’t happen by itself.

Councils need to do their bit – bringing people together, helping them develop ideas and providing support.

Together in Wrexham website

We’re not starting from scratch, because a lot of people are already committed to helping their community.

Here’s an example.

A group of local people recently took over Gresford village library here in Wrexham.

They formed a limited company and now open the library four days-a-week at key times.

And here’s another example.

Rhos Community Café describes itself as “the small café with the big heart.”

Managed by Wrexham Community Church, the café is manned by a pool of volunteers and – as well as good food and drink – offers local information, events and activities.

Both are brilliant examples driven by people who want to put something into their communities.
So it’s a case of building on the goodwill that already exists, and – as a council – giving people who act as ‘connectors’ and energisers in their neighbourhoods the support they need to make the difference they want to make.

We are genuinely re-framing our relationship with our customers, and saying that – by acting ‘together in Wrexham’ – we can continue to build communities for the future.

Everyone needs a plan.

We have a plan at Wrexham Council – and supporting the local and regional economy is one the top objectives.

So it’s great to see the #7NorthWales films underlining why Wrexham and the rest of North Wales is such a great business location.

The films are based on informal research that suggests there are five key factors that influence a company’s decision to locate itself in a particular area…

  • Connectivity (does the location have good transport links and – increasingly – good digital connectivity?)
  • Workforce skills (does it offer a skilled labour pool?)
  • Land and premises (are the right commercial land and premises available?)
  • Business support (can business investors get help from government and other agencies?)
  • Proven track record (are other businesses already thriving there?)

The research was carried out for the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, and the films produced on the back of its findings.

The films are short and snappy, and feature footage of businesses from across the region.
Take a look.

And if you like what you see, do your thing on social media and help spread the word.

North Wales is a great place for business.

In the past decade, technology has fuelled human creativity in incredible ways.

We can all capture film footage. Or take a photo and apply filters to it. Write a song and upload it to the internet. Or write a blog like this.

And we can share these things with friends and strangers all over the world.

Web-based technology has brought previously exclusive creative pursuits to the masses. And it’s pretty amazing.

But every now and then, I’m reminded of the satisfaction that comes from more ‘analogue’ forms of creativity.

Things that we think of as quaint or old-fashioned sometimes. Like knitting.

Yes. Knitting. You heard me right.

I learnt this skill from my grandma when I was little. And I still really enjoy it.

It’s therapeutic and offers a different kind of satisfaction to blogging, digital photography and so on.

And it’s still useful too.

I recently started knitting poppies to sell in the run-up to Remembrance Day this November. I get satisfaction from knitting them, and the Poppy Appeal gets the proceeds.

Useful.

Knitted poppies for the Poppy Appeal.

I’ll knit as many as I can, and share the pattern and encourage others at Wrexham Council to knit them too.

In fact, one colleague from Wrexham Waterwold (our leisure centre) has promised to learn to knit so he can make one. And if he does, his colleague says she’ll give £10 to the appeal.

I’ll hold them to that.

I’m also busy knitting banana socks (don’t ask), making jam…and I’ll soon be tackling the vegetable plot in the garden again.

Home-made jam.

But the only point I’m really trying to make is that crafting and growing things by hand is still great fun.

And a welcome break from our wonderful but all-consuming super-connected world.

(ps – If you’d like me to send you the knitting pattern for the poppies, drop me a line. The more we make and sell, the more we raise for a brilliant cause!)

It’s that time of the year.

The internet is jammed with articles about what happened over the past 12 months. And predictions about what’s going to happen over the next 12 months.

And I’m about to contribute to the congestion, so apologies in advance.

Here’s a quick run-down of five things that were big for local government in 2014…and which I expect to be even bigger in 2015.

1. digital transformation

They say that companies ‘born’ on the internet have an easier time embracing digital opportunities than companies born offline.

Obviously, local government wasn’t born online, so embracing the exponentially growing trends and possibilities offered by digital can be painful for the public sector.

Although we’ve been evolving our digital capability at Wrexham Council for a few years, it was only in 2014 that we really started our journey towards true digital transformation.

Harnessing the true potential of digital will remain one of the biggest challenges facing the public sector in 2015.

2. the impact of the internet on the high street

E-commerce is an amazing development that’s brought many benefits to consumers and businesses. I shop online. Chances are you do too.

But the impact on the high street is tangible. Empty shops and closing-down sales are a common story.

That leaves councils with a difficult problem: how can they re-energise their town centres in an age when people don’t have to visit the high street to buy goods?

In Wrexham, we laid the foundations for an exciting project in 2014 that will help regenerate our town centre (you can read about it in my previous article ‘Disruptive Technologies.’)

And working out how to breathe new life into high streets will remain a priority for local authorities in 2015.

3. going back to the floor

The idea of senior managers going back to the shop floor to spend time working with front line staff isn’t new.

But the practice has started to be perceived as a little clichéd recently.

It’s a shame. Because going back to the floor can offer genuine benefits.

I’ve spent time with several of our front-line teams at Wrexham Council in recent months and it was useful on many levels.

And as budgets shrink and services need to be ever-more focused, the need for senior managers to work with and understand the challenges and ideas of front-line staff will be even more pressing.

You read it here first. Going back to the floor will (or at least should) be important to many public sector leaders in 2015.

4. all work and no play is no good

Get life outside of work right, and you can get a lot more out of your working life too.

It isn’t easy. Life is busy, and balancing time is tough. But giving yourself and employees the freedom to enjoy life outside of work can increase enthusiasm and productivity levels.

I spent a bit of time thinking about this in 2014 and – in an age when employees find it far more difficult to escape the office because of digital and mobile technology – encouraging play will be as important as ever in 2015.

5. volunteering

Towards the end of 2014, we launched our Together in Wrexham initiative.

A scheme to encourage more individuals, communities and groups to come together to help make a difference.

As councils shrink, helping communities grow and encouraging individuals to volunteer some time, knowledge or skill to help others will be important in Wrexham and many other parts of the UK.

So there it is.

My contribution to the ‘looking back / looking forward’ bottle-neck of stories as we start the new year!

Ten years ago, the idea of a shop that deliberately pops up for a few days or weeks, and then disappears, would have seemed a little weird.

But the retail landscape has changed massively in the past decade (check out my previous post ‘disruptive technologies’)…and the ‘pop-up shop’ is now a firm (albeit temporary) fixture on our high streets

The concept was born in the late 1990s, when a US retailer came up with the idea of selling niche stock in a location for a short period of time, before moving on to another town or city.

But it’s only in recent years that the idea has really caught on – partly because the opportunities have increased, with more vacant space on the high streets.

Duncan Robinson noted in the Financial Times recently that “the number of pop-ups in the UK has rocketed.”

He goes on to say: ”Their rise is partly because pop-ups offer an elegant solution to a persistent problem: empty shops.”

Even big corporate firms like Nike have started to get in on the act.

In the right circumstances, I think they make a lot of sense. For both commercial landlords (temporary rental income is better than none) and retailers that trade on a seasonal basis, mostly online, or just looking to test the market.

pop-ups in wrexham

We’ve seen some great examples here.

Wrexham Football Club regularly makes use of temporary space in our high-footfall areas at key times of the year.

Wrexham FC pop-up shop in Eagles Meadow.

Commercial manager Steve Cook says: “We definitely experience seasonal peaks in terms of merchandise sales, so pop-ups have been great for us.

“There’s no great science to it really. It’s about being flexible and looking for opportunities during periods when you know the demand will be high.”

Steve says pop-ups help the club reach customers it wouldn’t normally reach.

“There are people who might not drive to the football ground to buy merchandise from the club shop, but they’ll buy something if they’re passing us in the town centre.

“If you get the right location and deal, a temporary shop can be a big asset.”

Another example is Nightingale House.

The hospice has to raise around £2 million a year and has several permanent shops – but recently decided to open a pop-up on one of the main roads into Wrexham town centre.

Director of income generation, Caroline Siddall, says: ”It’s the first time we’ve tried a pop-up and it’s been a huge success.

“Because it’s only a temporary commitment, you feel you can be a bit more adventurous and try things you normally wouldn’t.

“Different products, incentives and so on.

“Another big advantage is the low set-up costs.

“You don’t feel you have to spend a fortune sprucing the shop up. Consumers understand it’s a temporary store and don’t expect plush fittings.

“We’ve been so lucky with our first pop-up. It’s in a great location.

“We’ll definitely consider more pop-ups in the future.”

the temporary nature of things

For me, the pop-up concept – while new and interesting –  isn’t surprising.

It’s in tune with the more temporary and agile nature of things today. Things appear, evolve, and disappear far more quickly than they used to.

That’s not a bad thing. It just means we live in a more fluid, faster-moving world.

If you’re thinking about setting up a pop-up, check out this article: ‘Tips on starting up a pop-up shop.’

 

making sandcastles on Harlech beach.

This summer, I went to Harlech beach and built a sandcastle.

Well. It was more like a fortified complex – complete with a moat and internal road infrastructure. I don’t do things by halves.

Fresh air. Sand. Sunshine. Quality time with my family. And the chance to do something…well…totally fun.

I felt relaxed and really enjoyed the rest of my week off – coming back full of energy the following Monday.

I’ve thought a lot about the importance of life outside of work since then. How it can re-energise us and makes us even more effective when we’re at work.

What I’m saying is, get life outside of work right, and you can get a lot more out of your working life too.

But it isn’t easy. Life is busy, and balancing time is tough.

digital detox

Employers have been talking about ‘work-life balance’ since the 1970s (maybe longer), and it’s always been a challenge for most people.

Work is a big part of life and we don’t always want to switch off at the end of the day. Work can be fun. It can be interesting.

But – in an age of 24/7 digital connectivity – learning to switch-off and re-energise has become more difficult.

When you leave the office, you haven’t really left the office.

Because it’s in your hand or pocket. It’s on the dining room table when you get home. Or next to the TV when you sit down at night.

It’s in every internet-connected device you have access to. Desktop. Laptop. Tablet. Mobile phone.

Work is just a smart-phone alert away.

And a lot of the tools we use for work, we use for play too. Social media, for example.

So what to do?

Firms that specialise in helping people ‘unplug’ via non-digital vacations and events have sprung up in recent years.

Take Digital Detox.

The company says that it’s “dedicated to creating balance in the digital age.”

A closer look at the website reveals more.

“In an era of constant Silicon Valley acceleration, over-abundant screen-time, always being available, endless networking, information-overload, tech-driven anxiety…many have referred to us as the ultimate decelerator.

“We help you slow down.”

Personally, I don’t feel it’s impossible for me to unplug when I need to. But you can see where they’re coming from.

simple things

For me, work-life balance – and making time for myself and my family – is about doing the simple things.

It’s about more sandcastles. More days on the beach. More time with the family.

But here’s the important caveat. It’s about more of these things over a realistic time-scale.

Just like Nigel Marsh says in the TED talk below, you’re never going to pack everything you want into every single day.

If you try, you’ll just beat yourself up because you failed.

It’s about creating balance over a realistic period of time.

And I really believe that if you get it right – and build those sandcastles – you’ll be happier and more effective in your work.

The internet is full of facts.

Search for facts and stats on just about anything, and you’ll find more than you can throw a stick at.

The fact is (bad pun), a lot of the claims, statistics and data that crops up is pretty much impossible to prove or disprove.

351 babies will be born in India by the time you’ve finished watching the film above.

How does anyone actually know that? Or come to that figure?

Well, I guess in many instances, facts like this begin with a rational, evidence-based figure, which is then amplified or broken down to show its implications over a period of time.

It’s a leap.

The end result is sometimes referred to as a ‘factoid.’ In other words, ‘facts’ whose evidence or logic isn’t clear. Sometimes spurious.

Is that a bad thing? Well…it depends on the context.

A lot of the time, these ‘factoids’ are used to paint a true picture. A trend or direction of travel that is – in essence – hard to argue with.

Their purpose is to tell a bigger story. I think most people understand that.

wrexham fact(oids)s

Over the next three years, an average of £1m a day will be invested into Wrexham Industrial Estate.

How do we know that’s true?

Well, we don’t. Not for sure. It’s a leap based on credible information.

In other words, we know of anticipated investment into the industrial estate over the next three years that – if divided up – equates to £1 million a day.

In reality, it might be more, it might be less, and it’ll come in spurts.

But it helps us tell a true story. It shows there’s huge confidence in Wrexham as a business location – and it brings that story alive.

Here’s a few more fact(oid)s about the ‘capital’ of North Wales.

  • Around 30% of the UK residential population and 50% of manufacturing businesses are within a two-hour drive.
  • Around 8,000 people work on Wrexham Industrial Estate.
  • Between now and 2025, the population in Wrexham is expected to grow more than the rest of North Wales put together.
  • Around 10,000 additional homes will be built in the county borough by 2028.

The figures might not be pinpoint, but they paint a true picture.

It’s a pretty good picture.

a sense of belonging?

One final thought.

I’ve always been interested in what makes people feel like they ‘belong’ to a place.

What makes me feel like I belong in Wrexham?

Facts?

Well. Not really.

It’s not the facts and figures. It’s the bigger stories they help to paint.

Example?

Wrexham is a university town.

Glyndwr has around 8,800 students. More than 1,500 commercial and academic partners worldwide. And an average graduate starting salary 16% higher than the Welsh average.

But it’s not the stats and figures that stick in my mind. It’s the bigger picture they help to paint. The image of Wrexham as a place of learning, skills and creativity – a place I want to belong to.

When it comes to towns and cities, facts are disposable. They come and go.

But the stories they help build? They stick.

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