Many remain sceptical about the value of ISO 9001 accreditation. What are the concrete business benefits? You know you do a good job for your customers; do you need a kitemark to tell you that? Yasser Ramirez weighs up the arguments.
Since 1987, when ISO published its first series of ISO 9000 quality management standards, more than one million organisations in 178 countries have achieved ISO 9001. What has persuaded so many people to invest significant amounts of time and money into this process, and what benefits have they gained? Should you be interested in doing the same for your organisation?
It is after all a time-consuming and expensive exercise. At even the smallest business, certification can take up to 16 weeks, and at the largest organisations it is typically a nine-month process. During this time key staff are diverted from their day-to-day duties. Then there is the cost of involving external advisers, to conduct pre-certification audits, the actual certification audit, and then ongoing surveillance. Then once every three years you need to be recertified.
It is easy to see why many remain sceptical about the value of ISO 9001 accreditation. What are the concrete business benefits? You know you do a good job for your customers; do you need a kitemark to tell you that?
At 60K we weighed up the arguments for and against the investment, and eventually decided to go for it. Ultimately, although we have been measuring the quality of our work against external benchmarks right from the formation of our business in 2008, we felt it was crucial to have qualified, globally-recognised, third parties to attest that our services comply with the quality standards of worldwide organisations.
We gained ISO 9001:2008 certification in April 2010. Now, nearly four years on, we are able to look back and evaluate whether the investment of time and money has produced the expected benefits.
What is ISO 9001?
ISO is a network of the international standards institutes of 162 nations. Formed in February 1947 it has a central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland that co-ordinates the system.
It is important to recognise that ISO is not a governmental organisation. It is not like the United Nations System with delegations of national governments. It is not a quality standard that is required by national governments for a business to operate. Whilst many organisations gain certification in order to win work from a government or large corporation, for all it is a voluntary decision.
ISO 9001 is one of many standards ISO operates. It is concerned with quality management. This means what the organisation does to enhance customer satisfaction by meeting customer and any regulatory requirements and to continually improve its performance in this regard. ISO 9001:2008 is the latest version of the standard, and the one we at 60K gained in 2010.
Putting in the hard work
Gaining certification for 60K involved a significant amount of hard work over a sustained period of time. Much of it involved a team working together on the classification of documents. We already had a large number of documents that we have built up around our operations, but for ISO 9001 we needed to classify and label it according to ISO 9001:2008.
We had a target date and not a lot of time. All the people involved in the ISO 9001:2008 effort had their day-to-day workloads and deadlines to comply with, so distributing the workload and responsibilities given the short timelines was crucial to our success.
We also had to invest time in bringing third-party consultants up to speed with how we operate. They are ISO experts and brought an invaluable perspective from their work with many companies from different sectors and countries over the years, but in order to give us the best possible advice we needed to make them completely familiar with our core operations, day-to-day routines, and way of thinking.
Finally, we also had to take time out to attend ISO training sessions. After all, before the external auditors could come in we first needed properly trained, qualified and certified internal auditors to conduct a thorough internal audit.
Assessing the benefits
Over the years there have been many surveys conducted on the benefits organisations gain from ISO 9000 certification. To give just one example, UK-based consultants ISO consultants QMS surveyed in the last quarter of 2012. Seventy-eight per cent of respondents reported that since implementing an ISO 9001 management system they have made significant changes to their processes.
They also reported that in addition to gaining quality management skills, their organisations had become more efficient, employees were more motivated, customers were more satisfied, and they retained more customers. For many this had translated through directly to increased productivity, sales and profits. Only 5 per cent reported no benefits.
We would agree that this has been the case for 60K. The process of gaining ISO 9001 certification helped us become more organised and effective throughout our organisation. It provided a significant lift to employee morale. We are in general a positive and self-confident company, but to achieve this global quality standard gave us real confidence in what we are doing.
Perhaps most importantly though, our existing and new clients tell us how reassuring it is for them to know they are dealing with a company that offers the highest quality services.
It has been a very positive experience for us, and one I would urge other businesses to embark on. It is vital to remember that ISO 9001:2008 is not just a badge that you get once and forget about. It is a tool which you can continue to use to deliver continuous improvement in your processes and services. Currently we are working towards obtaining PCI Compliance and ISO 27001.
My final tip to anyone considering taking this path is to remember that ISO certification is not about scrapping everything you have done to date; it is about looking at your existing processes, mapping them against ISO requirements and then working to fill any gaps. Taking this approach can greatly reduce the time it takes, whilst ensuring you still receive the many benefits ISO 9001 delivers.
Yasser Ramirez is Head of Finance, 60K, Sofia, Bulgaria. 60K is a 600-seat contact centre which since 2008 has provided multichannel and multilingual support to the customer service functions at companies such as Thomas Cook, Sky, Seatwave, and Service800.