Winning ways

Provident
Insurance believes its training has been a crucial factor behind its success in
a highly competitive marketplace. The TD2000 Award judges Paul Kearns and Nigel
Crouch thought so too. So what makes a winner?

For
Halifax-based Provident Insurance, winning the TD2000 Award is a major triumph.
“We are delighted at the award because we’ve put a huge amount of time and
effort into integrating training with the business strategy,” says operations
director Mark Collier, who also has HR responsibility for the company.

He
adds that for a relatively small company like Provident Insurance to survive in
such a competitive market, effective training is a must.

“Giants
like the Halifax and Royal Sun Alliance have big operations in this town so we
are competing with them for staff and our reputation for training has been
invaluable in getting the right people.”

Paul
Kearns, senior partner at consultants Personnel Works and one of the TD2000
Award judges, says, “I was very impressed with the simple but effective approach
by Provident and the fact that they don’t just rely on sending people on
courses but have a much more holistic approach to training.”

Commitment

Kearns’
co-judge was Nigel Crouch, an industrialist working with the Future and
Innovation Unit at the DTI. “We saw real commitment to training from the top
down and a training strategy embedded in the HR strategy which was in turn
embedded in the business planning,” he said.

Provident
Insurance has 350 staff and specialises in underwriting motor insurance in the
niche of women drivers and low-value cars. While the UK insurance market made
losses of £1.5bn last year Provident Insurance increased its profits by 30 per
cent to £25m.

“To
survive and grow we need to be light on our feet and have a low expense and
high productivity culture, which is why we concentrate so much on training,”
says Collier.

A
major element of that strategy, and one that illustrates the top table
commitment to training, is that every manager is expected to allocate up to 15
per cent of each employee’s time to training.

“We
define that in a broad way, so it includes informal coaching, mentoring and so
on as well as courses,” says Collier. “This isn’t down to philanthropy but due
to sound business reasons.”

Kearns
says, “Allowing managers to build in this much time for training is a fantastic
commitment to training and far above what most companies would consider.”

Commitment
from senior directors to the training strategy has been helped by the fact that
company chairman John Thornton has a background in training.

In
practical terms, a divisional HR forum comprising managing directors, directors
and operational managers from across the Provident Financial group’s insurance
division meet regularly to discuss ideas on staff development.

Cultural
shift

This
has helped push forward a major cultural shift in the company over recent
years, moving from managers who were technically based but often lacked skills
in staff development to a more multi-skilled approach and a focus on recruiting
from schools and universities.

One
of the keys to the company’s success has been to take on young, raw recruits
and train them in the company’s culture, rather than hiring experienced staff
from other firms who may have a “know it all” approach.

“We
recruited 88 people last year of whom 
83 per cent where raw recruits. That is more cost effective than paying
higher salaries to experienced staff and going through agencies,” says Lisa
Meigh, training and development co-ordinator.

To
enable the hiring of raw recruits, an effective induction programme has been
designed by Meigh and her colleagues.

In
the past new employees were simply told to sit with someone and learn from
them, she says. “The downside was that everything then depended on the quality
of person they were assigned to and it was possible for new recruits to pick up
bad habits.”

Meigh
and her colleagues sat down with managers to discuss what skills new recruits
would need and what kind of training would be required.

A
programme was developed including the various types of training, such as
simulation at PCs on handling claims and customer service skills.

“There
is also a lot of on-the-job training in small units, with processes to check
the quality of work done,” says Meigh.

The
induction programme was launched in 1996 and last year 14 eight-week programmes
were delivered covering 88 new staff.

Following
the induction period trainees are evaluated in areas such as productivity and
accuracy rates and their standards compared with existing staff. Last year
trainees reached productivity levels of 78 per cent against a departmental
average of 85 per cent.

As
part of the induction, trainers look at the individual’s previous experience.
As school leavers, they are unlikely to have any technical knowledge, says Meigh,
but they may have other knowledge that can be used.

“For
example, someone may have had a Saturday job in a shop, where they could have
developed customer care skills that could come in useful,” she says.

Trainees
fill in course evaluation questionnaires at the end of the induction and sit
down with the trainer to discuss their progress. This is followed by periodic
discussions with their team leader on how the training has helped them, what
areas may still need attention and what their targets are.

Stream
of information

“Staff
have quarterly appraisals, which are a key part of performance management and
also a forum to discuss training,” says Meigh.

“These
appraisals provide a steady stream of information on skills gaps within the
organisation.”

She
continues, “We have been able to show that having such an effective induction
programme in place is much more cost effective than hiring experienced staff
from outside.”

Mark
Collier agrees. “We can hire a senior claims handler on £15,000 to £18,000 and
perhaps end up with someone a bit blasé but Lisa can bring in a school leaver
earning £9,000 and in three years they will be on £14,000.

“As
a result I’m saving on salaries and getting a better result than poaching from
someone like Direct Line. In fact I was talking to a competitor’s executive who
said they like to hire from us because our staff are so well trained.”

One
of the strengths of Provident Insurance’s training strategy, says Meigh, is
that the six full-time trainers have operational experience.

Meigh
had several years’ experience in insurance and arrived at Provident as a team
leader before going into training.

“When
I’m delivering technical training, people know that I’m familiar with the
operational side and that gives me credibility.”

Although
the company received Investors in People accreditation in 1994, Collier says
the initial exercise was somewhat “mechanistic”.

“I
felt the organisation had ticked a lot of boxes to get IIP accreditation but
that it had not really led to a culture of continuous improvement or commercial
effectiveness.”

Since
then the company has built up its in-house training department and decided to
use the IIP assessment framework to improve its training strategy, opting for
yearly assessments instead of every three years.

“Each
year the assessor tells us we have improved but that there are still areas
where we could do more and it’s great to get that guidance,” says Meigh.

Mark
Collier says, “The commitment to yearly assessment is part of our culture of
benchmarking and seeking external input, not just in training but other areas
too.

Throwing
doors open

“We
are big believers in throwing our doors open to outsiders to get their views,
which is partly why we entered the TD2000 competition.”

Kearns
says, “Provident seem to have made a real commitment to the ideals of IIP,
shown by their commitment to yearly assessment, and don’t just see it as a
badge.”

As
well as general training, Provident has implemented programmes to address
specific challenges.

One
has been a strategy to convert policy holders who have been involved in
collisions to low-cost hire rather than expensive credit hire vehicles.

A
series of workshops were held last year for claims handlers who work on the
claims helpline, backed up by one-to-one coaching. This has led to estimated
savings of £1.2m.

Another
training initiative tackled reducing error rates made by staff in claims.

A
series of “Right First Time” presentations were delivered to staff, supported
by monthly audits to evaluate success and one-to-one feedback. This programme
has saved an estimated annual £640,000 in reduced claims errors.

As
well as its strong focus on training, the company, which is non-unionised, has
made a major effort to build up its internal communications, which Collier sees
as essential in feeding into the identification of training needs.

Climate
surveys

The
company carries out regular “climate surveys” of staff as well as
communications days in which a board member briefs staff on particular business
initiatives and takes questions.

“Good
communications and getting feedback from staff is a hard area to get right and
we are constantly looking at new ways to get staff input,” says Collier. “We
have found that monthly briefing meetings by team leaders are environments where
people are often willing to speak up.”

Crucially,
the culture of training and development does not peter out before reaching the
higher levels of the organisation, says Mark Collier.

“We
see it as very important, from the top down. Of the five directors, two have
MBAs and a further two are studying for MBAs.”

Kearns
notes, “I was very impressed to hear the views of the chairman on training and
the fact that when he attends board meetings he comes with a clutch of personal
development plans for senior people.”

The
TD2000 Award was organised by Training and the Industrial Society, and
sponsored by Raytheon Training.

By
Patrick McCurry

Comments are closed.