Face value

HR has a crucial role to play in making an organisation morecustomer-facing.
Roisin Woolnough finds out how three companies are putting this into practice

Look after your staff and they will look after your customers. That is the
opinion of Linda Holbeche, director of research at management institute Roffey
Park. "There is a very clear link between giving customers what they want
and employee satisfaction," she says. "Good people practices do make
a difference to employee results and stuff around work-life balance is
increasingly important."

A recent government-sponsored survey into work-life balance found that
flexible working hours are more important than money for nearly a third of
people looking for a new job. HR is pivotal to the implementation and success
of employee-friendly practices such as flexible working. With good people
policies, employee motivation, productivity and loyalty increase and they find
it easier to believe in the values and strategies companies espouse.

"Dissatisfied and overworked employees lack people skills and empathy
with customers," says Max McKeown, corporate activist. "People do not
treat customers well in this situation. The most important thing you can do to
customers is to listen, but people will only listen if they are listened

Employee satisfaction also makes a significant difference to recruitment and
retention levels, making it easier for companies to hold onto key staff. By
being able to retain a significant number of your workforce for long periods of
time, customer satisfaction is almost always improved because they are dealing
with people who know the company and the product and have the knowledge and
experience to sort out any queries.

At the end of the day, any initiatives that empower employees to do their
job more efficiently, and in a way that suits them, is going to have a positive
effect on a company’s bottom line. Personnel Today has interviewed three
companies who feel that their people policies have had a direct impact on the
productivity and profitability of their organisations.

Alliance & Leicester

A few years ago, Alliance & Leicester had a poor customer service
record. Since overhauling its strategy and processes in 2000, it has won a
Which? award for being one of the best service providers among the high street

The company introduced a company-wide training programme called Valuing
Individual People, including a two-day course called Delivering Service
Excellence. "We talked about the company’s strategy, what it meant and
practical tools in how to support customers," says Paul Wildes, head of HR
service delivery. "That training cost us about £4.3m."

Several schemes were specifically introduced to improve customer focus.
"The first is Customer Service Champions, when people nominate colleagues
who are constantly providing an excellent service," continues Wildes. Each
quarter, four employees are sent to Disneyland Paris or Walt Disney World in
Florida for a week, where they receive training in customer service skills.
"It gives people a different perspective and a reward," says Wildes.

The company also runs more widespread, small-scale awards called Gems –
Going the Extra Mile. The award might take the form of a bottle of champagne,
for example. "It’s about giving people recognition," says Wildes.
"It is low cost, but it encourages people to adopt the right behaviour,
and that recognition of the manager saying thank you is very powerful."

Recently, the company has extended its bonus scheme so that it is not only
linked to sales, but also to customer service as well. In order to really
hammer home the concept of customer service, Alliance & Leicester asks
employees to take note of how people in other organisations and professions
operate. They are encouraged to approach anyone they think is providing
excellent customer service – it could be someone who works in a hotel or in a
shop, for example – and invite them to join Alliance & Leicester. It is
called the Talent Spotting Scheme.

"We have given staff introduction cards to pass on to people who are
excellent at service. It makes people think about what differentiates in terms
of excellence. It also saves us recruitment costs and because there is a
payment of up to £750 for the introducer, it gives employees extra money,"
says Wildes.

In 2002, 350 new recruits joined the company through this scheme.

The HR department runs regular staff opinion surveys and, according to
Wildes, they show that all these schemes are paying off. "One of the
questions we ask is: ‘The way I work is driven by customer needs’. Last time,
there was 82 per cent positive agreement from staff to that statement. In 2002,
it was 75 per cent."

The company has also introduced a raft of employee-friendly policies.
"There are a range of flexible benefits, such as offering all staff the
opportunity to buy and sell holidays. In 2002, 20 per cent of employees chose
to do this. We have introduced things such as childcare vouchers as well,"
adds Wildes.

Wildes believes that by creating a happier workforce, attrition rates and,
therefore, customer service rates, are improved. "There is the traditional
measurable – staff turnover," he says. "Our attrition rates are
running at just below 10 per cent, which is a decline from 14.5 per cent in 2000.
That has true bottom line impact."

Key points

– Rolled out a £4.3m training package across the whole
workforce, including a programme called Delivering Service Excellence Customer
Service Champions – an award and extra training for customer-focused employees

– Gems – smaller awards for employees providing good customer

– Talent Spotting Scheme – employees are encouraged to look for
external examples of good customer service and invite those people to join
Alliance & Leicester

About the company

Number of employees: 6,262 full-time and 3,039 part-time

Operating income: £1.34bn

Attrition rates: just below 10 per cent


First Direct

The vast majority of First Direct employees think they treat customers very
well. According to the Sunday Times 100 best companies to work for survey,
First Direct ranks fourth in the category of ‘Best for treating customers
well’, with 93 per cent of employees saying the company has a strong customer-focused

Fiona Sweeting, head of organisational development at First Direct, says the
company’s excellent customer service records are largely to do with the way the
company treats its own staff.

"Our whole approach is to treat people as individuals, not as a
headcount, and the way we do that directly translates into the way our
representatives treat customers as individuals. Hence, our customer
satisfaction rates and customer recommendation levels are among the highest of
any bank, and have been for the past 10 years."

A customer satisfaction 2002-2003 poll of the financial services sector
conducted by Mori put First Direct substantially higher than its competitors.

The company came in at number 36 on the Sunday Times survey, with almost
four in five employees saying they feel they make a valuable contribution to
its success, that they are proud to work for the company, and that the managers
trust their judgement.

The company has done a lot of work in the last 12 months to improve attrition
levels in its call centre. "In August 2000, our overall business attrition
was 20 per cent, which is more than acceptable by call centre standards, but we
were concerned that the trend had been rising," says Sweeting. "So we
put in place a range of people policies to address this. These proved so
successful, that by the end of 2002, our overall attrition was 12.5 per

These policies included bringing recruitment back in-house and producing a
video to demonstrate the core customer representative role. Another tier was
introduced to pay scales to reward and keep hold of key staff.

"We introduced premier pay rates to retain high-performing long
servers, and introduced total pay statements to demonstrate total value of
package," says Sweeting.

But one of the most important drivers, according to Sweeting, has been the
emphasis on treating staff as individuals. "We are running an Employer of
Choice scheme at the moment," she says. "We asked people what they
would like to see improved in the company, which brought about the introduction
of an onsite concierge service and aromatherapist. As a result of feedback, we
have also introduced better long service awards."

Flexible working is encouraged, where possible. A lot of people work a
four-day week and many start work at 9.30am to allow time for dropping children
off at school.

"There are lots of local, individual, flexible working patterns, which
gives staff the feeling that they can be in control of their work-life
balance," Sweeting says. "For example, I work four days a week by
choice, one day of which is at home. It is an informal arrangement with my

Sweeting feels this flexible working emphasis is key to the company’s
success. "If we treat people as individuals, we get better staff satisfaction,
which translates into better customer satisfaction," she says.

Key points

– Fourth in category ‘Best for treating customers well’ in the
Sunday Times 100 best companies to work for survey

– Improved call centre retention by introducing pay reward packages
for high-performing staff

– Introduced a concierge service and aromatherapist on feedback
from staff

– Encourages flexible working

About the company

An internet and telephone banking company, First Direct is a
subdivision of HSBC

Number of staff: 3,700

Annual sales: £235m

Attrition rates: 12.5 per cent



The supermarket chain Asda was singled out in the Sunday Times 100 best
companies to work for as the number one company in terms of flexible working. It
has always been in the survey’s top 10, although it has slipped from the number
one position last year to number seven this year.

David Smith, people director at Asda, says the company’s motto is ‘Just say
yes to flexibility’. "Most of our flexible working ideas have come from
staff and they are motivated by having some control over their
workplace."He says the schemes have resulted in increased loyalty from
staff, better attendance and attrition levels and a happier workforce, all of
which translate into better customer service.

In the AC Nielsen Homescan Attitudes to Retailers 2002 survey, Asda came
first for the second year running, with top ratings for customer service.

Smith says flexible working schemes and family-friendly policies are crucial
to this success, which is reflected by the fact that 81 per cent of Asda
employees say they love their place of work.

All staff can jobshare and 62 per cent work part-time. And as many are
mothers – 85 per cent of the workforce is female – several initiatives have
been introduced to improve work-life balance.

A popular scheme is the informal in-store shift scheme, whereby teams share
telephone numbers and can arrange to swap shifts independent of their managers.

If someone’s child falls sick, for instance, and they need to care for them
at home, they can ring colleagues to see who could swap shifts rather than
calling in sick.

Smith says this breeds greater loyalty in staff and greatly improves
customer services satisfaction because it keeps absence levels down. "It
provides a service to the customer because the overall team is there. That
informal policy, when people sort it out themselves, has become a strong part
of our culture."

Another scheme is First Day, Half Day, whereby mums can take half of the first
day of school off (unpaid) so that they can take their children in.

Asda takes a lot of pride in its family-friendly policies and, in
particular, its attitudes towards older workers. The largest employer of
over-50s in the UK, the company launched a big drive last year to increase the
number of staff aged over 50 from 16 per cent to 20 per cent.

According to Smith, achieving that target has resulted in lower attrition
rates (reduced by 0.5 per cent), lower sickness rates and improved customer

Workers over 50 are often employed as greeters in the store. Many of them
have brought families up themselves, and Smith says this makes them well placed
to help customers with their needs.

Grandparents can take up to a week’s leave on the birth of a new grandchild,
plus there is also carers leave, when they can take up to three-months unpaid
leave. In addition, there is Benidorm leave, when over-50s can take three
months off to simply go on holiday.

Smith says these initiatives encourage continuity of service and loyalty and
that in an industry where most staff are dealing directly with customers all
day, that has a big impact upon the experience customers have in the stores.

Key points

– Largest employer of over-50s in the UK – 20 per cent

– Number one for flexible working in Sunday Times 100 best
companies to work for survey

– Informal shift-swapping system

– Family-friendly policies, such as grandparent leave

– Top for customer service in AC Nielsen Homescan Attitude to
Retailers 2002survey

About the company

Number of staff: 180,000

Walmart International (of which Asda is a part) annual sales:
£25.8bn ($40.7bn)

Attrition rates: 29 per cent


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