Actually put Customers first instead of just saying it.

How often have you heard senior managers say “we put the Customer at the heart of everything we do”? Actually, for me, many times throughout my 15 year banking career.


Sometimes those senior managers actually mean it but more often than not, it’s just words.  And for People on the frontline who deliver the Customer experience, that sentiment is likely to be far from reality...no matter how much they want to go the extra mile.

In the UK, the financial services industry was driven hard by its regulator to provide a ‘fair outcome’ for all Customers.  However, fair outcomes are not always what the Customer wants.  In retail banking the best example of this is introductory rates on savings accounts.  Customers were drawn in by the attractive first year rate and would then end up on a derisory rate if they forget to move their savings.  This happened millions of times but it was fair because the Customers got exactly what they were told, even when it was no longer good for them.

At HomeServe, we decided to work to a higher standard; we decided to work towards good outcomes, not just fair outcomes.  It was a concept that our internal Compliance team at the time just could not grasp and the Finance guys were in the same place.  “We should just follow the terms of the Customer’s policy and leave it at that”, they said.  They felt that insurance terms are legally clear and any variance case to case causes potential unfairness if rules are not applied universally.  They felt a variance for one Customer based on information provided by that Customer could be unfair to people in similar situations even if we had no way of knowing those other situations.  Essentially we should give the minimum to everyone.

Staying only within the terms sounds okay but in the real world things are a bit more complicated.  How can you expect your People to really own the Customer experience when they often have to tell someone “computer says no” even when they don’t agree?

For clarity HomeServe UK is a Home Assistance company.  We provide Customers with cover for unexpected repairs they might need to mostly their plumbing, electrics, or heating.  We also provide the engineer or tradesperson who completes the repair and in the majority of cases a woman or man in a HomeServe van will turn up, over 2,000 times a day, every day across Great Britain.  In 96% of cases the repairs are done the same day and go off without any issues.  When it is a straightforward claim within the policy then it is simple.  What happens though when it isn’t straight forward? What happens when the Customer is not insured according to the terms but the front line person wants to help them because they have been loyal or are vulnerable?  How do you empower People to make that decision?

I can remember sitting in my office with a group of leaders and asking that very question.  My career had been spent at two global banking giants and the one thing that I had learned in companies like that was nothing was simple.  HomeServe UK has about 2,500 People so it is a large business but is also small enough to be manageable.  We decided that we would just ask our People to send us examples of Customer issues they’d like help resolving or processes that needed improving.

The idea sounded simple.  Our People would send us a request by email, voicemail or Yammer and we’d deal with that request.  We didn’t know how it would play out but actually, it was something that our People wanted. Really wanted.

We called the idea CustomerFirst and I launched it in person speaking to small groups across our three sites in Banbury, Preston and Walsall over the course of a week.  I thought it was important to personally invite the staff to interact with us in a new way.  Before we started I asked our CEO, Martin, if we could give it a go and he simply asked what I needed.  I suggested £100k annually to fund out-of-policy repairs although it might take more.  He said to go for it.

We’ve ended up getting about 15 submissions a day.  We review the request at an 8:30am meeting attended by volunteers from across the business.  It has grown to be a four site video conference attended by on average 40 People, from all parts of our business, Monday through Friday.

Martin and the other execs have reinforced the CustomerFirst message consistently over the past 18 months and CustomerFirst is now part of the fabric of our business.  It allows our front-line People to really own the Customer experience.

Here are a few of my favourite stories: 

  • Mrs Bishop, a loyal Customer of 17 years, wrote us a letter explaining she had to cancel her policy.  She’d had a bad fall which led to a fractured spine.  Mrs Bishop is 95 years old and following the fall had the added expense of paying someone to come to her home to do her housework and could therefore no longer afford to continue the cover.  She was grateful for our assistance over the years and feared not having us to assist her anymore but just can’t afford the cover.  The staff member who processed the cancellation wrote to CustomerFirst asking if we could do something to help.  We gave her a free policy based on her tenure with us and current circumstances.
  • A Customer passed away earlier this year and his widow, struggling financially after his death, decided to cancel  the policy they had held for 15 years.  She subsequently had a gas leak and National Grid isolated her supply leaving her without heat or hot water.  She called HomeServe because she had no funds to repair the problem and we had helped in the past.  The agent on the phone wanted to help and suggested we fund the repair with the Hardship Fund.  We did.
  • Our plumber went to a house to repair a leaky pipe for an elderly Customer who lives alone.  The plumber discovered the Customer had not had a working boiler for 10 years and would wash with a kettle in the sink. This gentleman could not afford to pay the cost of a new boiler.  Although the Customer had been with us only a few months on a £1 per month introductory policy, the plumber felt we should install an electric shower.  A job was raised and this was paid for from the Hardship Fund.
  • An elderly HS Customer could not go upstairs to bed as his stair-lift stopped working.  The Customer had electrics cover but the fault was with the lift not his socket.  The Customer could not afford a repair so the agent owned it and requested a Hardship Fund repair.  As the problem occurred late in the evening the team manager took the Customer’s number and called him from home to confirm that the repair had been done.
  • A plumber went out to attend a property to find water covering the bathroom floor, he checked all pipe work and found no leaks.  The Customer’s husband suffers from Dementia. The plumber felt the shower needed a screen similar to a disabled shower.  Our plumber and two of his colleagues attended on their day off to fit a new screen and the Hardship Fund paid for the parts.

It is very easy to give a few examples but our People are doing this every day and in a big way. 

The Hardship Fund has been in place since February 2014 and has been used by our People 1,182 times spending a total of £171k to help our Customers when computer says no. Real things for Customers who need our help, things that make their lives a little easier.

Plus, our People are telling us that they feel more empowered than they have ever been and we’ve also had lots of great business improvement ideas, many of which we have already implemented. But those are stories for another day...

If you want to read more about our journey, here are some of our earlier posts.