It was not easy. Martin, our CEO, and the rest of his executive team introduced the new strategy to groups of about 100 and repeated that presentation 20 times at three different locations across the UK. Martin insisted that every person in the company got the same message told by the same People. He wanted us all to have the same understanding of what we we were trying to achieve and our efforts certainly paid off. In our most recent annual engagement survey, over 90% of our People responded, which is not bad for a business where a big chunk of the 2,500 are on the road. And, incredibly, 94% of them said they understood what we are trying to achieve. 94%. But actually, that isn’t the point of my story because, for me, the real story lies in not what we told them in those sessions, but actually what they told us.
We judge the success of each cascade session we had undertaken not on the performances of the speakers and their ability to engage the audience but actually on the success of the Q&A sessions at the end. If it is lively, then we know we have hit the mark. John Greaves, our Brand Director, leads the sessions brilliantly as we never run out of challenging questions. Questions asked in front of a large group of People and directly to the execs. We’ve had four cascade series now, just shy of 80 different events, and every single Q&A tells us something unexpected.
In the first cascade we introduced our strategy and highlighted that we wanted to make it easy for Customers and stressed that People were empowered to go beyond what the Customer had paid for if they felt it was the right thing to do. We never wanted “computer said no” to be an outcome for People or Customers.
Our People got it as soon as we said it. I know now that given our history including a record £30m fine from the FCA and how badly senior management had broken People’s trust that they wanted to test us before buying this new story.
If you remember we are a Home Assistance business. We essentially insure your plumbing, heating, and electrics if something goes wrong. We then send a nice man in a red van out to sort it for you. The staff had questions about another part of our business. We also had a claim handling and repair business where other people provide the insurance policy but when something goes wrong we take the call and send someone to fix it. This would generally be the type of cover you get included with a packaged account or as a home insurance add-on. The trouble with this type of cover is in general it isn’t very good. Many of the banks and insurance companies that sell it often hope you forget about it or if you do go to use it they load the contract with ways to limit their cost. One big bank had an exclusion that said they would only repair your boiler in the winter and my favourite was one insurance company who would not unblock your toilet if you had a second toilet in the home. They generally also limited the number of claims and the conservatively capped the costs they would pay.
These were not our policies but often our staff had to deliver the bad news. We had contracts with six of the largest financial services firms in the UK to provide the service for these policies (actually fixing the problem). It was a small part of our business but something that still generated over £1m annually in profit for us.
So at the first cascades after we said "tell us what matters to you" our People called us out. They asked if we really care about Customers then why do we work with other companies' “thin products”? Martin and I thought they had a very good point. We decided to walk the talk or however that saying goes.
And so I can remember the day now in the spring of 2014 when my Partnership Director lined up six termination notices on my conference table. I also remember saying to him “This is weird, I’ve never signed away over a million pounds”, but that is exactly what I did with Martin and the board’s support. My team notified the partners and dropped the letters in the mail. Six of the largest financial services firms in the UK were in for a shock.
Then the calls started. They were really not happy. When we had our trouble in 2011 a few of these companies considered leaving but stood by us and now we were leaving them. We told them why and I’ll quote Martin “These products are not rich enough”. Four of them went right away and found someone else to help them. One of them held on a bit in order to find the right supplier. We helped them and then they even asked us to tender explaining that they were a top three insurer. I had the pleasure of terminating their contract a second time as they just didn’t get it and probably never will.
The most interesting thing occurred though when one very large insurer actually took the time and asked us what we meant by a thin product. We explained our effortless strategy and how, even though their product was clearly disclosed, we felt that it did not meet our standards, the standards we wanted for Customers. They listened. They asked for us to share with them where we had issues with their policy. This is something we’d tried before but the termination letter focused their minds and moved the discussion from their supplier managers into the heart of their product team. The product team got it immediately. They agreed a programme to enrich the product for their Customers and the partners that they manage.
I won’t name this partner but it goes without saying that telling them we would no longer do business with them based on clear feedback from our People and our Customers started an exciting new chapter for both companies. We are now going to launch a new product with them and they are supporting our business in other ways as well. They will be by far our largest affinity partner when we launch a rich full product with them next year. It is now a great corporate relationship based on honest feedback and a mutual respect for Customers. This relationship turnaround makes me extremely proud as it was pushed forward by listening to our People and ignoring the short term profit hit to stay on strategy.
This whole exercise was a risk - and probably not one that would have been taken by our company in a previous life - but we're in a different place now. Although we're learning as we go, making decisions based on our strategy and our desire to do the right thing feels good.
And the best learning of all? Listen to your People. They are smarter than you.