“People, Customers, Shareholders”. I can remember our CEO, Martin, sending a company-wide announcement with these three words as the title. Here is an excerpt from that message: "In my experience, big businesses like ours are vibrant communities with words and phrases that are unique to them. Their own language if you like. And today I’m suggesting a couple of changes to our language, changes that I believe will re-enforce our key commitment to put our front-line first. From now on, I would like us to refer to ourselves as People, always with a capital ‘P’. And to complement this, when we use the word “Customers”, that too should always be with a capital.”
His message supported one of my favourite sayings: “Take care of your People so they can take care of the Customer and the rest takes care of itself.” I learned this sentiment from my 15 years at mbna. It was strong in the culture when I began there but started to wane after the takeover by Bank of America. That isn’t a whinge, it is just a fact. We were part of a new culture and needed to let the past go. I watched that happen slowly over my last five years with the company and by the time I left a popular sentiment was that the ‘old mbna’ was officially gone. And now that BAC is selling off two of the iconic mbna headquarters buildings in Wilmington DE, and it has sold mbna in Chester to Lloyds, it’s probably fair to say the game really is up.
I never realised how important the ethos I was exposed to at mbna was to me until I left and spent two frustrating years at RBS (which to be fair is a better business than you may think and is filled with good People trying to do the right things). One thing was certain when I was there though - you could not take care of your People, or at least not in the way I expected.
Then one day HomeServe turned up and I got a chance to do it all again, but better. My boss, Martin, and a few key senior members of my team, put a forward-looking 2020 Strategy together which we called Effortless. Martin wanted to continue to change the culture from sales-focused to Customer-centric. I felt that you could only do that by putting the Frontline first, and it didn’t take any convincing; we were off and running. The last few years have been amazing as we watched the People in our business change it to something better, something with a purpose. It is a mistake though to think it is just a copy of what we had at mbna before the take over by BAC. It is very different.
There will never be another company like mbna. If you didn’t work there you will never understand. I can fill pages of reasons. My son, Jacob, turns 18 soon and will be able to cash his $2,500 savings bond they gave me when he was born. The other kids will get theirs in a few years. When my little brother died mbna provided cars for the procession and paid for the lunch reception after the funeral. They didn’t rush me back to work and provided support when I did get back. And at the time, I was a very junior employee. The offices were indescribably nice considering they were not located in the City of London or some other glamorous location. The food was great, we had dry cleaners on site, and of course a free state of the art gym that I seem to remember cost £10m to build. We had brilliant original artwork on the walls and plenty of collaboration space for people to meet before that was a thing. They poured money into the local communities and you could not go far without seeing a plaque thanking the People of mbna for their contribution. Advancement was a given since we were always growing so fast. I would say that in a nut-shell that you felt taken care of by the company, that mbna was looking out for you. It was a very well done paternalistic culture.
I cherished my time in that environment but we have not tried to recreate that at HomeServe. We have a fun culture with Halloween fairs in the car park and music festivals on campus but fun isn’t the reason we were named one of the top three places to work in the UK by Glassdoor. We have a nice office but it is nothing like we had at mbna. We have good benefits but nothing like we had at mbna. The big difference is we have empowered the staff at all levels to do the right thing. This can only be done if you set up a democratic style of leadership where our People take part. Communication in both directions is required to make this happen as well as a healthy dose of trust. You can’t just say we trust you and then walk away.
We put in a mechanism called CustomerFirst which has allowed our Frontline to go above and beyond when doing their job if they felt it appropriate. They have spent nearly £500k on Customers they wanted to help. We top that type of base level trust off by communicating in a way that involves intense participation from the management team and Frontline. The biggest symbol of this is making the executive team available to the Frontline. This squashes the hierarchy and pushes home the point that everyone is important. We don’t have offices for managers and I have what seems like an endless series of 1-2-1s with our Frontline People so they can tell me exactly what is on their mind or what they need. Martin and the other execs do similar things but in their own way. This creates an environment where if computer says no our People can decide on their own to say yes.
MBNA had ‘Think of Yourself as a Customer’ printed above every single door. It was a powerful statement of intent and a constant reminder that the Customer was boss. They were the first 24-hour bank and in the days before digital they had changeable letter boards on the walls that were updated manually with the latest Customer metrics we were all striving to hit. You could submit what they called a MasterPiece if you wanted to make an improvement. Looking back now it was all a bit slow. It was a different time though. They did understand that great service would lead to a loyalty advantage before others. I do think towards the end we began to worry a lot about what the Ts&Cs said instead of what the Customer expected. This led to a lot of times when the Frontline person followed the process but if it had been up to them they would have done something different. It caused a good bit of friction.
HomeServe is a much more complex business. We send an expert to fix things in a Customer’s home when those things break – this year, we’ll do this over a million times. Most of our products are delivered through an insurance policy so we have to follow through on the financial regulations. People really don’t like financial service firms these days and all of us are worried about rogue traders in our home. We sit at the nexus of that natural angst. We realised that as a discretionary insurance, we had better make the product work to expectations. This meant we’ve doubled our claims rate over the past few years. We want all our processes to run smoothly but what we really want is when the process goes as expected but the Customer is unhappy that our Frontline is able to fix it for the Customer. This means going further than the terms to do what they think is right. This is an aspiration not a destination but we inch closer all the time.
HomeServe plc is made up of a lot of parts but the UK is critical. I’d like to think that our over 100% stock growth the past three years is in a big part down to how we treat our People and our Customers, something that’s also being acknowledged now by the analysts who follow us.
Take care of your People so they can take care of the Customer and the rest takes care of itself.