Louise Beardmore’s focus on creating a happy workplace at United Utilities has increased employee engagement levels by 91% and reduced written customer complaints by 50% in the last year. In this 36-minute video from the 2017 Happy Workplaces Conference, Louise explains some of the things she has put into place, such as Tell Me, that have helped to make this happen.
Here is a full transcript of her talk.
Hello. Good morning. You are one of my customers.
I am probably the only one person who is going to stand in front of you today and say quite proudly, poo is what we do, but it is and we are very passionate about it.
United Utilities provide water and waste water services to seven million customers who are in the North West. What I say is that is a service people pretty much take for granted until something happens. Because actually it is an essential service. It’s something that we all need 24 hours a day and we are the only FTSE 100 business who are actually based in the North West and we are really quite proud of that, and proud of that heritage. We do a huge amount in terms of infrastructure, such as a £5 billion programme over the next four years alone to build lots of pipes.
I describe the business as falling into two halves really. Pipes and people. For all the pipes that we have in the world, and for all of the IT and all the technology and all the things that go into delivering a safe and wholesome water supply, and taking away and treating it, the delivery all depends on people.
So I just want to talk to you a little bit about me. I spent my early career in customer services. We had a new Chief Executive and a new HR Director who came to one of my sites. It was a site in the North of England with 1,000 employees and I said ‘it’s great that you are here, and if I were you, there are all the things I would change about HR’. They said, ‘have you ever thought about going into HR?’ I said ‘absolutely not! I am an ops person, what would I want to do in HR?’
By the end of that week I had been persuaded to move into HR and the agreement was I was going to go for 12 months. I stayed eight years. I am now a Fellow of the CIPD and actually feel very, very proud of the fact that I consider myself to be an HR person, previously the HR Director, and a customer person. That is because it all comes down to people.
What do you know about your employees?
What really surprised me when I turned up in HR was actually how much or how little we knew about our employees.
I know everything about my customers. I know when you go to the toilet, literally. I know what you watch on the TV because I know when you finish watching that on the TV I can see the demand go up for water. I know where you shop. I know everything about you.
When I arrived in the HR department with my fellow HR colleagues I said ‘what do we know about our employees?’ They said well we have 6,500 of them, they are all quite an aged population. I said is that it? Is that all the information? What really surprised me is we had lots of really good-willed HR people that didn’t really understand people. So I said let’s think about this thing called engagement. I said what does out latest employee engagement survey say? They said, oh we haven’t had a really good response, they don’t like filling it in. I said oh right, have we asked why? And we have some really great reward scheme and propositions and they are not taking those up either – have we asked why? They said yes, they just don’t want to engage with it.
So I took the new HR team on a minibus to a wastewater treatment plant at 6am because actually, that’s where my people are. I brought them to the team in the mess room, previous lads that I’ve managed, where a spade is a spade – literally – and I said, ‘what do you think about our new services in terms of being able to buy holidays or healthcare?’ They didn’t know what I was talking about. The HR team said ‘but we’ve told them’. I asked how we have told them? They said we’ve emailed them.
You don’t work in a sewer all day because you have a high level of literacy – and when you have finished working in the sewer all day, you don’t come up out of the sewer covered in poo and think yippee, I will now clean off and go and read that fabulous email that HR have just sent me. So our basic problem was a bit like customer services. You can have all the best propositions in the world, but if they are not landing with your audience then you’re not making an impact.
Employee engagement: You know it when you see it
I got involved with David McLeod and Nita Clarke and Engage for Success. About six years ago the government at that point recognised that employee engagement was hugely important.
People often say to me ‘what is employee engagement?’ and there are more definitions than hot dinners. I always say to people you know it when you see it. When you think about your team and people say we need a survey to work out employee engagement and I say a survey is the last thing you really need. If you get your people in a team and you line up 1-10 of who is the most engaged and who is the most disengaged you don’t need a survey to tell you. You also don’t need to have a survey to tell you what is the differential in their performance.
The UK government at the time identified that there was a difference between the levels of engagement between UK PLC as a whole and of the rest of the world. If you were making an investment decision would you really decide to open your new factory, your new product line here in the UK, where actually as a nation, we’re pretty disengaged? Or would you choose to go somewhere else?
I have spent a long time working in India. I once got on a plane having convinced my board that I was going down to close a load of operations in India because they didn’t work and they were dreadful. The board had agreed to it, and so I got on a plane and off I went and within 24 hours I realised I had made the biggest mistake of my life. These were the most engaged, switched on people. The difference is I have not managed them properly. I came home and said I didn’t shut it down, I actually extended it for another five years and it was an interesting conversation. The difference was I could feel that level of engagement.
Why is employee engagement important?
The whole pressures that we are under right now are significant. This whole short-termism and cost pressures, rapid changes in technology, increasingly diverse customers and employees. We are not all the same. Actually people want to be empowered and we want a meaning and a purpose for work. So back to that ‘work doesn’t have to be shit.com’ because who wants to go to a place every day where we are not happy?
Why care about engagement? Why should our government care about the levels of engagement?
Well we know that if engagement improves, productivity improves and we are able to compete and we are able to grow. This isn’t just a workplace issue or a personal issue, this is a UK PLC issue.
The whole command and control environment has gone. When I think about when I joined work over 20 years ago it is now a very, very different type of environment. People want to be respected, valued, heard. I am not going to do what you tell me to do. I want you to treat me like a human being. I think human resources is the worst name in the world for HR. Human resources, human remains. I am a human being. Don’t call me a human resource. Stop counting and make me count. I love that.
How are we treating people as individuals? For many and for the employee, we know that when people are disengaged there is low well being. There is higher sickness, there is higher attrition and no trust. ‘I don’t trust you; I don’t trust you as a senior leader to take me in the right direction, to inspire me to transform this business.’ And if we look about there is low confidence, low ownership, less innovation, less efficiency. We have all worked for somebody, and it’s that old adage, people don’t leave organisations, they leave line managers. Hands up if you have ever worked for a horrendous line manager? I hated mine with a passion. I am the most motivated, committed individual in the world but if he had said we were doing this, I would have done the opposite just to spite him. He had no values at all and I nearly left the business that I love as a result. So if you think about your own productivity and how it’s impacted, it’s huge.
We have a choice. We can either squeeze and control and monitor and think that is the answer as to how we get better productivity and better outcome, or we can inspire, we can respect and we can trust and that is a very different management style. We move from people are the problem, to people are the solution.
The four behaviours of highly engaged organisations
When we started working with Engage for Success, we went out across the country. We looked at lots and lots of organisations and we said what is it about those organisations where actually it doesn’t matter what the sector, it doesn’t matter what the product, it doesn’t matter the demographic of the customer of the employee base – what is it that those organisations do? Practically what is the help therefore that we can give to everybody else?
There were four things, and only four things, and they have not changed over the last six years.
1. Clear Strategic Narrative
Firstly, they have a clear strategic narrative. That is a bit, and I know it’s not ladylike, but that is HR bollocks. Do I know where I am going and where I fit in? Because if I don’t, I can come here every day but if I don’t know where I am going, what you want of me or what the purpose is then I am wasting my time because actually I am just here transacting. So are your employees clear, and is it clear to everybody? Have you translated it regardless of the role that people do?
2. Engaging Line Managers
The second one is engaging line managers. It didn’t matter where we went, the quality of the relationship with the line manager is the most important thing.
I have a team in my business, they are called vactor services. This won’t mean anything to you but I will describe their job. Their job is, we have sewers, they are very large, bigger than me and some of them are industrial sewers. Sometimes they get blocked. I am not talking about something you can give a bit of a rod to. They get blocked. Big scale blockages. This team get fully tooled up with all their gas masks and equipment and they enter those horrendous sewers. When we talk about terrible jobs, I don’t think it gets any worse than that. Their employee engagement results year on year for the last six years have been 100%. The difference? They work for the most inspiring, fantastic individual who would make me want to get into a sewer every day.
We had a very interesting moment where we decided to let a BBC TV crew accompany our workforce. This was a really interesting conversation with my Board. I said I think we have a great culture, we haven’t anything to hide, the BBC want to come and do a documentary about a water company and everyone has said no but I think we should do it. They are going to follow our employees around for 6 months. They said are we going to choose which employees? I said not really. What editing rights do we have? Not a lot. You can imagine. So we had to have a few goes at this conversation and it was an amazing programme. There was one minute where I thought this has backfired and I am about to get sacked, where they here with the vactor services team and the BBC producer said to this guy, who was fully tooled up – what is it that makes you want to do this job every day? He looked really straight into the camera and he said, “well mate, it’s quite simple really. As long as you have a hole in your arse I will have a job.” My chairman looked at me and I said “well, it’s true!”
3. Employee voice
The next one is about employee voice. How strong is your employee voice in your organisation? I don’t mean that you run a survey. If you are relying on a bloody survey to understand your employee voice then pack up and go home now!
I talk about three really simple things: What are people seeing? What are they feeling? What are they hearing? You don’t need any survey to tell you that. Actually how close is that? Who is the person holding up the mirror to the Board to say actually what they are hearing is you saying money is tight, we’ve got these problems, and what they are seeing is the sales team have all rocked up in shiny new BMW’s. What are you seeing? What are you feeling? What are you hearing? But how strong are you hearing that employee voice?
The other one which is really, really important is integrity. I always talk about this as the words and the music. For example – ‘it is really important round here that we do X. We all have the values on the wall, like they make a difference, and what is really important round here is customer service or teamwork – but you know what, when we have a problem I won’t be here at the weekend or on Christmas Day but I need you all to be.’
People see through integrity. Integrity is like a window. If the words and the music don’t match then you are wasting your time. If you have examples in your organisation where you say one thing but do another, that is your biggest problem about engagement and more importantly disengagement. People will see it, they will be talking about it and it will be magnified.
Behaviours are explicit. People come into my office quite a lot and they go ‘what we need Louise is a new culture’. I find this quite an entertaining conversation. I go ‘hold on a minute’ and I tend to get up for dramatic effect and go over to my cupboard, open the door and say ‘what one would you like?’ They look at me and I have to say, what do you think a culture is? It’s not something we get out of a drawer or we buy off the shelf. It’s what we do every day. It’s what we say, it’s what we do and it’s what we make come alive. People talk about culture like it’s thing you can mythically buy or you can mythically become.
Increase your employee engagement, improve your customer service
For me the correlation between employee engagement and customer service is huge. You might say why are you now a Customer Service Director when you were an HR Director in change transformation? How do those two things come together? They are exactly the same. There is no difference, absolutely no difference. It’s all about people service. Whether that be employee service or whether that be customer service, they all rely on one big thing.
When I was at school I used to talk a lot, that might surprise you! I had a history teacher and he used to say to me, ‘Louise, you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion’. I think that is a great saying. How much time do we spend listening? Actually in a recent survey employees said the biggest thing that senior leaders could do that would make a difference was listen. That doesn’t cost anything. Actually it makes a massive step change.
I love this picture. Pictures speak louder than words. This is a real life picture off the Internet. It’s from a local authority. This went viral. This says I cannot be arsed to move the twig. She could have moved it out the way, but she couldn’t be bothered so she just went round it. People often say to me ‘why should we focus on engagement?’ or ‘I am too busy’ like it’s something you put in your diary at 3pm on a Friday. The answer is disengagement costs us every single day. Dealing with seven million customers, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – the engagement of my people is the biggest differentiator on the ‘can I be arsed factor’ of anything I could possibly do.
We have just done some research with the Institute of Customer Services and there is a direct correlation – for every one point increase in employee engagement, you get a 0.4% increase in customer service.
So, if you are working with a finance director or anyone else who goes ‘why should I bother with this thing called employee engagement, isn’t that the pink and fluffy stuff that you HR people do?’ then have a look on the Engage for Success website. There is some amazing stuff on there which will give you all facts and figures that you need across UK PLC about why employee engagement is important.
If you think about my story, in the last 12 months, taking over a customer service operation – I deal with about 85,000 customer interactions every single week. My employee engagement levels have gone up to 91% in the last year and my customer service is the most improved in the sector. We have reduced written complaints by 50%. I have done absolutely nothing to invest in that horror called technology. All I have done is invested in my people and empowered them to do some things that are different.
If you think about the strategic narrative, one of the key things is making it clear to everybody in my business what role they played in delivering great customer service.
About these engaging managers – what was it about the person they worked for, how did we have the management structure? One of the things that really riled when I first arrived was I did that good old HR thing and got a textbook out and did a review and looked at how many management layers we had. We had seven management layers between me and a person on the telephone. There are not that many layers between me and the Prime Minister! I wondered what they were all doing and the answer was not a lot – paper shuffling. I said we are going to get rid of some management layers because I want to get closer to what is going on in the business, I want to inspire our customer service staff and I want to motivate them and I can’t do that if there are seven people between me and the people delivering my service.
In the first three months I said I am going to take everybody offline and have a conversation about who I am, what can they expect and where are we going with this business over the next 3-4 years and what I need from you as an individual. I am going to change your work patterns, I am going to change your job, I am going to change everything that we have done around here and in return this is what you will get back from me. I will develop you, I will support you, I will empower you. They came into my office and said ‘we can’t do that as we can’t possibly take everybody offline for you to have these conversations so what we thought is, we can set up a managers brief and then the managers can brief the managers, and then they can brief the managers that can brief those managers’. I said no, why don’t I brief the employees and they can brief the managers? That was an interesting conversation – I was told I couldn’t possibly do that! But I did 136 briefs in three months. Even I was fed up of talking! The biggest difference was people said to me, you spoke to me, you treated me like an adult, you engaged me in the problems that we had, you made it very clear what you needed from me and what I could get in return.
We started a shift review because my business was a customer service business but I shut at 5.30pm and I didn’t run at weekends so I ran contact centres where 85,000 customers contacted me each week but I opened when you went to work and I shut when you come in. We hadn’t realised that there was a little bit of a difference in expectation. I said to everyone I am going to change your shift patterns. So the first contact centre we worked with, there are 1,000 people, and you will like this, this is good from an HR perspective – there were 196 different work patterns. 196 different work patterns! We wondered why we were inefficient. So I said right, work patterns don’t work for me. It’s inefficient, I can’t run a business like that and I need these extended opening hours. That is my problem, you design the work patterns. The people, my people designed the work patterns. I have working grandparents work patterns, I have ‘I go out every Friday night and get absolutely trollied so don’t ask me to work a Friday night but I will work any other night that you want me to work’ work patterns. I am a heavily trade unionised business. I have nearly 80% Trade Union representation. It went straight through. Why? Because the employees had designed the work patterns. They weren’t just new work patterns, they were extended opening hours.
About our employee voice – I introduced this thing called Tell Me. You can tell me anything you want to tell me, any day. You can tell me if you are fed up. You can tell me if I am doing something stupid. There is not a form; there is not a process. I have an email address for Tell Me. They come through every day – between 40 and 45 every single day. They are everything from ‘Louise, why does it say this on the bill because that telephone number isn’t right’. Or ‘Louise, I spoke to a customer today and actually I think it would be better if this tariff were designed in this way’. Or ‘Louise I am hacked off because I have just been given my holiday allocation and I don’t like it’. Now you could say as a Customer Service Director don’t you have better things to do with your time? But the whole point is we have transformed the business in a much shorter period of time because that employee voice is direct – you get a response within 24 hours. That is a huge best of a commitment! The train to London is great, that gives me time for tell me’s. But the quality and the insight that you have from your people is far better than any consultant, any process review, any data analytics that you are ever going to invest in because they are speaking to your customers every single day.
So what is your mechanism for hearing your employee voice and how complicated have you made it? Because if it is complicated or it’s a case of I tried to tell you once but nobody did anything, then I am not going to bother again.
We started to say to people that we are going to empower you to do the right thing. We introduced something called Make a Friend. What I noticed in our call centres was that you have this horrendous set of call scripts so we are going to throw them away and management are obsessed with average handling time so we are going to get rid of that as well. Instead, I said to people you are all adults and I want you to talk to customers like they are friends.
The first month I was there I sat in the contact centre and I listened to quite a young guy on a call to a customer and she rang up and the conversation went like this. ‘I am phoning you because my mother is terminally ill and she has had to move out of her house and she only has two weeks to live’. What do you think he said next? He said ‘have you got the account number?’ When he had finished this call and I was eating the inside of my face I said to him, and he did do everything else beautifully, the average handling time would have been lovely – I said can we have a chat about that call? I said you didn’t acknowledge what the lady said to you. He looked at me and said we don’t do that. I asked why we wouldn’t want to do that? He said well you don’t know where it might end, it can impact on average handling times. I said if you were in the pub tonight and your mate said my mum is terminally ill, what would you say? He said I would say I was really sorry to hear that. That is all I want you to do. I am not going to put you on at training course for it, I am just giving you permission to be yourself. We painted every wall a horrendously bright colour. We put pictures up all over the place of real customers and is says things like, the customer will not remember what you said; they will remember how you made them feel. Bring your personality to work because our customer would love to hear it. What I said to them was I just want you to be yourself. I want you to be human. I want you to treat each interaction like it’s with a friend.
The step change that we have seen in performance is immense. I am averaging about 140 to 160 thank you’s or wow awards from customers who have spontaneously given me feedback about employees. That can be on the back of the fact that I have filled your home with sewage so it doesn’t go further away from a great experience than that. What we said was we were going to empower you that if we have got it wrong, we will empower you to put it right. Whatever you need to do – just put it right. My Finance Director said we need a process, they will all start spending money. I said ‘stop’. I think it probably cost me a couple of hundred grand. That is a damn sight less than putting everyone through a training course. Let’s trust people and empower people that they are all adults and they will do the right thing.
At Christmas they designed Christmas cards to send to customers because I speak to a lot of customers who are very lonely. In January they popped up and they said we have designed a card which is called ‘just to say’. So if you speak to a customer on the phone and they say it’s my golden wedding or I have lost a partner then ‘dear Margaret, it was lovely to talk to you today, I am really sorry to hear about your loss’. Or ‘it was really lovely to talk to you today, really hope you enjoy your celebration of your golden wedding. All the very best. Louise.’
Yesterday this letter arrived on my desk so I just thought I would share it with you:
‘Madam, a fortnight ago I tried to pay my water bill on your automated line but I failed. I was transferred to a lady and the transaction soon went through. I must have explained that with my 80th birthday imminent I am no longer with it. A few days later a package came through the post. Anticipating it was a birthday gift I kept it unopened. Imagine my delight to find a lovely box of biscuits and a simple note from Suzanne of United Utilities. It really made my day. Such thoughtfulness, such generosity. Could someone with seniority please pass on my sheer heartfelt gratitude and thanks to Suzanne. A human touch from a giant organisation. Thank you.’
That is the difference when you say to people I am not going to manage you on timescales.
When I went to find Suzanne yesterday I said I have just had this lovely letter Suzanne. She said I do remember him. I said you have made a huge difference to that gentleman. She said I can’t tell you how much more I enjoy coming to work. It’s lovely to be able to interact with people like they are a human being and it is lovely to be given the freedom and the empowerment to make the decisions that I think are right.
If we think about how empowered people are in your business, because if they’re not empowered, they won’t be engaged – they will walk on by when the twig is sticking out because they won’t be arsed to bend down and move it out of the way. This employee engagement thing is not an HR agenda. It’s a business agenda. It’s about productivity. It’s about service and profitability and well being and health and safety. HR does not own engagement. You don’t own it nor should you. If engagement is sat in your HR department it’s sat in the wrong place. You might be the advocates of it, you may help with the process but you don’t own engagement. Engagement is owned by every single line manager in the business.
How much effort do you put into putting up the mirror when the words and the music don’t match? As HR professionals you have actually got to be brave. If you are not brave you are wasting your time. Don’t walk on by when you see that there is a difference between something that’s said and something that happens. Actually people will never, ever take you seriously again.
The first time I get a Tell Me and I say that what you tell me is really important, but I don’t respond until 48 hours, can I be bothered again? No. Only make a commitment if you are going to follow it through. Don’t say you are going to look at employee engagement once a year in an annual survey and then not do anything.
The biggest thing that can make a difference to the level of employee engagement is to stop focusing on an employee engagement target. Throw it away. Be brave. Say we are not going to talk about employee engagement targets, we are going to focus on one thing – one measure that will make the biggest difference in your business which is ‘I have seen action as a result of my feedback’. That is the only thing you need to focus on. That is what you need to actually attach importance to. Promote you line managers not on their engagement scores of their teams, but on whether they have actually done something about the feedback of their people to make this a happy and productive workplace. That is the most important thing, not the employee engagement score itself.
I think some of the things you need to think about is how linked is your people strategy and your customer strategy. How much time do you spend, and I know there are customer and HR people in the room but it’s exactly the same thing, it’s a people strategy. How much money do you invest in technology? I sit on our investment board, some people shuffled in on Monday, please can we £30 million to create this new system that is going to do everything, make the tea, sort out your husband, everything. I am going through these papers in a really frustrated way and I went this is lovely – boxes, wires, technology, testing and all of that stuff but what about people? Oh yes, because they know I will ask! We have thought about that. I said how much money and effort do you have allocated to people? The project manager said £1.4 million. I said sorry, so in a £30 million transformation only £1.4 million is spent on people? He thought I was going to be impressed. How much time do we spend focusing on changing technology, changing processes and not enough on investing in people to take us with us on that journey?
And actually, who are the disengaged in your business? Who are the wonky line people? Because that is subtracting from your business being successful. You know who they are and you do not need an employee engagement survey, which should be anonymous anyway, to identify them. If you are not dealing with them they are in your business, multiplying like mushrooms in the dark. If you are not dealing with them you will turn round and there will be hundreds of them.
What is the balance on your bank of goodwill? Engagement is about goodwill and when you have a crisis, and we have had a lot and you will have then if you haven’t already, you need people. You need people with the right momentum, the right energy. That is when engagement shows through. What is your bank of goodwill that you have in your employee base?
For me if you want people to care about your business, to care about your customers, then you have to start first about caring for your people. That should be the first and most important cornerstone of any strategy – it has to start with people. If it doesn’t it won’t be underpinned, it won’t have any longevity and it won’t have any success.
So thank you. Hopefully that has helped. I don’t think you are going to have anyone else who stands in front of you and says poo is what we do. You should be thankful I didn’t bring you any poo pictures, we have lots of those.
My question for all of you, is if I asked you now how strong is your employee voice and what were the levels of integrity like in your business in terms of the words and the music, is there a difference?
About the speaker: Louise Beardmore
Louise was speaking at the 2017 Happy Workplaces Conference held on 14th June 2017 at etc.venues Norton Folgate in London.
Working for the United Utilities Group as Customer Services Director, Louise has held a number of senior positions at North West Water, Norweb Plc, Vertex and United Utilities, leading business in Operations, Customer Services and HR both here in the UK and internationally for a number of utility and retail brands. Prior to her current role, Louise was Head of Business Transformation for United Utilities, managing all aspects of transformation across the Group driving people, process and technology changes to improve service and drive efficiency. Louise is a huge advocate of the power of employee engagement to drive improved customer service and is a Non-Executive Director of Engage for Success as well as a Vice President of the Institute of Customer Service.
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