The topic of values is gaining more and more attention on a number of levels: organizational, personal, community, societal, political. At an organizational level, the values define what the organization stands for and how it is seen and experienced by customers and other stakeholders (employees, service partners, suppliers and communities). Values act as guiding principles – as a behavioural and decision-making compass. If these values are not embraced and displayed by everybody representing the organization, there is a likelihood that customers will, at best, be confused and at worst, not trust what is being communicated through “official channels.” In today’s super connected, transparent world, the value of values is greater than ever before – workplace culture is at the hub. This article provides an insight into the culture journey of the UK’s leading independent protection insurance adviser, LifeSearch.
On Values & Brand
Over the last 100 years or so, we have seen an evolution in the way in which customers engage with organizations: moving from a focus on the value of products to a focus on service and more recently the development of the experience economy concept in the late 1990s. An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event[i]. Examples of organisations adopting this approach range from Walt Disney’s leisure parks to theme restaurants such as the Hard Rock Cafe, and stores such as Niketown.
Now, social media moving into the mainstream may be creating the conditions for the next evolution. Whereas previously organizations could invest in marketing and PR to “tell a story,” things have changed and there is nowhere to hide. Trust is becoming increasingly important as customers seek to understand the substance behind the promoted “face” of brands they buy. What do they really stand for and believe in? The speed and reach of communication enabled by social media magnifies this trust factor. Significantly, brand control is moving away from the organization that “owns” the brands to the communities that engage with them. Organizations and brands are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are.
This environment provides real opportunities for brands that are true to their values and have a meaningful story if they deliver that in a compelling and authentic way. Research shows that customers’ perception of a brand is strongly influenced by their experience of the people that represent the brand (Enterprise IG 2004 and Ken Irons, Market Leader study). Employees are ambassadors of the brand and arguably have more influence over customer perception than the classical marketing or PR activities. Authenticity from the tip to the root is the new Holy Grail for organizations and a focus will be how the values and brand can be translated into the daily practices and behaviour of their employees, drawing a golden thread from the boardroom to the front line customer experience. Workplace culture is central in this new paradigm of recognising the value of values … but this has to be in practice rather than a PR or communications exercise.
Practice in practice
LifeSearch is the UK’s leading independent protection insurance adviser. In 2012 the organization realised that there was an issue: the attrition rate in their 100 key customer facing sales-advisers had reached 39% and sales and profit were in decline.
They embarked on a three phase programme: Awaken, Connect, Action–focussed on establishing the organization culture and values, enabling employees to communicate freely with each other and bring the values to life every day.
The initiative started with involvement of everybody in the business in a series of workshops led personally by members of the leadership team. This led to the articulation of the organisation culture and values in words used by the employees themselves.
The next stage was to provide a technology platform to assist interaction and communication, but in a way that was more like social media communication out of work rather than more formal “corporate” communication. This included the following features:
- an online portal where anyone in the business can submit an idea, however big or small, that they think will improve the business in some way. There is a review, feedback and reward process for the ideas submitted.
- a discussion board open to any employee to post something they think will be of interest to everyone (these posts can be “liked” and replied to).
- a Training and Coaching area which houses a vast wealth of technical facts, helpful guides, best practice ideas and hints and tips amongst other things.
The leadership team also took the brave decision that this communication flow would not be regulated or monitored which meant that even controversial topics could be discussed and views aired.
The final phase of the initiative was the 31Practices approach[ii], used to translate the stated values into practical daily behaviour every day. This involved a series of co-creation workshops to identify a set of practical day to day behaviours explicitly connected to the organizational values. The way that 31Practices works is for all employees to mindfully focus on the Practice for the day. Why 31? Because there are no more than 31 days in a month. The process means that all employees are involved in creating the organization’s 31Practices and every day employees take responsibility for taking action in line with the Practice for the day so it adds value in their job.
Over time, through conscious practise, the behaviours become embedded and consistent, not only in individuals, but across groups of individuals. By definition, the organization’s values are brought to life.
The business impact for LifeSearch was remarkable:
- Customer facing sales-advisers attrition rate 21% (39%).
- Customer Satisfaction 95.6% (91.6% )
- Weekly policy completion +104 .
- “Inspiration score” for Practice of the day 91%
- Improvement ideas 174 – 73% actioned.
In addition, the technology platform resulted in a transformation of the way in which employees communicated with each other.
A quote from an employee summarised the impact well: “To be honest, I never really quite knew what culture and values meant. The culture statement that was agreed really feels like what I want my work life to be and it does feel like that day to day and not in a preachy, rammed down your throat kind of way.”
Of course, the value of values will be different in each particular situation but LifeSearch’s experience is yet more evidence of the impact that can be achieved and was a winner of the Employee Engagement category at the Association for Business Psychology Awards 2015[iii].
The Nature of Change
The changing landscape for business and organizations will arguably bring the importance of values into even sharper focus in the coming years. There are examples nearly every day of how customer and employee experiences are being communicated widely and quickly on social media, encouraging (if not forcing) organizations to respond. There is nowhere to hide. Organizations delivering experiences to their customers, employees, service partners, communities and shareholders that are aligned to their stated purpose and values is moving from an “option” to a fundamental requirement. We could be seeing the dawn of a new “values economy.”
What would you add to this conversation? I welcome your ideas and comments below. Thank you, in advance.
[i] HBR July 1998 Welcome to the Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore
[ii] 31Practices is a trademarked tool which helps employees bring the brand of their organisation to life through their behaviour http://www.servicebrandglobal.com/31-practices/31-practices-for-organisations/
[iii] The ABP’s Employee Workforce Awards Programme offers a unique and distinctive platform for the celebration of excellence in Business Psychology. http://www.theabp.org.uk/events/annual-awards.aspx