Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone Sift Media
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HRD Insight: M&S' Tanith Dodge on boosting customer service via staff engagement

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7th Oct 2011
Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone Sift Media
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Employee engagement and good customer service are integrally linked, believes Tanith Dodge, HR director of Marks & Spencer.

The idea is that if staff are demotivated and unhappy, they will not be inclined to go the extra mile or care about the impact of their behaviour either on individual customers or the brand image of their employer.   “Why employee engagement is key is not just about productivity. Customers are more demanding than they’ve ever been and if they’re met by a surly customer service assistant and ask for help, it won’t be a good experience,” Dodge explained during her presentation at the HR Performance 2011 conference at London Olympia this week.   As a result, after the retailer closed a number of stores, changed its final pension salary scheme and made redundancies at its headquarters about three years ago, it decided that action had to be taken to move it “through this dip and come quickly out of the other end”.   The situation became a catalyst for developing an employee engagement plan which, Dodge said, was backed up by subsequent a survey undertaken among 100,000 workers in 18 countries by Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson).   The study looked at the top four predictors of engagement. It found that staff felt motivated and experienced positive feelings of wellbeing if they:  

  1. Worked for an organisation that they believe cares about them as human ‘beings’ rather than human ‘doings’ and where they experienced a positive network of inter-relationships rather than simply transactional behaviour
  2. Felt pride in working for their employer, which did things that they felt good about
  3. Felt involved and as if their voice was heard
  4. Could trust their line manager

 Not purely philanthropic  As part of its engagement plan, therefore, Marks & Spencer introduced a number of initiatives to try and make its personnel feel more valued. The first was to implement a wellbeing scheme, which comprised two elements. One was a ‘live well, work well’ independent helpline that employees could call to obtain advice on subjects ranging from personal to financial.   The second was a web site, which was “very cheap to implement” but provided workers with non-judgemental hints and tips about how to improve their health and wellbeing. While some of the information provided was general in nature, other elements were more personalised being based on answers to a questionnaire.   This latter offering proved particularly popular and saw 10,000 of the firm’s 80,000 staff (who are employed in more than 1,000 stores in 43 countries) registering to use the web site within the first few weeks of operation.   Subsequent initiatives have likewise included ‘service awards’, whereby staff are provided with instant recognition for doing something positive. Some 40,000 awards have so far been given out this year.   But in order to address the second plank of the engagement conundrum and instil a sense of pride in the retailer’s brand, the company has also heavily promoted its ‘Plan A’ environmental and ethical strategy.   This policy has the stated aim of making Marks & Spencer’s the most environmentally-friendly retailer by 2015 and each store has its own Plan A volunteer to help devise and implement suitable initiatives. Some 100 volunteers a year are recognised by headquarters for their activities.   Such moves are not purely philanthropic, however. As Dodge pointed out, “doing the right thing” has so far generated a “business benefit” of about £150 million.  Hard factual evidence  Another corporate social responsibility-related scheme, meanwhile, is the ‘Marks & Start’ programme. This was launched seven years ago and enables employees to take one day off a week to go and work for a local charity - but “we don’t check up on them because we trust them”, Dodge said.   Some 700 disadvantaged individuals such as people with disabilities or without a home are also brought into the organisation to gain work experience each year. Each individual is paired with an employee who acts as a ‘buddy’ and a huge 50% end up being employed in full-time, permanent roles by the retailer as a result.   “It’s free recruitment and they have the lowest absence levels and lowest turnover. It’s also good experience for those who are buddying them,” Dodge said.   As to ensuring that workers feel listened to, one initiative that chief executive Marc Bolland introduced after joining the company a year ago was the ‘what’s your big idea’ scheme, to which all staff were asked to contribute. Some 2,000 responses were received and an award provided for the best.   Marks & Spencer also runs regular briefings as well as listening groups, all of which aim to provide workers with a voice.   But one of the biggest single challenges of implementing any of these schemes is “convincing managers that there’s a need for staff engagement” activities at all, Dodge said.   She has found that the most effective way of doing so is simply to provide them with hard factual evidence that they work. Such evidence can be produced by undertaking an engagement survey and comparing certain results such as ‘sales against plan’, ‘absence against plan’ and mystery shopper scores at stores with the most and least engaged personnel.   “You turn the data into a business case for 1,000 stores because it’s about convincing them that it’s worth making the investment,” Dodge said – although minds are also focused by the fact that engagement is used as a measure of line manager performance, she admitted.  

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