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David Hughes, internal comms business partner, British Gas, Centrica Plc.

In 2008, following a change in leadership, the company began a huge transformation programme aimed at addressing service issues and the decline in public perception. This was initiated by splitting the company into smaller, more focused businesses and tasking each one to put the customer back at the heart of what they do.

British Gas, Cardiff, embraced the challenge and has risen as a centre of best practice in the business. Much of this success is owed to the creation of a people-focused culture. Here Dave Hughes, internal comms business partner, explains the role of internal comms in making this happen.

FACT
British Gas Cardiff employs 1,200 people and handles roughly 45m customer contacts a year for over 2.3m customers.

At the end of 2008, our engagement scores were at 59 percent and our NPS was minus eight. Our customers didn’t think much of us and we didn’t think much of ourselves either.

Two and a half years later and we’re in a very different place thanks to an integrated program of leadership, training and internal communications strategies. Our engagement score at the end of 2010 was 85 percent and our NPS score +47, with similar improvements seen across other key business metrics like complaints and customer levels.

While not the sole driver, internal comms has played a significant role in the cultural change that has left us heralded as a “centre of best practice” in British Gas and the winner of a wide range of accolades, including “European Call Centre of The Year” for two years running.

Our cultural change program was a simple one at heart

Three years ago, the leadership team in Cardiff decided that talking, listening and involving our people in the change process would be critical to kick-start the improvements needed in customer service and brand perception. The idea was to invest time in people; moving them away from a sales culture and into the mindset of putting themselves in the customers’ shoes. A simple strap-line was developed to encapsulate this business model, based on the Service-Supply model: Engaged People = Happy Customers = Healthy Profits (see Figure One, below).

Figure One: Service-supply model

Communication at the core of successful delivery

By putting our people at the centre of our success, the business case for investment in wellbeing and personal development as well as business change was made. By signing off this business model, the buy in of everyone from the leadership team down was assured, but the success of it was now up to HR, training and comms working together with the operation to make it happen.

Given that this transformation program was based on talking and listening, we didn’t have to try too hard to get comms involved in the process. The challenges came in making sure we were effectively involved, rather than being used as a distribution tool - and that our channels and delivery framework were up to the task of embedding the strategy in everyday business.

Approaching change through ownership

Our comms approach was to inspire ownership, empowerment and involvement in the change process, something that required special attention before we could make it part of everyday behavior. During 2009, we invested in three large projects to make this happen.

The challenges came in making sure we were effectively involved, rather than being used as a distribution tool.

Firstly, we used the opportunity of a long overdue office move to act as a physical metaphor for shedding the old culture and creating new ways of working. Everyone from the business attended “Say Goodbye” and “Say Hello” sessions, discussing aspects of culture and working practices they wanted to take with them to the new office, or leave behind as part of the move.

These sessions weren’t about office equipment or putting hair straighteners in the toilets (although that was an outcome), but about the whole team creating a shared best practice environment. Teams were actively encouraged to tackle the hygiene factors which might be a barrier. Input from the teams also guided the physical branding of the office, and as a result, the building is still seen as an icon and catalyst for positive change.

Secondly, we introduced a training and comms program called “Look Who’s Calling” which everyone in the business went through. The program focused on improving the customer call experience by helping people recognize customers’ personality types (based on a simplified Myers Briggs) and helping them adapt their behavior to the customer. As well as signifying a further level of investment in our team’s development, the program was a great opportunity to create a customer-centric communication platform - 20 months later, we still use “customer scenarios” from the program when we introduce new products or offers – to get people thinking about how different customers might react to the news.

These kinds of initiatives have been well received, as Louise Clark, one of our call centre experts, commented: “We’re trusted to be ourselves. You don’t have to be this scripted, robotic, call centre person anymore.”

Once the idea of personal ownership took off, we were able to reinforce it further by turning our attention to the channels we had in place and ensuring that the opportunity to feedback and contribute were incorporated as widely as possible.

Reinforcement through channels

Our change in approach to live events is a good example. Traditionally these sessions were seen as an unnecessary expense and held briefly once a year. After introducing our new thinking, we made these half day events, twice a year, not only to download information but to involve the audience in contributing feedback and ideas.

The word that comes up most frequently in describing these events is “intimate”, despite there being 120 people attending at a time.

Over the last two years, we’ve learnt more and more about what people want from these events and how they want to contribute, and now the word that comes up most frequently in describing these events is “intimate”, despite there being 120 people attending at a time, testimony to our tone and approach. One of our key goals is to make our leadership team visible and engage the audience through storytelling – painting a clear picture of where we are we going. Another is demonstrating the projects that everybody will see and be part of to make this happen successfully. These tangible elements are what really drive a sense of excitement and inclusion about what we are doing.

Moving into 2010, we had built up enough interest in these events to introduce follow-up campaigns to really embed the key messages. Our biggest milestone success was at the start of 2010 when we introduced our “5 bold goals” to help everybody understand our business metrics and include them in delivering the British Gas strategy more directly.

The visual icons for these bold goals were then introduced to all communication sent out throughout the year. Every poster, report and email had the relevant icon on it, so people could really see how what they were doing related to where the business was going. These bold goals have been amazingly successful so we are continuing to use them in 2011, and they have since been adopted in other areas of the business.

Increased buy-in meant that in 2010 we could also introduce a monthly face-to-face business cascade. We bring our team managers together for 90 minutes each month and split the time between business updates and working discussion groups on how they can communicate and use this information with their teams. Following the sessions, we supply team managers with bullet-pointed notes containing the facts and figures for the sessions, but the way they use these is up to them.

By empowering our frontline more we are reaping the benefits of a culture that encourages everyone to improve things.

A focus on language and tone of voice, led (and enforced) by the leadership team, has also been adopted. As well as visually badging all our communication, we try to filter everything from a language perspective, really challenging ourselves around what the communication will mean to our teams and our customers - and how the activity aligns with our bold goals and strategy.

Making Success Real

An important part of sharing ownership is sharing and celebrating our successes. 2010 was a year of defining moments for us, and we made sure that we communicated and celebrated when we made a difference. For instance reducing customer costs or when a Cardiff project was rolled out as best practice across British Gas - milestones that embraced all of us achieving together. This has instilled a real sense of pride in everything that we have achieved.

There are some critical learnings along the way

By empowering our frontline more we are reaping the benefits of a culture that encourages everyone to improve things. Our suggestion scheme receives over 100 ideas and messages every week, highlighting customer service issues that we would never have known about without the culture and the channels to do so.
 

Top Tips For Creating Ownership
1. Involve People in the Change Process

Workshops, interactive exercises or voting systems help people feel in control of change and empowered in their work environment.

2. Involve Leadership in Comms
Advocacy and demonstration of communications techniques from senior leadership, sways the rest of the management structure much faster.

3.Create Visible or Physical Icons for change
For more comprehensive joined up projects.

4.Work with Peers as well as Stakeholders
People can latch on and feel involved in things more easily if they can see them.

5. Celebrate your defining moments
Instead of recognising individuals, recognise the success of the whole business in an inclusive way to generate pride and ownership.

The biggest thing to come out of all of this is a real sense in British Gas, Cardiff, of how powerful we are when we work together. The scale of the change in a short period has been brought about by departments working together and sharing ideas. One thing to resonate from this is making sure that in busy periods, there is always time to communicate with colleagues in different areas of the business and align activities. Plus 26 on our employee engagement score and +55 NPS ratings in two years testify for themselves on how these things really matter.

Moving forward there are many new challenges ahead
Building engagement levels to a high standard is not enough, we now need to keep them there with the additional challenge that people have begun to see all of the great changes we’ve made as part of business as usual.

In addition 2011 has brought a whole raft of new business challenges with it. As with most businesses at the moment, our budgets are under continuous scrutiny. So we’re making the basics work really hard for us and facilitating decent manager-led communication.

A byproduct of our comms success in 2010 is that the volume of requests for communication has increased hugely and we are now using our measurement data to revise and improve the way we use our channels.

Organizationally, we’ve recently joined up with another division of British Gas who have their own culture and ways of working. That means that we’ll be working doubly hard to share best practice and keep ourselves moving and developing at the same time.

George Bernard Shaw said “man can climb the highest mountain but he cannot dwell there long”. Well, we’re giving it our best shot.

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