In 2014, repairs group HomeServe was fined £30.6m – the largest retail fine to date by City regulator the Financial Conduct Authority – for mis-selling insurance and mishandling customer complaints.
“We weren’t doing a great job for customers,” admits Martin Bennett, who became CEO of the UK business in January 2014, following a year as group chief operating officer and three years as group chief financial officer.
Since Bennett’s appointment, the company has been rebuilding the brand from the inside out – by concentrating on the needs of employees. “The fall-out with the regulator gave us a chance to reassess how we were doing for customers,” Bennett says. “At the heart of achieving our ambition is making a strong link between customer and employee expectation.”
Founded in 1993 by Richard Harpin (who is still group CEO) as a joint venture with South Staffordshire Water, HomeServe grew rapidly before demerging from the water company in 2004 and becoming a plc.
Today, HomeServe operates in five countries, working alongside major utility and energy companies. It has some 2.2 million customers in the UK and 7.5 million worldwide, providing home assistance across water, electrics and gas. In 2017, it was recognised as most improved company in the UK for customer satisfaction in the services sector, attributed by Bennett to the new emphasis on customer promise.
“We started out on a journey to produce a customer charter and focused all our energies on ensuring customers would get a great service,” he explains.
But while he is pleased with progress around the customer charter, Bennett is clear that ensuring the firm’s 3,000 UK employees are engaged, developed and talented will decide the business’ success.
“Our people come first, customers second and shareholders third. If our people are happy, they will take care of our customers and that will give us a successful business. If I had my chance again, I would create people values before customer values,” he admits.
Open communication channels
When Bennett became CEO in January 2014, employee engagement stood at around 56%. “We weren’t clear what we wanted from our people. We had negative publicity and this reflected in our engagement score. Since then, we’ve tried to get clear about what we expect from people and their role in delivering strategy,” he says.
Twice a year, the company holds ‘cascade’ sessions – where staff are brought together to hear where the business is going and their role in it. And every other Friday, Bennett holds a ‘Big Red Sofa’, broadcast live to the whole company, inviting people to give honest feedback. Members of the executive team act as ‘sponsors’ for groups across the organisation. “I look after south London plumbers,” explains Bennett. “We’ll socialise ocasionally; it gives them a chance to tell us what’s going on.”
Staff are encouraged to feed back using social platforms; of the 3,000 UK staff, 2,700 are active on Yammer, says Bennett, while there’s an ‘engineers’ venting lounge’ where employees can highlight what doesn’t work. HomeServe also runs biannual engagement surveys. “One showed staff didn’t feel there were enough learning opportunities, so we looked at that,” he says. “We’re growing our own people, including apprentices.”
HomeServe’s latest survey showed engagement at 82%, superseding the aspiration to pass 80%; some 95% of employees agreed they were clear what HomeServe is trying to achieve.
Building core behaviours
Enhancing engagement has involved staff identifying six key behaviours – or people promises – and modelling these across the business (see below). While Bennett acknowledges that identifying behaviours is the easy part, compared with influencing them, he is keen to make them part of the company’s culture. “The performance review is about demonstrating the behaviours – we only promote or give pay rises based on this.”
Meanwhile, Bennett is clear that his own leadership style is characterised by authenticity: “You can only lead in the way that’s true to you or people will see through it. I’m surrounded by people who are much better at their job than I could ever be, so trusting people to get on is key.”
He recognises the need to build the right talent and how this contributes to the aim of becoming the top home assistance company, with 3 million customers by 2020. “It’s a real talent game at the moment. That’s what will get us to the top spot.
People focused leadership: Martin Bennett's top tips
1 Have a clear strategy, goals and values that inspire your people and are relevant to their work and aspirations.
2 Invest time in talking with your people about strategy, making it a two-way conversation and creating joint ownership.
3 Build a culture of mutual support and trust where people understand the value of their
contribution, and are encouraged to recognise a job well done.
4 Keep the conversation going; be engaged, be real and be there for them.