Business Turnaround

Taking down the walls can be the key to growth

One of the barriers to company progression and growth can be directors who are inaccessible to the staff and sometimes, even each other. Directors hiding away in their separate offices, rarely coming out to interact and find out what’s occurring on the ground is one of the behaviour traits I’ve seen time and time again and can greatly hinder the business.

When I talk about taking down the walls I speak in a very literal sense; one of the first things I did when joining Briggs Equipment as CEO was to have the walls removed on the director’s floor to remove the physical barriers, open up the space, get everyone working together and most importantly, communicating. It’s incredible how much being alone in an office can halt making decisions, or at the very least, delay the process.

It forced people to talk to each other – something I find people do too little of these days with the proliferation of email and mobile device communication developments. Discussions took place with more ease and decisions were made with more speed.

It’s also the perfect way to ‘out’ the obstructors. With nowhere to hide, their actions are forced into the open and if they are not favourable towards the company or are resistant to change for the better, it will be much more easily identifiable.

In today’s world where there can be many barriers to growth; changing market forces, the economic climate, cash flow, skills shortages – adding barriers from within is an extra headache many businesses could do without. When it comes to taking down the walls, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again in any organisation where I felt that forces weren’t working together as they should be.

Why the value of customer service in business growth and success can’t be underestimated

Customer service in business growth

Good customer service is fundamental for business growth and imperative in gaining that all-important competitive advantage. You only need to look to the high street to see household brands such as Apple, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer at the top of their game for this very reason. Good customer service should form the solid foundation of any business ethos. After all, what is a business without its customers?

I have, on occasion, been surprised by the customer service approach of some businesses. Even some of the larger organisations I have come across haven’t demonstrated the level of customer service I would expect from a firm of that size and stature. When I walked into Briggs with a vision to turn the business into a profit generator, customer service was one of my key concerns. So, did I pore through customer feedback forms or talk to the staff regarding the customer service charter? No. Instead, I made my way straight out the front door to speak to the customers directly. Hearing it from the horse’s mouth and listening to what they thought of Briggs whilst gaining insightful information on their experiences was a top priority for me.

Not all of the customers I spoke to were complimentary about Briggs and I remember one such meeting with the top brass at a well-known supermarket chain. Whilst there, I was given quite possibly the worst ‘hairdryer’ treatment I have had in my 30-year career, (to say he let me have it is an understatement)! However, it’s what I took from that feedback and how I implemented changes that counted, allowing us to go from strength to strength. Incidentally, that particular customer stayed with us, through which time we carried out regular and reliable communication – a vital factor in turning the relationship around.

So, drawing on 30 years’ experience and turning four loss-making businesses into multi-million pound profit generators, what are the top customer service tips I can offer? As outlined above, listening to customers is the first most important activity. Though it may sound obvious, I never fail to be amazed by how many companies don’t do this. Customer service is more than just box-ticking, having a charter for show, or saying ‘have a nice day’.

For me, another element of good customer service is flexibility, such as showing customers you can adapt to their needs, even if it isn’t strictly what you would normally do. Making your customers’ lives easier can make the world of difference when going head to head with your competitors and it’s the extra mile that people remember. One such change we implemented at Briggs when transforming the business model from sales to leasing, was to provide contracts that not only worked for Briggs, but for the customers too. Flexibility was what they needed to have in their business, not least because the economy was pretty turbulent at the time and committing to lengthy lease contracts wasn’t a viable option for many businesses.

Most importantly, remember to be brave and admit when you’ve got it wrong. Customers will remember the way you handled mistakes, not the mistakes themselves. A company can be redeemed by its approach in putting things right.

Customer experience is also an important aspect for businesses to consider. For example, sectors that seem to get this element right are car dealerships and new-home developers. Both are highly competitive selling market places with huge competition for high-value items. They place great emphasis on the customer journey by creating sound consumer relationships from the outset – a key role in the basics of any customer service strategy.

Loyalty is now also a big part of customer service. Originating in supermarkets, with brands like Tesco and its Clubcard, loyalty marketing has grown exponentially and is used by all types of businesses great and small. Social media channels have offered another way for us to engage with our customers and retain their loyalty. However, this can be a double-edged sword as it is often the medium through which dissatisfaction is aired, with many turning to social media to broadcast the ‘customer service sins’ of a business.

Exceeding the expectations of customers should be the mainstay of the customer service charter, and this needs to be achieved consistently. Investment in good customer service will reap dividends, resulting in positive feedback and word-of-mouth recommendations that will be instrumental in business growth. Put it at the bottom of your priority list and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Presenting an alternative management structure to aid business turnaround

Alternative management structures

During my career I have experienced many different types of businesses and management structures and find it interesting how these can differ quite significantly from one business to another. I have been fortunate enough, in my role as CEO at Briggs Equipment, to have been in this role with full support from the chairman where needed, but the freedom to make decisions and work freely and independently to bring the business back into the black.

All of this experience and knowledge has led to me to think about an alternative to the traditional set-up in many businesses; which comprises a chairman or non-executive director, overseeing a CEO and his board. I think there is an alternative model which can work really well in some circumstances.

The CEO of a business will be close to it and have management responsibilities whereas a non-exec chairman provides an objective view of the business from an ‘outside’ perspective. However, I believe there is an alternative structure to apply when there is a need to marry these areas, closing the gap between the two – such as in business turnaround.

So whilst the role of the non-executive director/chairman is usually hands-off, in this alternative combination model, the role is redefined advocate a healthy mix of hands-on and hands-off approach.

In this scenario, the non-exec can:

  • Provide a sounding board/support mechanism for the CEO
  • Be visible to the CEO, but back off when appropriate
  • Manage the board, overseeing the bigger picture
  • Help develop strategy & direction
  • Ensure that the business has a great team
  • Ensure that the team has the resources needed to get the job done
  • Take responsibility for investor relations

Combining the ‘grey hairs’ experience of the CEO and non-exec in business turnaround can help steady the ship, identify the business blind spot as well as opportunities from the outset, understand what needs fixing and the best solutions, and provide the necessary diplomacy skills to bind the disparate elements of the business together to make it successful once more.

Identifying the business blind spot

Identify your business blind spot

In my experience of business turnaround, I have discovered that every struggling business has a blind spot of some sort. Spotting the mistakes that have been made and identifying why the business is failing is a task that needs fast action. An independent, unbiased approach is needed.

The blind spot may have been missed or ignored, particularly if the management team has a vested interest in the decisions that have been made.

There are many blind spot hotspots and below I outline my ultimate checklist:

  • The wrong culture? This may play a significant factor in the blind spot
  • The wrong market? Sounds ridiculous but not uncommon for a business trying to succeed and failing due to being in the wrong market
  • The wrong leader? Aside from the obvious assumptions about a good or bad leader, some leaders might be more entrepreneurial than others or have different approaches to management that may just jar with the business they are trying to take forward. They may be more suited to a different type of business or sector
  • The wrong model? A tweak in business model can make it successful once more. When I came to Briggs Equipment, I identified very quickly that the sales model is what was holding the company back and that a leasing and servicing model could be much more profitable
  • The wrong decisions being missed or ignored if the management team has a vested interest in the decisions that have been made. No one will want to admit that a route they have established or advocated is wrong (egos can certainly get in the way!). It can also be the case that those on a management team will not want to ‘out’ a fellow leader and openly state when something they have initiated isn’t working.

A blind spot will greatly limit the success of a company, at best, and at worst will cause its demise – so when it comes to identification of it, one should be sure to make it a priority.

The culture change challenge is one worth taking

Changing culture

Having been involved in the turnaround of four loss-making businesses there is a common theme among them and that is culture change. It is a fundamental aspect, with power that should not be underestimated, and something I feature heavily in my turnaround strategy. Changing the mind-set of employees and getting them on board with new processes can help save an ailing business, driving it forward into growth and profit.

It is often the case with a business in decline that employees will become demotivated. Gossip or hearsay about the fate of the business can start to spread causing further disruption, so it is important in the first stages of a turnaround to tackle this head on and quickly.
There will of course also be those employees that are resistant to change and are beyond convincing (see my blog on cracking middle management concrete). However, getting staff of all levels to have faith in the changes can be done with an honest and open approach, removing the barriers to creativity and banishing hierarchy.

Here are my top tips for tackling the culture change challenge:

Give employees at all levels a voice – Making staff feel that their opinion is valued and they are empowered to make decisions will allow you to nurture and nourish hidden talent.

Walk the walk – As the head of the company it’s absolutely imperative to make yourself approachable and available to staff if you are to win over hearts and minds. I visited each and every employee at Briggs Equipment when I first took on the CEO role.
Look for quick wins – This isn’t about manipulating opinion but looking out for what small changes can be made quickly to make the staff feel good about their job. For instance, after joining Briggs I immediately looked at getting the van fleet upgraded to make the lives of the mobile engineers easier. This actually cost us less than the previous vehicle fleet contract and gave us a quick win with the engineers. Also, the staff talked about the addition of more litter bins to make their lives easier in the office and this was actioned immediately. It sounds so trivial yet made them happy and in turn gave them the feeling that someone was listening to their needs.

Be open and honest – I have always communicated any important company news directly to employees and have been honest about a company situation no matter how bad it is. People will respect you for it and come to learn that what you say is what you mean. Trust is a crucial element in getting staff on side.
Communication is key – Regular newsletters, company roadshows, department meetings and an open door policy are all tactics I have found invaluable in keeping staff informed on developments, while helping to build trust.

Establish a social committee – Allowing employees to be actively involved in company events, such as charity fundraising initiatives, will really help motivate them.

Taking on the challenge of culture change is by no means plain sailing. However, it is a vital action in getting a business back on track.