Work hard and be nice to people. The world would be a far better place right now if there was a bit more of this simple philosophy on show, right?
by Julie Odams
Back in November the Chief Executive of Timpson (the key cutter and shoe repairer) tweeted “At Timpson we work to these simple 4 values. Trust. Kindness. Family. Love. You don’t need any more than this to run an organisation”. I thought back to September, when I went into our local Timpson, a portacabin bolted to the side of Tesco, with my daughter to get her first house key. She had her Harry Potter jumper on, and the man cutting her key spent the whole time talking to her about the books, the films and the studio experience. Then he gave her the key for free to mark her transition to high school. She bounced out of the shop, feeling she had found a kindred spirit and had been treated as the most important person in the room.
It struck me that the values tweeted by the Chief Executive were fully embodied by the man working alone in a slightly cold portacabin. So how were Timpson achieving such a high level of employee engagement that those values were getting through, and being lived, in a Stoke-on-Trent shop?
Feeling bold, I responded to the tweet and asked if I could get in touch with their Communications Team to find out. Following an immediate exchange of messages my visit to their Head Office Colleague Support team was booked for January.
Timpson’s Head Office is on an industrial estate outside Manchester. It looks like a standard, unassuming building from the outside, but you start to notice the differences as soon as you arrive. There’s a big smiley face painted on the car park. There’s a brass sign next to the entrance saying ‘Please leave your politics in the car park’. At the reception point there’s a whiteboard with people’s birthdays and a note welcoming me, by name, to the building. Inside, the open plan office has some quirky features – a giant sequinned stiletto and a huge leather giraffe – but also has a gym, a small hydrotherapy pool, a tuck shop and a canteen. There’s an old red phone box that you can use for personal calls, and if you call a colleague’s phone from there your name comes up as ‘Superman’. The company’s heritage is obvious: there’s a big display cabinet full of old shoe making equipment, and the Boardroom (open to use by everybody) looks like a 19th century dining room so that people are “reminded of where we come from”.
Everybody smiles and is friendly. I’m taken in to the Chief Executive’s office – he’s not there as he’s out visiting the shops – which has another ‘no politics’ sign on the door and a lot of family photographs. In the office of the man who supports employees who have recently been released from prison, there’s a big poster saying ‘Work hard and be nice to people’ and I really like that. On our way to lunch we walk through a back corridor where, behind a load of boxes and sports equipment, I can see the top of a cabinet containing awards. I’m told they are given, rather than applied for, and I get the strong impression that nobody is too bothered about them.
Over lunch we talk about how people are recruited and learn the values of the company. Timpson recruit on personality and their expectations of staff are fairly stringent. There is no such thing as a bad day in front of a customer. Certain hairstyles aren’t allowed, there are criteria on appearance and you aren’t late. Honesty and transparency are demanded. It certainly wouldn’t be for everyone, and apparently it isn’t – staff turnover in the first six months of people joining the company is relatively high. But after that (and in Timpson people move up through the company from the bottom: apart from specialist roles they hardly ever recruit from outside above shop level) very few people leave. The expectations of staff are very clear: there are no surprises in terms of approach and the treatment of staff is equal and consistent. The benefits are really good: the bonuses that can be earned are unlimited, the company has holiday homes that colleagues (not ‘staff’) can apply to stay in free of charge, and the ‘Dreams come true’ scheme means you can write to the Chief Executive and ask for financial support to do something you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to do. I’m told the last successful applicant took his family out to a posh dinner to say thank you for their support. Expectations are clear and so are the benefits, and everyone is expected to be open, genuine and to leave any office politics at their old job.
The approach to management and empowerment is really interesting. It is made very clear that everyone, including the Chief Executive, is there to help the customer. The colleagues in shops are regarded as the most important in the business: all the back-office functions are there to support them to give great customer service. Staff are completely empowered: people in shops are given full autonomy to do whatever they think is right to give good customer service and when the Chief Executive gets contacted with a problem he gives it to one of his team to deal with it without telling them how or checking on the result. Trust, of everyone in the business, is central. Egos are absolutely left at the door.
I believe the staff on the frontline embody the values because those values are honest, genuine and permeate every part of the business. The weekly staff newsletter keeps them up to date and is full of low-quality, but real, phone pictures taken in shops of customers, shoe repairs and engraving jobs. A new YouTube channel encourages people to share their repair techniques online so they can learn from each other. Away days are held and the Chief Executive aims to visit each shop once a year.
From a communications point of view, it’s not rocket science. Be clear, be consistent, share information, reward people. To be fair, it isn’t a complicated business – and it is interesting that Timpson don’t have strategies, they just have plans and projects – and the more tricky aspects of comms in terms of stakeholder relationships, partnership work and service change don’t really apply. But they have got their employee engagement absolutely nailed, and it’s through the behaviours, at every level of the company, matching the stated values.
Interestingly, Timpson don’t have a communications team. Their HR team lead employee engagement and the newsletters, YouTube channel and employee handbooks are outsourced. They don’t have any marketing or PR at all, because they don’t need it – they rely on doing a good job to bring customers in, and they behave well. There’s a lesson for us all there. Perhaps we should be aiming to support our companies to be so genuine that we do ourselves out of a job?
With thanks to Laura Garside and the team at Timpson
Julie Odams is head of communications at Staffordshire University and you’ll find her on Twitter at @JulieDOdams
Image via Jim Pennucci