Conference 2013: Prioritise service to succeed, says Jonathan Austin

Published:  24 June, 2013

Jonathan Austin is the man behind the Sunday Times' Best Companies To Work For lists, and he spoke to delegates about what should be sitting at the core of their businesses.

Jonathan Austin is the man behind the Sunday Times' Best Companies To Work For lists, and he spoke to delegates about what should be sitting at the core of their businesses.

Over the past 14 years, Mr Austin has been surveying 3m people, from 5,000 companies, about what they want from their world of work.

Having started his working life with a summer job at North West Timber, he recalled with fondness the banter in the branches, and the relationships that were built between customers and staff.

"People buy from people," he said, before telling delegates about Jack Welch of global company General Electrics, who over 20 years as CEO grew that company five times, and was named one of the managers of the 20th Century.

Mr Welch wrote a book called 'Winning', which outlined the three things a healthy organisation needs, and which business leaders should always keep a very close eye on. These were employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow.

Mr Austin went on to poll delegates about how often they measure these three areas, there were some interesting results.  

When asked how often the companies measure their cash flow, something Mr Austin said was absolutely vital for any business, five percent said quarterly, 47% monthly, 32% said weekly, and 16% said monthly.

A surprising 40% of the businesses in the room said they never measure the satisfaction of their customers, while 33% said they measure it yearly, 15% said quarterly, five percent measure customer satisfaction on a monthly basis, and eight percent said they measure it daily.

Mr Austin also stressed that employee engagement was also vital, and was something that businesses should measure at least yearly, if not more often.

John Lewis' customer experience was highlighted as something that businesses should strive for, but Mr Austin said that in order to provide that kind of elevated customer experience, businesses first have to engage their employees. He also noted that John Lewis' employees famously have a stake in the business themselves, but that statistics show that having a co-operative, employee-owned organisation isn't required in order to provide these levels of customer service.

On a cautionary note, Mr Austin also highlighted the increasing role that social media and the internet is playing in promoting good - and perhaps more importantly, bad business practice to the general public.

He played a video from YouTube of a South West Airlines steward giving a very different kind of customer safety briefing prior to a plane taking off - one which encouraged the passengers to get involved and energised their positive experience of the business. To watch the video yourself, click here:

He then played a second video - this time a country singer who had had a very negative experience of flying with United Airlines, one which he went on to communicate via YouTube in song. ( This video portrayed the business and its employees in a very poor light as unhelpful and uninterested in their customers after damaging some of his property.

While the South West Airlines video has had just under one million views on YouTube, the negative video of United Airlines has been viewed over 13m times - a sobering thought for any company who  wants to protect their reputation. Negative customer experiences can be publicised through social media to far more people than would have been possible 10 years ago.

Mr Austin went on to look more closely at the importance of employee engagement with their job, something that he said has been particularly difficult to ensure since the economic downturn.

"Lots of data shows that people are really struggling with employee engagement," he said. "Everyone is working under increasing pressure, and finding that pressure very challenging."

So how does Mr Austin think businesses should build energy in their employees and ensure their company grows even more successful at the same time? He said businesses should first be sure what their primary reason for business is.

He posed a final poll to the audience, asking them to choose what their primary purpose is as a company. From several choices, 53% of the delegates said their primary purpose was to make money, 32% said it was to provide great products and services, while 16% chose maximising value for their shareholders.

But Mr Austin compared those results with an identical poll given among a recent list of 100 Best Companies. In contract, 49.5% of those businesses said it was to provide great products and services, 21.9% chose serving the community as their primary purpose, and only 18% chose maximising shareholder value. Just 10.5% said their main goal was to make money.

"If you focus solely on money you won't get it," he warned. "It's a byproduct of providing a great service."

He highlighted two very successful businesses and their primary purposes, including a travel agency whose goal was to "open up the world to people who want to see it", and global design and engineering firm Arup, whose primary purpose is "to shape a better world".

A company's core principles, he said, should describe the behaviour it wants to see throughout its organisation. He recommended that companies create an 'outrageous ambition', something which is a vivid description of where they want to be in five years, even if this is only 50% achievable, as it engages employees and gives everyone something to strive for. Then, businesses should create an 'ingenious plan', setting out how to connect the primary purpose, behaviours and goals in a measurable plan so that everyone in the businesses can understand how to play their part.

For a full report on this year's BMF All-Industry Conference, don't forget to read the July/August issue of Builders' Merchants News.

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