Margaret McDonald couldn’t stop shaking and shivering as the temperature in her small terraced house continued to drop precipitously. It gets cold and dark early on a windswept December night in Glasgow and 2011 was a particularly cold winter. With her boiler not working, the cold bit ever harder and stronger and she started to see her breath in the cold night air. It wasn’t as if Margaret was a stranger to hardship, privation and tough times. During World War II she had worked at the munitions factory in Bishopton and, after the war, living in the Gorbals, she felt the ongoing, relentless pain of poverty that many others in the area shared. But with the resolution and determination that Scots are known for, she and her husband David, who worked in the shipyards on the Clyde, were able to move to a small, neat and well-kept Southside house, where they lived for over 50 years.

David died five years earlier and while Margaret was still strong willed, proud and stoic, even she realized that at 92, she needed to find help to fix her boiler, and fast. Then she remembered that she had signed up for boiler service plan, but couldn’t remember who it was with. She anxiously but carefully went through the drawer in the living room where she kept her important papers but couldn’t find anything. Then she had a thought and opened the door to the small cupboard that housed the boiler and there on a shelf was an envelope. She looked inside and sure enough there was an official looking document from a company called HomeServe. “Yes” she cried, this was it, the service policy. She searched the document for a phone number and when she found it dialled the number with a sense of relief and hope that help might soon be on the way.

After struggling through a number of choices from the automatic answering service a welcoming human voice answered the phone. As Mrs MacDonald voice’s expressed concern and worry the adviser patiently and empathetically walked her through the process. But then her hopes were shattered. “I’m sorry Mrs MacDonald but this policy expired a month ago”, said the adviser. “What can I do” she said,” I’m really cold and can’t really stand another night without heat. “The adviser replied, “I can re-start your policy and we can see when we can get an engineer to come out. It will be £150. Can you give me a credit card to process the payment?” Unfortunately she couldn’t, as she always paid by cheque or cash and had never really trusted credit or debit cards. The adviser said, “I’m sorry the only thing I can do is to send you out a renewal form and you can send a cheque with the payment.”

Now Mrs Macdonald began to panic. “Can’t you send somebody? I’ll give them the cheque.” The adviser knew the answer even though it chilled her to the core to deliver it. “I’m sorry, we not able to dispatch an engineer if the policy has lapsed.” This was all part of the focus on sales and increasing shareholder value that underpinned the HomeServe management’s marketing strategy. Delivering service to someone who hadn’t paid definitely didn’t fit that model! This wasn’t the first time that the adviser Gemma Hammond had encountered this type of call and it always seemed as if it was an elderly or otherwise vulnerable customer to whom she had to deliver the bad news. But she knew it was more than her job was worth to go against company policy. She made a note of Mrs MacDonald’s name and added it to her growing list of similar calls she had taken and once again made a silent vow that one day she’d be able to really help Mrs MacDonald and others like her. Little did she know that the cavalry was already mounting up and help was on the way.

The chickens come home to roost and the bill is £30 Million

Regulatory bodies take their fair, and sometimes deserved, share of flack, but in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008/9, a new sense of  responsibility became evident and many began to look for where the bodies were buried. In particular the Financial Services Authority (Now the Financial Conduct Authority FCA) realized that mis-selling of financial service products, in particular Payment Protection Insurance (PPI), was a huge issue and all of the major banks had to make provisions for huge fines. They weren’t the only ones and while the FCA was trawling for the bigger fish they also hooked a smaller, but seriously misbehaving organization in the insurance sector. Yes, it was HomeServe.

The full FSA Report lays out in excruciating detail the list of transgressions attributed to HomeServe and made for difficult reading for people like Gemma who really cared for customers and wanted to treat them fairly and compassionately. Tracey McDermott, the FCA’s director of enforcement and financial crime, sums it up with this comment.

“This is a serious case, one that has warranted our largest retail conduct fine [of £30 million] and generated a sizeable bill [£17 million] for consumer redress. HomeServe is another example of a firm that has acted without proper regard for its customers over a long period of time. HomeServe promises to provide customers with peace of mind when things go wrong. In fact the firm’s culture, controls and remuneration structures meant that staff was focussed on quantity not quality and there were customers that paid the price for that.

The report went on to say “that the FCA considers that the failings were particularly serious given that a significant proportion of its customers were of retirement age and therefore more vulnerable. HomeServe has been contacting potentially affected customers to provide redress where appropriate. This customer contact exercise is on-going.”

The last two sentences could have been plucked from a PR guidebook or penned by a marketing whiz to convince the world that these financial services footpads and miscreants have found redemption and truly mended their ways. But the banks, in true three wise monkey fashion, seem to be taking a long time to learn their lessons. While they all had their knuckles rapped, their hands still work alarming well and we regularly find them in our pockets extracting excessive fees and charges to the extent that two years ago Which? magazine launched a petition to get them to address the issue. But HomeServe’s People are cut from different cloth and their action plan was based on authenticity and commitment and formed the foundation and guiding principles of the new culture that evolved. After the appropriate “mea culpas” they set their sights not just on redemption, but rebirth. And no one was happier, or more willing to be the mid-wife, than Gemma Hammond.

Fixing the Leaks – Finding their Way

As both a serial complainer as a customer, and a customer experience practitioner, I’ve felt particular appreciation to the Germans for giving us the word schadenfreude. With no shortage of companies constantly and consistently ripping off customers with apparent impunity, when the day of reckoning arrives, I’m as happy as anyone to see a transgressor get their comeuppance. It’s usually accompanied by a lame, insincere apology, often blaming “technical difficulties”, “administrative or human errors” or other  unlikely and unbelievable explanations. The UK Train Operating Companies and their apologists,  The Rail Delivery Group, are masters at this subterfuge. And of course now have serious competition from BA!  But something different happened with HomeServe. They acted quickly, responsibly and authentically, and I was fortunate enough to learn more about how they achieved this when I met Greg Reed, HomeServe Membership CEO and Chief HomeServe Evangelist, one of the key drivers on the road to recovery.  While Greg, along with HomeServe UK CEO Martin Bennett, led the charge and created a culture of top down – bottom up innovation, they had the full support of colleagues throughout the organizations who saw this as a real opportunity to transform HomeServe and make it an organization they could all be proud of.

Individuals that have experienced traumatic events, whether self-inflicted addictions or circumstantial, and have survived, often seem to come through the other side the better for it and exercise tremendous determination to recover and be a better person. You need look no further than many of the injured service men and women, who have gone on to lead full and rewarding lives despite their hardships. Achieving that as a company is not as easy. It takes true leadership from the top, commitment from the troops and an unwavering, uncompromising belief in doing the right thing. Which in a business sense, means doing the right thing for the customer, not just today, not just for a few, but forever and for the many.

This was going to take a whole new attitude, a whole new awareness of what customer really meant, and a commitment to continue to change the culture from sales-focused to customer-centric. Easy to say, but as many businesses have found out, much more difficult to achieve unless you have everyone on board and they believe and trust in the destination in equal measure.

A New Beginning – Customer First (yes really!)

In 2014 following the FCA fine, HomeServe needed to recover financially, organizationally and reputationally. To make this happen Martin, Greg and the senior executive team developed a forward-looking strategy which they called Effortless 2020, in which they set out their stall to be the UK’s number one home assistance company,.

It was clear that reducing Customer effort and nurturing an innovation culture would be critical elements of this strategy as they required the full support, and buy-in, from the whole organization, especially the Frontline. One of the most important key initiatives, was the idea of CustomerFirst. In HomeServe’s universe 96% of the 2000+ jobs they complete in Customers’ homes each day are completed the same day and go off without any issues.  When it is a straightforward claim within the policy then it is simple.  What happens though when it isn’t straight forward? What happens when the customer is not insured according to the terms but the Frontline person wants to help them because they have been loyal or is vulnerable? How do you empower people to make that decision?

Greg Reed thought he had the answer and in some honest, soul searching sessions with his colleagues decided that they would just ask their people to send examples of customer issues they’d like help resolving or processes that needed improving. A cross-functional team would review the requests first thing the following morning and remedial action agreed and implemented as quickly as possible. The new “baby” was conceived now it was time to “Call the mid-wife” And Gemma Hammond was ready and waiting!

Computer says No – People say Yes!

You’ll remember that Gemma wanted to help Margaret MacDonald earlier in our story, but organizational indifference and an unhealthy desire for profit made that impossible. Now she could act. Now she could make a difference. Now she could show the compassion that came naturally to her. Gemma had compiled a list of all those vulnerable customers that had requested help and suggested that as a starting point for CustomerFirst, they would contact them to get an update on the situation and where possible, and appropriate, provide a solution. Margaret McDonald was one of the first people that she called. After checking to make sure all was well, Gemma was able to assure her that she would never be left in the cold again and that HomeServe would always be proactive in ensuring her needs would be met. Since then Gemma has gone onto to be a champion of the CustomerFirst program with almost over 125 referrals to the Customer First team and is an inspiration to her many Frontline colleagues who also make significant referrals. Martin Bennett and the other execs have reinforced the CustomerFirst message consistently over the past 18 months and it is now part of the fabric of the business.  Over two thousand people have now made submissions to the program demonstrating what engaged and committed colleagues can do and allowing the Frontline People to really own and influence the Customer experience.

Powered by People, fuelled by Compassion, Reassurance and Enthusiasm

Customer First has also played a key role in implementing many of the other elements of the 2020 strategy. The submissions were categorized as either “Good Neighbour” or “Business Improvement.” Based on that feedback this guided the investment in process re-engineering and technology to reduce customer effort and make life easier for front line specialists and engineers to drive more value for customers. This also had a positive impact in reducing the cost base by eliminating unworkable policies, reducing waste and driving overall efficiencies.

None of this happened overnight and the big difference is that Home Serve has empowered the staff at all levels to do the right thing. This can only be done if you set up a democratic style of leadership where the People play a key role. Having Frontline people identifying customer issues is just the start of the process. But to really affect lasting change, and to make CustomerFirst the real deal, consistent communication throughout the business as well as strong community spirit are basic tenets of the program. Consequently the CustomerFirst team led by Sohib Hussain and Tony Bishop are in constant dialogue with everyone associated with any customer issue to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks and in helping one customer they don’t inadvertently disadvantage another. This takes understanding, creativity and trust on many levels and there are healthy and visible supplies of the latter on display. A great example of this is the on-site shop. It had no staff, and works on the honour system serving an unlimited supply of honest, caring and trusted people.

But you can’t just say “we trust you” and then walk away. It’s an ongoing and natural key cultural element that must be constantly fed and nurtured and permeates the whole business. The resulting theme is “Together we’ll take care of it” which the whole business has literally signed up to and is a constant and daily reminder of this commitment. It’s underpinned by “Our People Promises” and “Our Customer Promises” which are also prominently displayed throughout the building and are the cornerstones of the culture of trust in each other and their shared responsibility towards all customers.



Put the right tools in the right hands and watch them go

HomeServe also recognized that even with a healthy dose of good intentions, empowerment and enthusiasm, colleagues needed to be enabled by the right technology to allow them to really shine. Consequently there is an ongoing and carefully orchestrated program to roll-out of solutions based on readily and easily accessible customer interaction data, that is personalized, relevant and immediately beneficial to the customer and colleagues. Customers reach out from many places, in different ways and usually without much warning. What they want more than anything is recognition of who they are; what their issues are; and how quickly and smoothly it will be addressed.  And that the person they’re speaking with has the full context in order to satisfy their interaction smoothly and completely. As part of a key transformation towards a more digital operation, HomeServe has also embraced social media and web-chat to make sure that they’re available to speak to customers via their channel of choice, which in today’s world is becoming increasingly important for all customers.

And it’s not just improving technology for the sake of customers, which of course is critical to great customer service. HomeServe has also realized that agent engagement is vital to delivering an outstanding customer experience. Implementing a digital strategy requires cross-functional collaboration, and HomeServe’s CIO Lesley Ashman has been very prominent in engaging frontline people in the process. That means listening to advisers, understanding their biggest frustrations, encouraging the generation of new ideas and removing potential barriers for customer.

Four key lessons from HomeServe

The HomeServe journey should be required reading as part of any customer experience user manual and there’s a cornucopia of learning for any company striving for excellence in customer experience. However if I had to distil it down my top four lessons, they would be these.

1.  Empower Employees

Make it personal and let them be themselves

Empower can be an overused word, and often there are large perceptual gaps between a company’s ambitions and employee reality. But the concept is critical to success and is about giving employees permission to engage with customers on an emotional and personal level. There should some guidelines and you don’t want them giving away the store. But the customer service agent owns “the moment,” feels the pulse of the customer and has the greatest impact on the customer experience in the initial interactions. The best companies enhance their customer engagement by encouraging employees to build on their natural feelings, emotions and attitudes and do the right thing – for the customer.

2. Enable the Organization

Where agility, flexibility & adaptability trump dumb rules

Even if an employee is totally empowered, enablement means they have the right tools, accurate data, operational knowledge and organizational incentives to overcome procedural roadblocks and dumb company rules to really execute against your customer engagement strategy. It’s about creating an environment in which employees are continuously provided the right information at the right time and the encouragement to take affirmative action, and not be constricted by policies and procedures that worked fine in the 1950s but aren’t fit for purpose now.

Customer inspired companies such as HomeServe realize that customer service and the customer experience are not based on all customers being equal and eschew a “one size fits all” strategy. They align their processes, empower their staff and have the enabling technology to make sure that each customer interaction is relevant, personalized and satisfying, for both customer and colleague.

3. Engage and Communicate with Customers

Right Message, Right Time, Right People, Right Result

In an increasingly commoditized world organizations must focus on how they can differentiate themselves. This can be how they engage and connect with customers on an individual, personal basis and is often the missing piece in the engagement puzzle.

HomeServe has discovered that having their web-chat team engage promptly with customers they can identify those who are having an issue in real-time and can conduct proactive support that greatly improves the transactional, touch point customer experience and contributes positively to the full customer journey. It also increases the chances of first time resolution and unnecessary repeat contacts, and plays a key role in keeping a handle on costs. Which the best result and a great outcome for all stakeholders.

4. Embed a culture of excellence

Defined by the customer, refined by the people

Many companies talk nonchalantly about excellence as if it were something they could bestow on themselves. The best, and in fact the only, arbiters of excellence are customers. They will define what great service is, and what satisfaction means to them, and will be the ongoing barometer of excellence in your business.

Creating an environment where listening, hearing, understanding and acting becomes second nature is critical to achieving consistently high levels of customer satisfaction. But that’s only half the battle. To truly be best in class, and to develop and embed this culture of excellence, organizations must effectively leverage their talent, technology, and metrics to proactively anticipate and fulfil customer needs and expectations.

Employees who are trusted , treated well and empowered, have the tools and knowledge to succeed and the ability to use them wisely and are held accountable, but have authority, can really delight customers and make each experience, regardless of complexity, a memorable one that will have customers coming back for more.

In the end the key to this is consistency. Just having the playbook and the strategy is not enough; they’ve got to be used every day with every customer, across every channel and every interaction.

The Best News – The most improved company and even the bottom line comes out on top

Much of HomeServe’s earlier struggles came as a result of a focus on profit rather than customers. So it would be natural to expect that in order to regain the trust of customers and colleagues it would be necessary to make changes that could have an adverse effect on the bottom line. But as with many companies that take a more ethical and customer focused approach they found out that by doing the right thing for the right reasons, but not forgetting to do things right, the money actually followed and financial performance improved. In the most recent reporting period ending March 31, 2017, customer numbers rose by 11%, revenue grew by 24% and profit by 20%.

But’s it’s not just profits that are up. An independent survey has shown that HomeServe, is delivering on its Customer promises to provide effortless service, with the most improved Customer satisfaction in the Services industry since the Institute of Customer Service began measuring it.

They have also been named Best Home Emergency Cover Provider by Moneynet for the second year running and Bloomberg has rated HomeServe as the Best Employer in Business Services in the UK, following an independent employee survey. This was confirmed by Glassdoor who named HomeServe as one of the best places to work in the UK.

The HomeServe Army – Guardians of Integrity and Ethical Behaviour

When sporting teams and company shares record improvements that belies their previous poor performance, often as a result of a new manager, the term “dead cat bounce” is often used to describe this phenomenon. Feline elasticity rarely last long and is not really strategically viable over the long term. But with HomeServe it’s a very different type of bounce. While the initial charge was led by a few inspired and committed souls, the army was quickly mobilized and the job of sustaining and keeping alive the innovation culture is now in many strong hands, and is filled with the energy and commitment that comes from 3,142 guardians of integrity and ethical behaviour. They won’t let this one get away.


In the end what I discovered at HomeServe is that they’ve based their culture of excellence on a strong set of core values, and a code of behaviour that, as I noted earlier, is reflected frequently and visually throughout the HomeServe offices as their documented commitments to customers and each other. Neither is an empty promise nor a hastily devised marketing slogan and are living, breathing statements of intent that represent the true beating heart of the business. This is not mandated solely from above, but is based on shared beliefs, values, and practices. The company understand that one of the key outputs from increased employee engagement is where all of the employees have a strong voice that they are not afraid to exercise and are directly responsible for developing the fundamentals on which their service culture is built, and that will keep it alive.

It’s people like Gemma Hammond, Sohib Hussain, Tony Bishop, Greg Reed, and Martin Bennet, who, combined with the other resolute guardians of the future, have turned a small drop of compassion into a flood of goodwill, that has burst open the doors to showcase a great business!

Note: The opinions and comments in the article are the sole responsibility of Gerry Brown