It was encouraging to see the Post Office announce this month that “We will appoint two serving Postmaster Non-Executive director roles, and these two roles will bring stronger perspective into the room to help the Board make more informed, and better balanced decisions.”
Appointing members of the workforce is, of course, not a new concept. It has been tried elsewhere and, indeed, is something which the Financial Reporting Council recommends (in their Guidance on Board Effectiveness) that boards consider: “A director appointed from the workforce will bring a workforce view to the boardroom. They will have the same duties and responsibilities as the other directors and ideally will be in a position to contribute to discussions on wider issues.”
That is something we would all hope is the case. However, what really interested me in the briefing on the role was the following sentence: “Have strong customer service levels demonstrated by Voice of Customer scores of least 82%”. Ah the customer I thought to myself. Boards are rightly increasing their consideration and knowledge of stakeholders, wider than the traditional shareholder primacy. One of the most important stakeholders is the customer – or customers. However my experience of undertaking board effectiveness reviews from organisations ranging from FTSE 100 companies to small charities is that NEDS are all too frequently not very knowledgeable about the customer. It is a surprising confession – and omission – to make because without this very important stakeholder there will be no business.
One of the challenges is that the customer can be many and varied. A major utility, for example, will have all sorts of customers from the likes of you and me to major businesses. Their needs and wants will be very different. However, that still shouldn’t deter the NEDs from getting to know and understanding their customers – after all, if they don’t do this are they really going to understand the business? So if you are an aspiring or new NED here are some quick wins:
- Ensure your induction programme includes a core component of meeting with customers of all shapes and sizes. Try and do this on your own if you can – you’re much more likely to glean information from them (although, going back to that utility example again, don’t offer to read the meter if they ask!).
- If there is a call centre dealing with customer questions and complaints go and spend a day on the phones. You’ll learn a huge amount about customer challenges and satisfaction while getting to know and thereby earning the respect of the employees in the call centre.
- Go on site visits – again unannounced if you can. So, for example, if you are a NED on the board of a retailer try and visit some of the stores – it’s a good a way as any to soak up the culture of an organisation; see how customers are served and how employees engage with them.
- Attend any focus groups you can with customers to get their view of the organisation.
- Raise the profile of the customer (and their needs) at board meetings to ensure that management really are customer focused. And make sure this is measured and reported back on. As we all know, reputations are earned in a lifetime but lost in a day so keeping your customer happy is critical.
- Finally, if possible, become a customer yourself!
So I was pleased to see that the Post Office is looking for two employees to join the board. That should certainly help with employee engagement. However, I was more encouraged that there was a need to have strong customer service levels – and what better way to have the voice of the customer in the boardroom than appointing someone who actually serves the customer day in day out!