Turning ex-offenders into customer service heroes


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When talking about customer service exploits, we often hear the same names coming up again and again. Names like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton, Disney etc etc. Moreover, we hear a lot about how they structure their organisations and how they hire staff, train them and empower them and how all of this is a key part of how they deliver exceptional customer service.

But, the challenge with hearing the same names over and over again is that it can lessen their impact and the incentive for others to try and emulate them.

Therefore, it’s always heartening to discover another example of a firm that is producing it’s own set of customer service heroes but in it’s own way.

Take Timpson, for example, who are the UK and Ireland’s leading retail service provider of shoe repairs, key cutting, watch repairs, engraved personalised gifts, dry cleaning and assisted photo ID.

Like Zappos, who have in the past described themselves as ‘a service company that just happens to sell shoes’, one could describe Timpson as a ‘service company that just happens to fix shoes and cut keys etc…..’.

But, they are so much more than that.

Established in 1865, Timpson started out as a a shoe making business and remained family owned until 1972 when a board room coup meant that the Timpson family lost control of the business and it was sold to United Drapery Stores. However, in 1983, John lead a management buyout of Timpson from the then owners Hanson Trust Plc and over the next 8 years eventually acquired all of the shares and returned the business to full family ownership.

Since then, the business has grown rapidly from 140 shops to currently over 1,500 and a large part of their growth and success has been underpinned by their unique approach to running their business: Upside Down Management. Some of the highlights of their approach include:

  • They have very few rules and trust colleagues to do their job in the way that they think is best.
  • Staff at Head Office are not allowed to issue orders. Their sole role is to support their shop colleagues in doing their jobs better.
  • Everyone at Timpson starts as an apprentice (at the bottom) and they work their way up.
  • Timpson only hire people that have the right personality (attitude is part of personality).
  • Staff are actively encouraged to use their initiative and try new ideas.
  • Problems in employees personal lives affect their ability to perform on the job. Therefore, Timpson operates a financial assistance programme to help employees in financial difficulty.
  • They avoid excessive time spent budgeting or in meetings. Instead, management, including John, spend a lot of time out on the road visiting shops and talking to customers to get real-time information.
  • They have no marketing or PR department as they believe their customers are their best advert.
  • They stopped appraisals 25 years ago as they believe they are a waste of time.
  • They also provide a generous series of other benefits including:
    • 5 holiday homes that are available for staff to book and use for free;
    • A final salary pension scheme that is open to all staff including new joiners; and
    • They give everyone in the business a day off on their birthday.

But, their work doesn’t stop there and, when talking to John, it was their employment of ex-offenders and the success of the programme that they have set up to hire, train and employ ex-offenders that really stood out for me.

Their programme started out by chance 13 years ago when James, now CEO of the business and John’s son, was visiting a prison. He was so impressed by the prisoner showing him round that he gave him his business card and said ‘when you get out, give me a ring and I’ll give you a job’.

On leaving prison, that prisoner, Matt, did call James, did land a job and he is still working with the business.

On the back of that encounter James, John and his late wife, Alex, decided this was something they should continue with, particularly, when they found out that 60% of people that come out of prison re-offend within 2 years but that number drops to 19% if they have a job.

As a result, they now have a programme that trains and employs ex-offenders across a number of prisons in the UK.

Whilst John is the first to admit that they have made mistakes along the way and it’s not always been easy, Timpson is now one of the leading UK businesses in the employment of ex-offenders and now employ around 350 of them making up approx. 10% of their workforce.

Moreover, by welcoming ex-offenders into their culture and business family they’ve been able to reduce the re-offending rate for the ex-offenders that they employ to 3% as compared to the 60% and 19% quoted previously.

However, Timpson’s initiative isn’t charity as everyone they hire is subject to the same standards. Their initiative is about second-chances and looking for potential in areas that many or most have written off and that is an important part of what makes them different and makes them stand out.

For me, this is where the lesson and inspiration lies. Many firms talk about hiring for attitude, training for skill and empowering their people. And, many do. But, as John laments, not many firms are willing to go the extra mile and follow their example in looking for potential and future customer service heroes in uncommon places.

So, therein lies the challenge…….What are you willing to do to create your next generation of customer service heroes?

This post was originally published on my Forbes.com column here.
Photo Credit: jeffdjevdet via Compfight cc

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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