I pray thee leave, call home the heart you gave me….’ Billy Dobinson, a customer assistant at Marks & Spencer’s Metro Centre, is reading aloud from a book of love poems. Every now and then he stops reading and unashamedly plugs his Valentine’s Day champagne & chocolates promotion. Billy thinks he looks as cool as Connery playing Bond. His colleagues laugh and tell him he looks like a bouncer at Spearmint Rhino. The customers are in stitches. Billy laps it up.

Melanie Willey has spent the best part of a day getting rid of outdated till restrictions. Since removing them, customer queues have become shorter. She always knew this would happen but didn’t feel like doing anything about it before.

What exactly is going on at this store? To answer this we need to go back to summer 2002. The food hall was about to undergo a £2m refurb. As you would expect of a project of this size, every detail had been covered from the colour scheme to the freezers.

But the same amount of detail had not gone into thinking about a new beginning for staff, who thought getting food out on to shelves came first. The customer at best came a poor second. This had to change.

Working with ABA Consultants, senior managers met and came up with ‘One Food Team’. This initiative promised to create a vibrant culture in the food hall; make it a special place to work; create an environment where customer assistants are always looking for opportunities to make it great for customers and a store where customers leave saying ‘you’ll
never believe what happened to me in M&S today!’

The first task was convincing management to commit wholeheartedly to the concept. This meant having the courage to stick with it irrespective of any pressure they might come under; asking themselves whether they had the ‘hands off’ leadership skills to let customer assistants successfully run the initiative; and asking how much power they were willing to give up - and then giving it up.

They bought into the idea because the objectives were to be achieved by the people who deliver. The customer assistants wouldn’t be left floundering.
They could always access their team sponsor - someone from management- to run ideas past, or negotiate time off the sales floor. And coaching support would always be there if they needed it.

Solid business reasons support this approach. The turnaround of US retailing giant Sears in the 1990s was attributed to a 5% increase in employee satisfaction, which led to a 1.3% rise in customer satisfaction and a 0.5% increase in profit.

However, when we said the same thing could happen here, we hit a major roadblock. An atmosphere of ‘If you get it wrong you’ll get shouted at’ still existed, even though that culture had disappeared long ago.

Second, staff still believed putting food onto the shelves came first - even though management had worked hard at getting the message across that customers come first.

However, once ideas started to flow, senior management didn’t block any of them. This single factor had the greatest impact on the initiative’s success. For example, Scott and Olaf, in Café Revive, introduced newspapers, bigger meal portions, a wider range of choice in the children’s menu and distributed top-up tea/ coffee vouchers when queues developed. Leon brought in children from a special needs school to hear Hallowe’en Stories. Beverley and Theresa knew customers liked food tasting but got frustrated when they couldn’t find the product. So they commandeered a fridge, stocked it with product and placed it next to the food tasting. Sales doubled.

The payoff came in personal development, business results and improved culture. The teams needed to develop a multitude of skills overnight, such as running tough meetings and energising low energy colleagues. They no longer wait for permission to get on with what needs to be done - they just get on and do it.

At the start we agreed a set of improved profit targets with the senior managers. During the initiative, the food hall’s takings went up by 6%. In a benchmark against the whole of M&S, customer service rose from -2 to + 5 while customer selling skills rose from -1 to + 3.

Billy’s unswerving belief that his main job is to provide a great place for his customers is just one reason why there’s more laughter and banter coming out of the food hall. Maybe dressing up as James Bond and reading love poems isn’t such an odd way to spend time after all.

n Nigel Mills is NE area head of HR at M&S.