The rules of engagement

Energised employees equal happy customers – and logistics multinational Unipart has been reaping the rewards for years


Employee engagement has hit the agenda in UK business and politics – even government is now focused on involving and motivating employees as part of an organisation.

In the business world, major corporations and even smaller companies are keen to improve the working experience for employees, as well as bettering services and products for consumers.

But circumstances were vastly different a few decades ago. In the 1970s and 80s, industrial problems blighted the landscape, from running battles between companies and unions to issues around quality and global competitiveness.

Inspiring good service was a novel concept. While in America, delivering “customer service” was perceived simply as part of doing one’s job, many British people considered it beneath them to be considered “servile” by focusing on clients.

Employee engagement in those days had startlingly few early advocates but, in recent years, that has changed dramatically.

Like other transformations, it began as a gradual, difficult process which accelerated as companies focused more on employees and customers. For those who succeeded, employee engagement has become something of a passion.

Unipart Group, a multinational firm spanning areas including logistics, manufacturing and consultancy, kicked off its efforts to energise employees 25 years ago and well before many others.

At the time, the company had been part of British Leyland, a name tarnished by industrial disputes, until a management buy-out established Unipart as a separate entity.

In its earliest days, Unipart’s employee focus involved launching an innovative share scheme for all employees and founding the Unipart U, the UK’s first “corporate university”, offering personal and professional development courses to employees.

But when John Neill, the group’s CEO and chairman, talks about employee engagement, he becomes passionate about the company’s Mark in Action programme. “We set our corporate goal 25 years ago to make the Unipart logo the mark of outstanding personal customer service,” he said.  “Thousands of employees strive daily to live up to that goal and over 2,600 of them have achieved and done extraordinary things which have earned them the prestigious Mark in Action award which is only given after rigorous scrutiny by independent external judges.”

The programme allows employees to be nominated for extraordinary customer service and involves around six high profile award ceremonies each year. It’s a bit like the Academy Awards with nomination speeches bringing the award winners’ achievements to life and the stories are then retold many times over.

“Mark in Action is part of Unipart’s heritage,” said Neill. “In the mid-Seventies, Unipart established its guiding philosophy which was ‘to understand the real and perceived needs of our customers better than anyone else and serve them better than anyone else.’

“From our earliest days, we trained people and helped them to really live by the philosophy. In 1987, at the time of the buy-out, it was time to raise the bar again. That’s when we created Mark in Action.

“I did a lot of research, and the great business thinkers were saying that the battle of the 21st century would be for the customer. That idea resonated strongly with my own views. In the Seventies and Eighties, that wasn’t the culture in British business, but we knew that we had to involve every single person in the business in that crusade if we were to succeed for the long term.”

While he argues this concept has bred some “empty rhetoric” in other quarters, Neill believes Unipart’s Mark in Action has created a driven, customer-focused workforce.

He says: “We needed to do great things for customers that they wouldn’t normally expect. Doing that would affect how customers and employees felt about the company.

“We also introduced the idea of internal customers, so that all employees understood that they had a ‘customer’ to think about. Internally, for instance, a finance team might go out of their way to help an operations team to justify sensible investments. People will help each other out, often going well beyond their normal job,” said Neill.

Though he concedes the financial benefits are hard to quantify, he believes the awards – which have seen more than 2,600 people recognised for their achievements – make a major impact.

“In today’s world, business is brutally competitive and companies are always focusing on costs, but when clients decide to come to us, it’s often because they have learned that cheaper competitors, who cannot match the dedication and innovation of Unipart people, end up costing them more in the long term in lost customers,” he says.

“The awards have made a huge difference in terms of employee motivation and the service they give, even if it’s hard to quantify.”

Neill says that other businesses have been inspired by Unipart Group’s example. “I was giving a presentation to some executives at RBS, for instance, when they remarked that a number of their employees had been to Unipart and had come back telling everyone how inspiring it was.”

Though Neill is enthusiastic about the benefits of the programme and improved customer service, he is equally focused on making employees feel appreciated.

“Most people want to be good at what they do,” he says. “Thanking people for a good job makes coming to work much more enjoyable.”

The Mark in Action awards have become prestigious, both internally and among clients.

The prize for winners – a set number of company shares and a gold pin – is modest, but the event carries clout.

Winners are picked out by an independent panel of judges led by David Grayson, who directs the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University, and Mark Goyder, founder of think tank Tomorrow’s Company.

The programme has even caught the eye of royalty, with the Queen presenting one award, and news of the events are broadcast through the company’s internal video programme Grapevine.

And competition for awards is fierce, with stories of award winners becoming part of the company’s heritage.

“One of my favourite stories comes from the Baginton distribution centre,” Neill says. “They were packing parts for Jaguar in the middle of winter when there was a power cut. It was freezing cold and the lights went out. It would have been perfectly reasonable for people to say ‘we are going to go home now.’

“But they knew that if they didn’t get that order dispatched, the client’s customers would be upset. They found some car batteries, unpacked some headlights and used them to illuminate the aisles to pack the critical parts. The customers never knew anything had happened.

“There are hundreds of stories like that, which people inside and outside the company continue to talk about.”

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