Countrywide Farmers

Share the Passion

Countrywide Farmers has over 40 country stores across the UK, serving the rural community with all its needs, be that equestrian equipment, farm animal feed for smallholders or everyday groceries for villagers. The Worcestershire-based company prides itself on a strong customer service ethic, and employees are generally loyal and committed.

However management felt this expertise and passion for the company could be enhanced and used to better effect if employees were given some help with communication and motivation. “We knew that if their communication skills were improved, and individuals were given more confidence to share their passion and knowledge with each other and the customers, far greater things could be achieved,” says Garry Wharmby, Retail Director at Countrywide. “It became clear that a focus on customer service was the best way forward, but we needed some outside help to show us the way.”

Wharmby had previously worked at B&Q and seen successful sales uplifts and customer service improvements achieved when The Extra Mile Partnership motivated and inspired previously disengaged store teams there.

In 2008 Paul Stalker and his team were invited to take up the challenge at Countrywide and “a two-pronged attack” was instigated, says Wharmby. “Firstly one-to-one coaching was provided for store managers and regional managers, and secondly a company-wide ‘Ignition Event’ was undertaken whereby nearly all store staff attended a one-day event which helped them radically change their mindsets, and work towards clear customer service values in everything they did.”

The management coaching gave store and regional managers very clear systems with which to improve KPIs and inspire their teams to achieve more. Giving them the confidence to have difficult conversations with colleagues, and tackle the thorny issue of disengaged, ineffective staff members allowed many individuals to change the way they were working. “We saw these people grow with us and become really excellent managers,” says Chris Humphries of The Extra Mile Partnership.

Meanwhile the Ignition Event proved incredibly useful, with employees enjoying the experience, and buying into Stalkie’s formula for a positive outlook on life. They embraced the opportunity to learn new ways to communicate and respond effectively. “What struck most people was how it affected their way of thinking not just at work, but outside in their home and family life too,” says Sarah Battrick, Store Manager of the Evesham branch.

“The Extra Mile team approach the motivational training in a fun, lively way that grabs people’s attention and provides many different angles to look at the issue of customer service,” say Wharmby. “Stalkie gets to the hearts and minds of just about everyone who attends. Those that don’t put much into in come out having gained the least, but there are very few who don’t respond well we found. When you dig deep, there’s a huge passion that most people do want to share, and often all that’s needed is some encouragement to bring people out of their shell.”

Rachael Osborne, HR and Training Officer at Countrywide was involved from the start and agrees that the Ignition Event stirred up positivity and confidence levels and really made Countrywide colleagues think about how their behaviours and mindsets could change for the better. “After the event is was important for representatives from The Extra Mile Partnership to come into stores and bring the new ethos to life on the shop floors, translating key learnings into day-to-day activities,” says Osborne. “This involved action planning, changing processes in the store, introducing new ways to motivate each other throughout the week. The Extra Mile Partnership put in a great deal of time and effort to make this happen.”

In these stores, customer service became embedded in the hearts and minds of employees so that it became second nature to approach customers, to ask if they needed help and to share product knowledge to those that needed it.

During the Ignition Event, the idea grew for a high profile customer service drive across the whole company. ‘Share the Passion’ – a customer service initiative that celebrated employees’ new-found enthusiasm and ability to communicate – was born, and went on to shape how store teams brought their ideas about service, product knowledge and mutual support alive in their everyday work. Customer Service Week, which is an Institute of Customer Service event held by companies nationwide every October, became a particular focus for the stores, and proved the ideal opportunity to give the Share the Passion drive lift-off across Countrywide stores.

“We undoubtedly have more enthusiastic staff now,” says Wharmby. “The Extra Mile Partnership helped us engage our people, and deliver better customer service.” He says mystery shopping scores improved dramatically after the Extra Mile training. “While we were previously achieving scores of around 69% when mystery shopping was undertaken, we have been hitting the 85% mark consistently for at least the last six months. Hard measures show progress too. “In the trading period since the training we have had record sales and profit,” says Wharmby. “In the financial year to May 2009 – despite a recession raging in the market – we have seen double digit like-for-like growth, which is an incredible achievement.”

Sarah Battrick, manager of the Evesham branch of Countrywide Farmers was very pleased to see KPIs and mystery shop scores improve. The impact on her staff is still being felt many months after the Ignition Event. “People enjoyed the day so much that they are keen to go on it again if the situation arises,” she says. A personal highlight has been seeing her staff respond well to the reward and recognition programme that the Extra Mile management course inspired her to introduce. “Although the company has always been good at rewarding top-line achievements like hitting targets and store performance for the year, it’s not often that the small, frontline achievements get recognised,” says Battrick. “Now they really are, and it’s appreciated at every level.”

An unexpected benefit of the training initiative has been industry recognition of the ‘Share the Passion’ customer service drive. Against very stiff competition it was nominated for the Retail Week Customer Service Initiative Award 2009, raising Countrywide Farmers’ profile as a truly customer-centric organization, and helping raise staff morale still further.