Sunday 16 December 2018

Looking after your people well will bear fruit for your company in the long run

'If employees are treated well (and I don't mean mollycoddled), they'll be more productive and they will happily give better service to their internal and external customers.'
'If employees are treated well (and I don't mean mollycoddled), they'll be more productive and they will happily give better service to their internal and external customers.'

Alan O'Neill

People are your greatest asset' is a well-worn cliché, often treated with derision by tough task masters who see the 'people stuff' as fluffy. But interestingly 99pc of complaints my clients receive can be attributed to 'people issues' and less so to product faults. Unless your business is totally digital, with no human interaction between customers and you, then you should care about how your people interact with them.

I recall an example I experienced when supporting a bank client on a customer service project. One particular branch was scoring low in both customer feedback and employee engagement surveys. When I went to investigate, I discovered countless examples of how and why the team were disgruntled. Having listened to their issues and sorted the reasonable from the ridiculous, we went to work on corrective actions. In the next round of surveys, empathy and respect increased and so did the results.

Keelings Retail

Keelings Retail is a leading grower and wholesaler of fruit and vegetables in Ireland. Founded in 1926 by WP Keeling and his wife Christine, the business has evolved through the generations. Originally just selling their own produce, they are now a major seller of a wide and varied range of Irish and imported fruit and vegetables.

They commissioned a consumer study a number of years ago and learned that consumers want a relationship with growers they could trust. That led them to develop their Keelings Love to Grow brand in 2010. They wanted to offer more choice to their customers - and to drive sales generally in the category.

Keelings sells products that are really good for our health and wellbeing. But the market they serve is unhealthily price-driven, putting enormous pressure on margin. Consequently, the sector underinvests in marketing compared, for example, to the less healthy snacks market.

Investment in innovation also suffers as the sector plays safe to protect margin. As an exception however, CEO David Keeling said "we in Keelings have invested in high-tech glasshouses, which have extended the growing season by five months".

Recent Challenges

Weather has a huge impact on the business. With the recent tough winter, Keeling's glasshouses were in danger of collapsing under the weight of snow, so they had to accelerate the melting, costing hundreds of thousands of euros and putting huge pressure on deliveries. While that was very unfortunate, I was pleasantly encouraged on my visit by their culture challenge.

"To produce one punnet of strawberries requires 30 unsung heroes behind the scenes doing things right. We have a vision to be the best in Ireland in our industry, so we need high standards in all we do," said David.

Keelings wants to be a 'Best Employer' in its sector and locations, ensuring they are engaged, customer-focused, efficient and productive.

Change Tips

As the economy improves, many industries are embroiled in a war for talent, with shortages of chefs, hairdressers, experienced salespeople, etc. Therefore, we as employers need to think differently and treat 'people as our greatest asset'. One way of doing that is through great communications, an area that inevitably gets lowest scores in employee surveys. I have introduced Team Briefing to countless clients as a programme to mitigate against that.

Team Briefing

Team-briefing is a two-way channel of delivering key relevant information from the executive team to the front line and subsequent feedback to the exec team. It is a structured process, usually done monthly:

1 The executive team take time at the end of their meeting to agree key messages. I regularly hear from managers that they don't always have enough to say.

2 Each executive then adds local issues relevant to their own department to the master brief and prepares for their respective meetings.

3 When briefing, managers should be trained to deliver the brief in an upbeat and inspirational way. There may be times when you personally don't like or agree with a particular point. Nevertheless, because it was agreed at the executive team (which you represent) you should deliver it with conviction.

If you pass the buck saying something like 'I don't agree with this myself, but…', you risk losing credibility as a manager.

4 This is a two-way process. When briefing, be sure to get each point across first uninterrupted, before you seek feedback.

5 Each team's feedback should then be summarised at the next executive meeting, so that the organisation has a finger on the pulse of the mood and morale.


I believe strongly in the value chain that determines a critical link between employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and business results.

If employees are treated well (and I don't mean mollycoddled), they'll be more productive and they will happily give better service to their internal and external customers. Communications is a key ingredient in that. And team briefing is an excellent framework that can be adapted for organisations of all sizes. All of that, is good for business.


Alan O'Neill is a change consultant and non-executive director. For 25-plus years he has been supporting global and iconic brands through change. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to

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