One retailer that seems to have got it right in terms of its people and culture is AO.com.

In an interview for my report on Digital Transformation in Retail Sector, Dave Lawson, AO.com’s group ecommerce director, said it's about getting the right people who care massively, are driven and smart, and rewarding them accordingly.

The basic principle of delivering what customers want is embedded in what AO.com does, but key for the company is its people. 

I was fascinated by what sounds like the perfect culture within a company, where everyone loved their job, was rewarded for what they do and was focused on the customer and keeping them happy.

So much so that I wanted to find out more and Andrew Kirkcaldy, AO.com's group brand director, who looks after both the brand team and people team, was happy to answer more of my questions. 

Can you first tell me about your job role. It sounds interesting to link brand and people together?

I have been in the business for eight years, working my way up from managing our Google paid search activity to managing all of the digital marketing teams, to now focusing on brand, people and culture.

Two years ago, we realised that it was our culture that had enabled the business to be so successful and would shape our brand's future success.

When I chat to people about what I do they are surprised at first, but when I explain the importance of having alignment of the culture and your brand communications it all makes sense.

I see a piece of brand communication as a promise to the consumer - if the reality of the business doesn’t match up to that promise then you won’t have a very sustainable business.

It’s about perception vs. reality, your brand communication has to originate from truth of the business; why do we do what we do.

For us our biggest risk is not necessarily competitors, but ourselves as we continue to grow. We have a lot of programmes that support our emerging talent, as we see promoting from within as a key defence against diluting our culture.

When we do look externally to recruit we take this very seriously. If we recruit a person who doesn’t believe in our vision and core values then this can be very disruptive and potentially damaging.

By ensuring that everyone has an intimate understanding and belief in our culture means that the people who don’t ‘get it’ stand out very clearly.  

We want to be the best electrical retailer in Europe. This can only happen by having the best people who believe they are part of shaping what that looks like.

Best means lots of different things to people, therefore, we need the culture that amplifies the passion for our customer, as every customer has different needs. 

How did you develop the culture you have?

Every business has a culture, but the key thing to understand is whether that culture is aligned to the vision of the business and, of course, aligned to what consumers expect and deserve.

In startup businesses the culture is very potent, as you have the passionate founder who exudes why they believe in the business.

As you grow more people join and decision-making gets de-centralised with people across different locations and countries, so this approach is not scalable. 

We knew that we had to codify the AO culture. We embarked on a programme of surveys, one-to-one interviews and focus groups to gather opinions, stories, anecdotes and customer testimonials, which gave us great insight into how it should be shaped.

After many iterations we settled on five values. We tested them by seeing whether these values were used when we made business decisions over the years, how we treat our customers, to how we treat each other.

Two of AO.com's five values

This enabled us to see that they were more than just words, but how people behaved and the resulting stories they created. They were a perfect match.

We launched the values by running culture workshops that outline the importance of our culture and why it now needed to be defined.

We now run regular values role model workshops to arm people with how they can protect, promote and lead by example.

We have monthly ‘state of the nation’ meetings where John Roberts (founder & CEO) shares stories with the whole business on how the team have gone above and beyond by living the AO values.

Finally, we also encourage all employees to share stories of colleagues who have lived the values. Some of these stories are amazing and humbling to read. It is these stories that maintain our passion for the business.

Story telling is a key to making sure everyone realises that our culture is alive and well - people remember how you made them feel, not the facts and figures.  

Through your recruitment process how do you ensure you hire the right people and know these are going to be people that care?  

We have questions that extract stories from the candidate that allows the recruiter to understand whether they understand and believe in our vision and values.  

For us it is about focusing on behaviours, their beliefs and attitudes rather than solely on their qualifications.

A person could be the most qualified; most experienced in the world, but if they don’t ‘get’ our culture, then they don’t progress to the next stage. 

Our recruiters play a pivotal role in maintaining our culture as they are our gatekeepers for our special AO culture. They have an implicit understanding whether someone is right or wrong for our business.

People don’t get to an interview if they are not the right cultural fit. Sometimes a simple question can help identify this. 

When I was interviewed eight years ago; I remember our COO asked me ‘how often do you see your mum?’ in the interview as he wanted to extract whether I care or not.

You can’t teach or pay people to care and this is one of our core values.  

How important is training to developing your culture?

When people join they have a three-week induction training programme.

For new starters into our contact centre, part of this is a values week, where they get to understand the AO mantra of how we approach customer service.

It is not a big book of rules, but a set of principles. One of the core principles is; “Treat every customer like your gran and do something your mum would be proud of.”

We also run a series of product training across the business – we want them to be passionate about what they sell and have deep knowledge of products. We have built product showrooms so anyone can experience the product themselves.

On top of that we have manufacturers bring their own mobile training centres to the business, where they give live demonstrations of the products.

We have a development programme called “AO star programme” that is for rising stars within the business where they have the opportunity to get wider exposure across the business, which will enable them to accelerate their development.

We try and tie things together through development and engagement. We set up our own charitable foundation called, AO Smile Foundation.

Every development programme has a team building element and we use AO Smile initiatives to ensure that we mix team building and making a difference to the local community.

For example, DIY SOS with a house that needs doing up where the family was unable to do for themselves. A great example of how people at AO.com go that extra mile is shown in this video:

Remuneration is also important to ensure people are paid fairly and we benchmark in our industry and this is reflected in how employees are rewarded.

For me Richard Branson’s quote sums it up nicely:

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.

In my initial interview with Dave he talked about driving out negativity, how do you manage to drive a positive attitude?

It starts with making sure you recruit like-minded people. We are a very fast-paced business and there are always too many opportunities to work on. This of course leads to frustration.

The key is making sure people appreciate each other and respect what each person brings to the table and have what we call ‘positive frustration’.

We know there will be conflicts and challenges to any ideas of progressive thinking. We are very positive company and encourage people to challenge, but do it in a constructive way. 

What has helped this, is by creating situations for people to come together from different parts of the business – logistics, operations, finance, IT and marketing through our development programmes, internal communications, engagement activities and events.

This enables people to create personal connections as they get a greater appreciation for what others do.

This reduces negativity as people see different views and try and work through problems together and everyone knows they are all working towards the same business vision.

Finally, I have heard some great stories about how AO.com empowers its staff. Can you tell me more about why this works so well for you?

Everyone has a part to play in our culture and vision of the business. If something does go wrong, we empower our staff to make it right.

We have put guidelines in place and trust people we recruit to do what they can to make sure the customer is happy.

The challenge is how we articulate our culture to people outside of the business. Culture is a set of beliefs, behaviours and feelings that means when you come and see the business you feel the difference.

Over the years we have fanatically worked on making our customer experience seamless.

Positive reviews for AO.com

When a customer places an order with us, we are making a promise to that customer and we take their hard earned money very seriously.

Things do sometimes go wrong, but because the vast majority of our customer promises are met, we can fix the ones that go wrong quickly to ensure that the customer is happy.   

As an example, we had a family of four who bought a free-standing cooker which had been disconnected and wouldn’t load on our van. The family had the problem of what were they going to do about their dinner.

The agent took it upon themself to have pizzas delivered to the family so that they wouldn’t have to do it themselves. 

We are not telling people to give things away, but we know it is an inconvenience for people if things have not gone to plan.

By living by our culture and principles, we allow people at AO to be very creative in how they solve problems.

We don’t follow a computer says ‘No’ approach. 

For more on this topic, read:

Lynette Saunders

Published 13 June, 2016 by Lynette Saunders @ Econsultancy

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Comments (1)

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWD

Thank you firstly Lynette for opening up the conversation which led to you sharing this Q&A, and thanks immensely Andrew for sharing so openely the intricacies of how you have developed, evolved and maintained your truly inspiring sounding culture.

I have been a long term admirer of AO, particularly since I was first engaged with Matthew Lawson to concept and plan the mass remote user research project over 5 years ago. Reading your interview really underlines just how much of a customer and people centric organisation you are, and also provides ways in which other brands can follow in your footsteps.

Thanks again for sharing, I hope many brands read this and take ideas on board

9 months ago

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