The Daily Telegraph

Don’t let bosses tell staff what to do – it works wonders

- SIR JOHN TIMPSON ASK JOHN Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high street services provider, Timpson. Send him an email at

Straight-talking, common sense from the front line of management

Q On a recent holiday in the Caribbean I played tennis and enjoyed the game so much I bought a racquet, which wouldn’t fit in my suitcase. I was in for a shock when I checked in at the airport with Virgin Atlantic. My racquet was classified as an offensive weapon, couldn’t be taken on board as hand baggage and had to be checked in. It got worse, as I was only allowed two bags in the hold and the racquet made three. The charge for an extra bit of luggage was $400 (£332). I made a fuss and took it as hand luggage, but the whole incident left a very sour taste in my mouth. Why do many big companies get it so wrong when it comes to treating customers fairly?

A You can’t provide great customer service by relying on digital technology or through producing a policy at head office that sets a rigid process.

Your check-in officer was only doing their job. They probably knew it was nonsense to charge $400 for the racquet, but have been trained to stick to the procedure.

Great service is created by people, not computers, but the boss has to trust customer-facing colleagues to use their initiative. It was a lesson we at Timpson learnt more than 25 years ago, when we realised the importance of excellent customer service.

We noticed that exceptiona­l service can only be delivered when front-line colleagues have the freedom to use common sense. We threw out most of our rules and just kept two. First, look the part. Second, put the money in the till.

That decision has been transforma­tional. We now call it Upside Down Management. The people based in our shops make us the money and the more we trust them the more money they make on our behalf, while bagging a big bonus for themselves. Everyone else in the company is there to support the front-line colleagues who make the money.

I have spent much of my last 20 years trying to help other businesses gain from our experience, with very little success. They think their business must be run by head office, where policies are laid down, systems developed and price lists drawn up, with a training manual written to ensure everyone follows company procedure. What can go wrong?

Management believe that if every member of staff sticks to the rules, then success is guaranteed. Until you turn up with your tennis racquet and fail to follow the behaviour of a typical customer, that is.

The solution is blindingly obvious. Stop issuing rules, just hand out guidelines and let your field colleagues treat each individual customer in the best way they can.

Sadly, few high street shop assistants, bank clerks or people working in airports are allowed to have a mind of their own. But nearly all of them are people who run a home, bring up a family, drive a car and book a holiday – usually without the guidance of a manual.

There are only a few vital things a company has to do to turn the business upside down, but most fall at the first hurdle by failing to get buy-in from the chief executive, who in turn must convince his or her senior team.

The top executives continue to be responsibl­e for culture, strategy, capital investment and cash flow, but they must stop running the day-to-day business.

Instead of producing procedures and telling the troops how to do their job, they should concentrat­e on providing support that makes frontline roles as easy as possible.

Having redefined the role of head office it is time to change the way managers go about being a boss. Our bosses are not allowed to tell anyone what to do – giving orders is forbidden.

Results are achieved by helping every team member become the best they can possibly be – through training, supplying everything needed to do the job and helping to solve problems, particular­ly personal problems, in and outside work.

All these changes, from chief executive to middle management, will go a long way to creating the feeling of empowermen­t that would have gotten your tennis racquet on board for free, but upside down management only works really well with the right people.

You need a workforce full of colleagues with a personalit­y that rates nine or 10 out of 10. We find it is easy to train people with a positive personalit­y in how to cut keys, but it is almost impossible to get great service from a grumpy cobbler.

This mixture of fewer rules, more freedom and lots of common sense could do more than simply smooth your path through airports. It could also be applied to tax inspectors, traffic wardens, housing associatio­ns, the pensions regulator, lawyers and even the NHS. Perhaps your tennis racquet could trigger a whole new era of customer service.

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