How Damart turned internal challenges into award-winning service

"Our customers are getting significantly better service, and we are trading strongly in what has been a very, very difficult time for retailers."

Over the last fifty years, Damart has grown from a small, French family business into a trusted global clothing brand. The company’s popular thermal garments have been to both the Arctic Circle and the summit of Everest, but are perhaps best known in the senior home shopping market. Today, Damart employs around 700 people in the UK alone – more at peak trading times – and turns over £110m per year. Some 80,000 parcels leave its West Yorkshire distribution centre each week, heading for customers throughout the UK.  Satisfying so many customers is an intensive but rewarding business, needing widespread colleague engagement. But when Damart achieved the Institute’s ServiceMark accreditation in 2013, and won the award for Employee Engagement Strategy of the Year at the Institute of Customer Service’s UK Customer Satisfaction Awards 2014, it set the seal on how much colleagues are valued and how they are empowered to act for the benefit of customers.

Engagement challenges 

Head of HR Helen Taylor explains: "We went through quite a difficult time. In 2008 we brought in a new warehouse management system that challenged our business. In terms of the amount of change involved, we learnt that we needed to improve employee engagement around change management.”

The implementation brought specific challenges to parcel dispatch and impacted customer service for a considerable amount of time. In addition, the change process had an unexpected impact on team members’ working patterns which continued to impact on Damart for a further six months.Colleague engagement was put under further pressure by the financial crisis, as a collective redundancy process – aimed at improving flexibility – took its toll on morale.

Turning point

Damart recognised that it needed to do more to put its customers back at the heart of its business – something that could only be achieved through active engagement with colleagues.

“Following that difficult time, we started to build employee engagement around change management, making sure we were customer focused in our approach to changes, and invested heavily in service improvements which our customers told us they wanted.” recalls Damart’s Head of Customer Service, Jeanette Askin.

Crucially, the company joined the Institute of Customer Service, with the aim of achieving ServiceMark accreditation. Jeanette explained: "We looked at other accreditation routes, but the Institute really stood out as having everything we needed. The questions on the ServiceMark survey were immediately relevant and it was clear they would help us understand what we really needed to do better. It gave us lots of competencies to look at." "The Institute’s Members also included some of the big, non-food retailers who we could use for direct comparison, and there were opportunities for us to do accredited training, something our colleagues had asked for.

”A framework for changeThe ServiceMark accreditation process uncovered the depth of the disparity between Damart’s external reputation and its own staff engagement. While the UK Customer Satisfaction Index element rated the company at a world-class 90%, the internal ServCheck self-assessment returned just 57% - this was no surprise to Damart as their colleagues had been through significant changes.More specifically, ServCheck revealed engagement was lowest among operational colleagues, while team members at the distribution centre sometimes felt less informed due to their physical location being 5 miles from head office.The findings gave Damart a structure to work with, and with support from the Institute, the company set about adopting a more inclusive approach, empowering colleagues in all departments to propose changes on customers’ behalf."We run customer service challenge meetings every two weeks,” says Jeanette.

“A cross-section of colleagues come and tell us about issues which impact on our customers. We have Directors’ surgeries too, where they can come and talk to a Director about what's going on in the business and ask any questions or share ideas." Helen agrees: “There are roles that are dedicated to improving the customer experience in a number of the business teams. But it's everybody's responsibility to keep us absolutely focused, because our customers and colleagues are so important to us."

Real business benefits

Staff engagement soared, and in December 2013 Damart succeeded in achieving ServiceMark accreditation. Meanwhile, improvements in process – and suggestions from staff, as part of their new FirstImpressions service training programme – had begun to make a noticeable difference to customer service, morale, and the company’s bottom line.

Among other changes, customers letters and emails are dealt with more quickly, colleagues are formally trained in letter writing, and customer-facing website text has improved. Damart has introduced new payment and delivery options as well as further website improvements in the pipeline.Jeanette says: "Our customers are getting significantly better service, and we are trading strongly in what has been a very, very difficult time for retailers.

Obviously providing great service can’t take all the credit for that, but keeping customers happy secures future loyalty."Colleagues are happier too, colleague turnover has fallen by 28%, and there are 13% fewer absences.Overall, Helen believes the outcomes of ServiceMark are, if anything, more valuable than the accreditation itself: "The accreditation is one thing, but it's the engagement you get from everybody, and the hard work, that makes such a difference."Award winnersIn 2014, Damart’s transformation was recognised with a UK Customer Satisfaction Award.

Jeanette recalls: "When we went down to London for the Awards, we took a number of our colleagues with us; not just management, but front line operational people who were involved in making improvements. We were pleased just to be nominated – but to actually win felt amazing. Everyone was thrilled.”However, for Helen, the Award was not the end of Damart’s challenge, but the beginning.“Winning the award wasn’t the end; everything is still happening – that open culture, with colleagues generating ideas and listening to what our customers really need. Our challenge now is to keep all those things happening… because they work.”