Good communication comes from within
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Everyone agrees that good internal communications can help insurers perform better – but what constitutes ‘good’ internal communications? Jonathan Steffen offers five rules of thumb for insurers.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost …
The insurance sector may not be suffering the levels of paranoia evoked by the 1988 Leonard Cohen lyric, but everybody knows that times are tough. An industry already challenged by technological evolution, changing customer expectations, increasing regulation and extensive consolidation was dealt a body blow by 9/11, and the winners and losers are still emerging from the fallout.
In an ever-shrinking world of small print and second-guessing, communication is key as never before. As Geoff Mayhew of Allianz Cornhill puts it, 'The UK insurance sector has to repair the industry's reputation in the light of the tough economic conditions we' re experiencing and the fact that the general business side of the industry has suffered largely because of the negative exposure attracted by life insurers. The greatest communication challenge currently facing general insurers is to communicate to all stakeholders (regulators, consumer groups, politicians) that actually our customers get a very good deal.’
Good external communication starts in fact with good internal communication. Helene Crook of Brit Insurance Holdings echoes Geoff Mayhew as she explains the link: ‘The biggest communications challenge we face is to convince the investment community that insurance companies can be a safe investment with good returns. Putting that case persuasively means that we must all work towards the same goals and make the most of current market conditions. It also means that we must persuade our internal audiences of the necessity for changes to our business strategy when the cycle reaches the downturn.’
Tools and tactics
Understanding of employees as audiences has come a long way since ‘internal marketing’ was first developed in the 1980s. At the time, the realisation that employees represented a ‘market’ was revolutionary. Today, desk drops and screen splashes generate a yawn in audiences more savvy, more cynical, and much shorter on attention span. Have you ever acted differently because a mouse mat told you to?
The need to encourage employees to act differently remains as pressing as ever, though. Jane Reed-Thomas of Zurich Financial Services explains: ‘The main focus of our internal communication activities is to work with the business to ensure our people are engaged in the business strategy. This involves articulating the business direction, developing strategies to engage people in that direction and managing our communications channels.’
Improved customer service, a positive experience of the corporate brand, higher levels of staff motivation and retention, faster adaptation to new procedures – all these can result from good internal communications. But what is the essence of these mysterious ‘good’ internal communications?
Getting it straight
The first thing to understand about internal communications (IC) is that it exists whether we want it or not. The rumour mill, the shibboleths of the corporate zealot and the shaggy dog story about the CEO are all part of the IC landscape, and even the most focused communication strategist cannot imagine them out of existence.
The second thing is that as a profession, IC is entirely unregulated. Although various professional and academic bodies now offer qualifications in the subject, it does not have chartered status, and people still tend to ‘fall into’ the IC role from the unlikeliest of directions, giving rise to a concomitantly wide range of styles and structures.
The third thing is that as a business activity, its economic benefits are hard to map. While a smile from a well-trained receptionist might make your customers feel briefly better about your company, it does not have the measurable attractions to the outside world of a 20% decrease in premiums accompanied by a 30% increase in cover.
Nor are there standard benchmarks that can be easily referenced. The size of an IC department bears no predictable relationship to the scale of the company it serves. And size is no indicator of quality, either. Inspirational work may be performed by a one-man - or more usually, one-woman - band possessed of great ideas, while a more substantial operation may produce communications which are bland, untimely and self-contradictory.
For senior management looking to invest in IC to drive the bottom line, the choices are hard. How can you invest in something if you can’t define what it is? How can you measure improvements if you have no standard for ‘good’ or ‘better’? And how can you persuade your colleagues to increase spend on this crucially important strategic area headed up by … by … What was the name of that redhead we moved over from Customer Complaints to Internal Comms, by the way …?
Five rules for improved internal comms
There are, however, trends to be discerned amidst the tangled panorama of the IC function, and points to be borne in mind when planning IC activities. These are as outlined below, and they give rise to five rules for improved internal communications.
- We all have lots of toys
We do indeed have a vast range of IC tools and channels, from unvisited intranets to unobserved notice boards. The panoply of possibilities can keep us endlessly employed, as we debate the size of the logo on the internal newsletter or the colour of the banners to be hung from the ceiling of the canteen.
The fact is that meaning is constructed when people gather to talk. If you can get your people talking about your business, then you will get them understanding your business. How you do so is secondary. Staff parties, focus groups, away days, lunchtime briefings, after-hours drinks – they all work in their way. But an organisation that is not talking energetically about where it is going will not go energetically in that direction. Therefore Rule 1 is: Don’t talk at them, give them something to talk about.
- The FT is an internal communications organ
Bad news for the investor relations bods who like to hoard it on their desks, but The Financial Times is a key internal communications vehicle. Employees read newspapers. They trawl through them on the web and compare political bias. And they also sometimes speak to journalists. There are in fact few things more flattering than to be approached by a journalist looking for a story on your company. So the idea that internal comms is a controllable space is illusory. You can control what is dished up in your canteen, but you can’t control what the papers dish up on your canteen. This gives us Rule 2: Make sure the world knows what your employees know, and vice versa.
- Religious tolerance is a virtue
Religious tolerance is indeed a great virtue, and so is corporate religious tolerance. By this I mean a determined opposition to the fundamentalist stance which sets Corporate Communications people at the throats of Marketing people, and has both planning to garrotte the HR crowd. Anyone in IC who has been at the centre of this unholy triangle will recognise the pattern. There are companies that have spent years trying to work out where IC ‘sits’. By the time they have worked it out, the head of IC has usually resigned to take up a more lucrative position with the competition. Rule 3 therefore states: Don’t fight internal communication wars, fight your competition.
- Feedback means that things are fed back
Feedback is like criticism: everyone asks for it but no-one really wishes to receive it. In fact requesting feedback generates expectations that you will not only listen to it but act on it, too. In a world in which the ability to dial a number on a mobile phone is the precondition to expressing an opinion on virtually any subject, employees expect the feedback solicited by management to at least be acknowledged. It is astonishing how rarely this happens, as if clocking on had a disenabling effect on an employee’s powers of recollection. Organisers of town hall meetings and builders of Intranets, beware: we all remember what you said. Rule 4 is thus: If you ask for feedback, act on it – and be seen to do so.
- No lingo, no deal
One of the complaints most frequently voiced by IC specialists is that their internal customers do not understand internal communications. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the complaints most frequently voiced about IC specialists is that they do not understand the business. They understand corporate brand well enough, and employee satisfaction indicators, and of course the correct use of the semi-colon, but the line does not always regard them as the genuine article. They are therefore rarely asked for the advice which they are so anxious to proffer. The rule is simple, and as old as a playground rhyme: if you don’t know the words, you can’t join in the game. Rule 5 thus runs: Use the language of the business and not the language of communication to communicate about the business.
Applying the above rules won’t immediately boost your bottom line, it is true; but it will save you and your employees a lot of time and energy which could be focused on better serving your customers’ needs - a key step to sustainable growth in challenging times.
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