Katie Bickerstaffe: ‘Why M&S is unlocking the power of alumni’
Few would argue the benefits that come from an engaged workforce, particularly in retail, which is fundamentally a people business and the UK’s biggest private-sector employer.
To win in a competitive market, you need brilliant people giving outstanding customer service – every day, in every location. The pandemic has brought this to the fore, as teams across the country have dug deep, gone the extra mile and – in our case – delivered some of our highest ever service scores despite the tough circumstances. We’re very lucky to have the team we have.
Family values and engagement are deep-rooted in Marks & Spencer’s heritage. Our founders knew the value of fostering a culture where colleagues are valued, involved and given a voice.
“As any marketeer will tell you, word of mouth endorsement is worth so much more than any paid communication”
But until now that has ended abruptly when a colleague leaves us. We want to change this. Our alumni are part of our extended family and have a significant contribution to make.
Research shows the commercial reward of investing in these life-long relationships. One of the clearest and most highly relevant to retail is the benefit of the boomerang hire.
Returning employees are immediately more productive – in short, they ‘get it’ – and what’s more, their retention rates are 44% higher over three years. Returner hires coupled with alumni recommendations create an efficient pipeline and businesses with evolved programmes report 10% to 15% of annual hires coming via alumni.
Pre-Covid, retail was grappling with seismic shifts in customer behaviour and these trends have only accelerated in the crisis.
Alumni could and should be valuable allies in driving transformation and helping retailers emerge stronger, whether that’s supporting a talent pipeline, as a source of business development or providing candid feedback on products and services.
Very few retailers feature on the list of major alumni networks. Harnessing the power of alumni in a structured way has largely been the domain of tech, FMCG and professional services, often with a global workforce.
Born out of American college culture, alumni programmes are an established feature of US-based companies, where 98% of the Fortune 500 have a recognised network.
“Alumni networks are powerful because they connect people. They can be a platform to share, collaborate and spark new ideas”
What’s more exciting, is when you set this opportunity in a digital context. Since the digital makeover of our Sparks loyalty programme last summer, membership has grown by over 2 million to 9.5 million thanks to an easier, more intuitive and more rewarding experience.
Launching our network digitally means connections can be made at the touch of a button and users can generate content and personalise experiences, such as setting up shared interest groups.
The possibilities that come from bringing together this group are only limited by the ambition you have. We see the potential for a mentoring network, using alumni expertise to inform our sustainability programmes or being a sounding board for product development.
As any marketeer will tell you, word of mouth endorsement is worth so much more than any paid communication. The potential to create a network of brand advocates – and even start to consider the network as a route to market – is real and exciting.
Beyond these commercial benefits, alumni networks are powerful because they connect people. They can be a platform to share, collaborate and spark new ideas. But they can also be a community, offering a lifelong source of personal and professional support and development – which builds powerful advocacy – both as an employer and consumer brand.
As retailers, we know how loyal our colleagues are and how important relationships are, whether that’s a local store where decades-long friendships are forged or in leadership roles where sector-wide connectivity and competition for talent is high.
“We’ve pulled together as a sector, in more ways and on more occasions than I can remember at any other time in my career”
Retail is built on people, from fantastic selling teams to the designers and developers that create products and the distribution teams that help deliver them. We asked our alumni how they felt about the network and what it should be called.
The feedback was unanimous – the M&S Family. That tells me that there is a real passion for this, the opportunity is there and that it is vital to get it right. Of course, our M&S family is part of a much bigger retail family – one that is full of brilliant and innovative people.
In the past year, we’ve pulled together as a sector, in more ways and on more occasions than I can remember at any other time in my career.
As the UK economy reopens, there is a long road ahead for retail and the lifelong connections we have with each other will be more important and more valuable than ever. I’m excited to see what this committed, passionate and caring community can help us do.
- M&S alumni can register for the network here