The 2019 UK Customer Experience Awards is just around the corner, and CXM is shining a spotlight on how fantastic training can help your strategies burst out of the boardroom and become worthy of awards recognition.
Among this year’s finalists is finance and admin solutions provider Equiniti Group, which is partnered by First Impression Training (FIT), a firm that enhances CX by assisting companies in developing their employees to build better relationships with customers.
However, good training goes deep, especially when it comes to earning awards recognition for your efforts, and FIT have been assisted in crafting an entry worthy of judges’ admiration by the one-and-only Donna O’Toole, the force behind August – The Awards Consultancy.
Donna lives and breathes awards, and knows exactly what it takes to bring your in-house achievements to a wider audience, with the aim of garnering industry recognition that can open doors to future success.
In a special look behind the scenes of an awards journey, CXM spoke with Donna and FIT’s Training Director and co-founder Marie Cross, about how dedicated training can lift a business to new heights and, ultimately, awards glory…
Hi Donna. Tell us about August and yourself. What inspired you to found a masterclass aimed at preparing organisations for an awards journey?
I started August – The Awards Consultancy in 2015 as a way of helping people to achieve their dreams. I’m a true ‘people-person’ and my background is in English linguistics, so I combined my geeky language skills with my deep knowledge of the awards industry to create an agency that empowers businesses by using awards as a growth tool. August actually means respected, celebrated, and admired, and that’s exactly what we help our clients to become.
Over the years, I have overseen literally thousands of award entries, including nominations for high-profile awards like the Queen’s honours, and award panel presentations. I see every single entry as unique. It needs to reflect the true values of the brand or individual, but it also needs to deliver a powerful, highly-evidenced argument that makes the reader (in this case a panel of judges) truly believe in them and want them to win too.
I continuously analyse award entry results, stories, evidence, and feedback, and I’m never satisfied with good results; I strive for excellence in everything – both for my clients and for my own team. It’s this determination to succeed, and to see people truly shine, that has driven me to develop a unique blueprint for awards success.
I created the unique awards training programme for my own team, then expanded this to train individuals and teams around the world who don’t want to outsource their awards, but do need support to win. I also train PR teams and communications professionals in exactly what they need to do to help their clients win too. I think sometimes people think writing an award entry is just ‘copywriting’. Well, I can tell you for free that it’s not!
We are not a copywriting agency – we eat, breathe, and sleep awards, so the copywriters I train get a surprise when they realise what they have written for a website or blog is completely and utterly wrong for an award entry!
For a firm like FIT, how does the Masterclass help bring out the confidence to put themselves forward for industry awards such as the UKCXAs?
When Marie came to our training day she had the same issue that a lot of people have – she was so busy making sure her customers were achieving everything they wanted and needed to, that she had very little time left to focus on getting recognition for her own business.
First, she needed to think about which awards to enter, and be objective about the value they could deliver back to her business. Then she had to think about what she needed to collect from her own business and that of her clients’ in order to win. When you are running a customer-focused business like FIT, you really don’t have time to think about promoting yourselves, so this was a fantastic opportunity for Marie to take a good look at her achievements so far, and make a clear plan for the future progress of the business, using awards to support and drive further growth. The little time Marie did have to focus on awards needed to be used effectively. She needed a formula that would allow her to put an award entry together that had the right structure, story, content, and evidence right from the off.
With First Impression Training, you were essentially ‘training trainers’. Did Marie’s training background help when it came to her adopting the skills she learned?
Working with Marie was a dream, because she was not only ‘ready to learn’, she is a trainer herself, so she knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the table! Marie has also judged lots of awards too, so she knows what the judges are looking for in a winning entry.
Marie and I also have in common the fact that we work with global brands and organisations, as well as smaller businesses and leaders who want to bring out the best in their business. So she understands the challenges that her clients face and was able to use these in our awards training to bring out their unique qualities and achievements, as well as her own. This is so valuable for award entries where businesses are working in partnership, or where you have a supplier relationship and want to gain recognition for both brands.
There is always a ‘eureka’ moment during the training day, when you see a light come on for the trainees. Suddenly, they can see exactly what their strategy should be; what their ‘win theme’ should be; what to include in their entries, and what to leave out.
They can also see exactly why previous entries haven’t been winning, and what can make them win next time. Marie was able to draw out what was both challenging and unique about the projects she had been working on with her clients, and see what she needed to do to present these in a way that would truly ‘wow’ the judges.
As an awards industry expert, what would you say to a company that is considering taking the plunge and entering, but might have reservations about the process and what benefits it will bring?
The canniest businesses know that you really don’t have to be changing the world to win an award. And you don’t necessarily have to be the best in your industry to win!
You only have to know how to beat the businesses you are competing against at that particular time, in that particular category, to win.
However, when you do win, that’s when the value of awards comes into its own. Your team will be massively motivated by the recognition, and happy employees make happy customers! Your customers have another ‘reason’ to trust you, which means they are more likely to choose to spend their money with you rather than your competitors. And you can use your awards to leverage interest in your business for PR, recruitment, referrals, investment, and Thought Leadership, as well as in your advertising. We are constantly asking our clients for feedback on what’s been happening in their business since winning awards, and the results are always hugely positive. Winning awards can create an immediate uplift in sales, help you to secure significant investment (investors love to see you winning awards), help you to recruit the best talent, and even lead to personal benefits like promotions and pay rises.
What’s not to love?
However, the value in entering awards is not purely in the win – it is in the entire process. Many people are put off entering by the amount of time it will take to prepare their entries, or by looking at previous winners and thinking they are bigger/better and so they couldn’t possibly win, or by a previous awards experience where they didn’t win.
These are all big mistakes, and probably why their competitors keep winning awards and they stay on the sidelines looking like the poor relation in the industry!
Going through the process of entering awards gives you an opportunity to do a gap analysis on your business – anything you don’t have ready for that award entry (evidence, feedback, growth, and performance stats etc) needs to be either gathered, created, or implemented. And once you’ve got this, you can use and reuse the information, usually for at least a year, to enter and win lots of awards. So you’re already adding value to your business just by starting the process!
How does August help an organisation that has lots of talent and drive, but has less knowledge about what it takes to enter – and ultimately win – an industry award such as the UKCXAs?
We help businesses in lots of ways – not just by training them to win, but by doing all their awards work for them if they wish. Firstly though, and most importantly, before we can help a business to win, we need to get to know them. What do they want to achieve over the next few years? What are their biggest challenges? What are their biggest achievements? What are their company values? How are they different from their competitors? Why do they want to win awards, and what is their experience with awards so far? Just going through this process reveals so much and allows us to make sure our clients only enter awards where they will have the best chances of success.
An awards event like the UKCXAs is outstanding for recognising and celebrating the success of so many different types of business, but it takes work to win it! And it is one of my absolute favourite awards to judge because the competition is fierce, and you know that during the presentations you’ll hear stories that make you proud to be part of the process.
It is an award that aligns completely with our own ethos too; it’s not just about doing the right thing by your customers, it’s about making their hearts sing!
Hi Marie. Tell us about First Impressions Training and the work you do with firms seeking to boost their CX offering.
First Impression Training is a small organisation with a big pedigree, having worked with some of the giants of industry over the last 18 years since our launch, including AXA, Aviva, Kuoni, Equiniti, Legal & General, BUPA, and the NHS.
We’re an award-winning, people development consultancy specialising in the CX arena.
Wholly focused on developing the talent of frontline teams and leaders, we enable cultural and behavioural change that enhances our clients’ Customer Experience, increases employee engagement, and improves operational efficiency on the front line.
Our training solutions are tailor-made for each client we partner, applying our unique S.H.A.P.ETM methodology, which enables clients to fully own and internalise the FIT solution in a smooth and seamless way, so that the ‘FIT Way’ is kept living and breathing within the organisation, long after we’ve left the building!
You met Donna while judging at Awards events. Did your judging role inspire you to take FIT down the awards entry route, after seeing the success enjoyed by winners?
I’ve been involved with many award programmes over the years, since industry legend Don Hales and I first met (over 18 years ago) when he persuaded me to become a judge for the (then) National Customer Service Awards and the National Sales Awards.
I was also heavily involved with the National Training Awards led by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for five years, before the programme was taken over by the National Apprenticeship Service.
So yes, I’ve certainly been witness to some amazing winning entries during this time.
And this experience definitely does get you motivated to go for it yourself, partnering your clients – which is exactly what FIT has done this year with the culture change programme we’ve delivered for Equiniti’s 400-seat Customer Experience Centre, and now we’re finalists in four categories across three prestigious award programmes with them!
Donna’s Masterclass is the UK’s premier ‘how to win awards’ tutorial. What skills did you learn from August that FIT will use in its goal of achieving industry recognition?
Donna is a consummate pro! She’s an articulate awards expert, PR guru, and marketing whiz! I love what she’s about and I learned heaps from her at the Masterclass, from designing an award-winning strategy and creating your ‘win theme’, through to the very specific techniques she teaches for crafting your story, content, and evidence for your award entry.
She also shows you how to get the best out of your PR once you’ve actually taken your well-deserved place on the winners’ podium.
If you need a hand ‘bigging yourself up’ and getting your story out there, Donna’s yer gal!
While learning from Donna, what did you discover about your own organisation that you now realise needed improving, but might not have been aware of beforehand?
At the risk of sounding a little boastful here, what Donna really helped me recognise was that we’d spent the last 18 years helping our clients get the recognition they deserved, both inside their organisations and externally, putting them forward for the big award programmes, shouting from the rooftops about their commitment to employee engagement and staff development, without actually doing anything to ensure we stood out alongside them!
As Donna said to me: “Why on earth would you not consider entering awards – both independently as a training provider and jointly with your clients – when you’re half the reason for your clients’ success stories?”
So that’s exactly what we’ve done this year!
Donna helped us realise: it’s not that we needed improving – we needed to become our own publicity agent and stop hiding our light under a bushel if we really wanted to get noticed and stand out from the crowd in this increasingly busy marketplace in which we operate. And the result? As I said: finalists in four categories across those three prestigious award programmes: the UK Customer Experience Awards, the UK Business Awards, and the European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards.
Would you recommend other organisations to take the plunge and prepare for their own awards journey through August guidance?
I’ve already paid tribute to Donna and the August Consultancy publicly through my social media posting and our weekly blog to our ‘FIT fans’.
I know for sure that our written entries were as good as they were, resulting in us reaching those four finalist positions, thanks to the lessons I learned at Donna’s Masterclass.
I’m a creative myself; I love to write and I’m told I’m good at it too! However, I also know that I couldn’t have crafted such a brilliant story – as I have done for the entries we submitted – if I hadn’t first learned the award-winning tips, techniques, and strategies that August has taught me.
The 2019 UK Customer Experience Awards, hosted by Awards International, takes place in Wembley Stadium on October 10.