How We Improved Our Customer Experience through Olympic Sports Psychology

December 7, 20167min

I recently judged the Best Place to Work category at the UK Business Awards. And it reinforced something for me: Companies are realising the link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. 3-5 years ago, businesses were saying “customers first”. But “people first” is becoming less contentious and more mainstream. To be a customer-centric organisation, you have to put your people first.

The link between employee satisfaction and customer experience

To that end, as the Group CEO of Nicoll Curtin, I want to provide the best possible environment for our people. One method we’ve adopted is to use mind management techniques from the world of elite sport. We work with Prof Steve Peters, consultant psychiatrist to Olympic athletes, and we’ve seen dramatic results: A 26% increase in turnover. A threefold increase in bottom line profitability. And a reduction in staff churn of 15%. So what can businesses learn from medal-winning individuals like Sir Chris Hoy? Can sports psychology help companies improve their customer experience and maybe win some trophies of their own?

Managing stress and applying skills under pressure

In the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final, with 26 seconds to go, Johnny Wilkinson drop-kicked the England squad to victory. When asked about his historic kick, he explained that kicking the ball was the easy part: “The hard part is completing that action while standing in front of thousands of spectators with my heart thumping.”

I saw that once you reach a certain apex of ability, your skills remain roughly the same. But to gain that competitive edge, you need to be able to apply those skills consistently under pressure. This was the central belief that led me towards working with Prof Steve Peters’ team.

Years later, reading about his work with Team GB Cycling, I realised Prof Peters was the right person to help our company. Peters’ team have worked with Nicoll Curtin’s managers globally, in addition to a series of workshops with the entire company. It was a slightly left-field thing to do. And it took a certain level of cultural buy-in and trust for people to engage. But we’ve reaped the benefits. Adopting these techniques has improved our employees’ mental wellbeing, environment and performance.

 Taming the “inner chimp”

Prof Peters is the author of “The Chimp Paradox”, a mind management model which teaches us how to manage our “inner Chimp”. The Chimp is the emotional part of the brain, in contrast to the logical Human brain.

For Nicoll Curtin, using Prof Peters’ Chimp model has had three clear benefits. Firstly, giving people a greater understanding of their colleagues’ chimps creates a better environment. Secondly, understanding your chimp allows you to deal with pressure better. Walking along a big white line in the middle of the road is easy if you’re on the ground. But on a tightrope 100m up in the air, all sorts of cognitive factors come into play. Pressure comes in many forms, but fundamentally, you have to maintain your performance. Thirdly, understanding your customers’ chimps helps you to provide a better service.

 Diversity and inclusion = success

You simply cannot have the best people in the best environment without being diverse and inclusive. Diversity and inclusion also ties into cultural environment. People often become stressed in target-led environments and it’s incredible how much someone being in Chimp mode can affect the atmosphere. But if you get that atmosphere right, you’re far more likely to attract and retain diverse talent.

Measuring employee engagement

Another thing judging the UK Business Awards highlighted for me was the importance of regularly measuring employee engagement. That’s where entering awards can be invaluable, because it’s an external sense check. It forces you to look at what you’re doing and see what you can improve on. We hold regular engagement days to ensure that all of our employees’ voices are heard.

If your people are happy, your customers are happy

There is a lot that businesses can learn from elite sports people and teams. How to apply your skills under high pressure.Preparation.Discipline.Fortitude.Learning from failure. That desire to constantly push yourself and improve, little by little. Ultimately, whether you want to win a medal or succeed in business, it all comes down to the work you do behind the scenes. If you begin that work by ensuring your team are happy, you will be saving yourself a lot of work down the line.

Interesting links:


James Johnson

James Johnson

James Johnson is a management specialist and award winning entrepreneur with proven results in turnaround and growth roles internationally. Nicoll Curtin, the global FinTech & Change recruitment agency, has won awards for customer experience, client service and diversity & inclusion. #CodingAllowed, Nicoll Curtin’s CSR Initiative, equips women with the tools they need to break into the technology industry. Recently, Nicoll Curtin was Highly Commended for Inclusive Culture at the enei awards, nominated alongside The Civil Service, HMRC and the NHS.




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