Lessons on engagement from Aleksandr the meerkat? Simples © Compare the Market
Lessons on engagement from Aleksandr the meerkat? Simples © Compare the Market

How a meerkat proves the value of engagement

Procurement teams stand the best chance of being effective if they can convince the rest of their organisation of their worth. But how best to do this?

Aleksandr the aristocratic meerkat appeared on our television screens in 2009, launching a promotional campaign for Compare the Market, and making the company’s website one of the most visited insurance sites in the UK. It has even led to spin-off merchandise, a book featuring one of its characters, and its catchphrase ‘simples’ is now listed in the Oxford English dictionary. 

Whether mistakenly ‘comparing the meerkat’, agreeing it was ‘good to talk’ or laughing at Howard giving us something extra, we can all name an advert that has struck a chord. 

Not only are these campaigns entertaining, they change behaviour – and that has been proven. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising cites the BT and Halifax promotions among the top 10 most effective TV ads of the past 60 years. The 1990s campaign fronted by Bob Hoskins persuaded people to stay on the phone for longer, with some analysts putting BT’s revenue gain at $500m; while ads featuring Halifax staff led to a 150% leap in sales. 

Procurement professionals may (thankfully) bear little resemblance to advertising’s Mad Men; but they too have a sales and brand awareness job to do. To bring maximum value to the organisation – be it bringing in innovative suppliers, generating savings, mitigating risk or producing process efficiencies – procurement first needs the chance to be in on the deal. And to do that, it may need to expend a little more time, effort and investment on explaining precisely what it is does and how it can help.

Media and methods

There are numerous ways to spread the word about what procurement can do for other departments. The company intranet is a good place to start, as are newsletters, case studies, roadshows, stakeholder meetings, presentations, ‘meet the team’ profiles of procurement staff, videos, animations and posters.

Messages need to be clear, simple and impactful, and to do that you need to understand the audience you are addressing. What challenges do they face? How can you help? How does what you do fit with the overall aim of the business?

CIPS group director Cath Hill regularly presents to procurement professionals on how to get better engagement, promote themselves more and boost their emotional intelligence to enable them to better connect with others. 

She says: “First you need to establish your credibility – say what you’re going to do and deliver. Show you are strategic and back up your results with evidence. You can build trust by offering good commercial advice and doing things for the right reason. Learn from your colleagues where they can help fill gaps in your knowledge; understand your organisation’s goals and strategy and align your department’s to them. It’s important to know your audience – understand their personality and see them as allies. Rather than making decisions in isolation, take the business with you and ensure you have their buy-in.”

Procurement and marketing traditionally do not understand each other all that well, but if you have an internal marketing team not only could you put some of their expertise to good use by asking for help, but the very act of doing so could strengthen your relationship and increase understanding.

Claire Smart, procurement director at the National Trust, approached the charity’s “brilliant internal marketing resource” as well as some of its “amazing external agencies” when she wanted to design a campaign to raise awareness of procurement. This led to a video presentation that has been helping her team win engagement across the organisation ever since (see box). 

In addition to the team’s video slideshow, they produced case studies, including one highlighting all the different contracts associated with one mansion as a snapshot of their work. They have also created newsletters and written articles for internal magazines, held marketplace events where internal customers can meet suppliers, and produced surreal René Magritte-style posters to generate engagement. Intranet pages are being worked on, and podcasts are even being considered.

At HSBC in the UK, head of procurement Craig Hill says his team has also done a lot recently to raise awareness of procurement and the value it brings. He describes it as a continual challenge because it is a support function of any complex organisation. “It would be a mistake to think everyone really understands what we do,” he says.

One area of focus has been on how the team can improve communication: “We can get technical with our language and use terms that mean nothing elsewhere in the business and could even create confusion. We minimised the use of lengthy PowerPoint presentations and now just produce engaging one- or two-page narratives to explain things in simple language. In addition, we use other media formats to convey messages in simple and powerful ways. For example, simple animations explaining how we can support our businesses can be a great alternative tool to reach out to stakeholders.”

Online fashion retailer boohoo.com was able to rein in maverick spend and become a trusted friend to the business after procurement promoted the value it could add. Its campaign used catchy marketing straplines that reflect the brand, and it engaged with internal customers by holding presentations at company strategy days, running commercial awareness workshops and carrying out inductions for every new employee.

Plan your comms strategy

In the same way that you plan a supplier or category strategy, create a plan for delivering communication in various forms throughout the year. You might develop a communications calendar to spread out the delivery of newsletters, posters, updates, roadshows, stakeholder meetings and more. 

Vary your approach, and convey your messages in different places. You might establish a procurement intranet site or section, while also printing out hard-copy posters or newsletters, and you could have a Facebook page or Twitter feed, as well as remembering to present to people face-to-face.

Aim to reach everyone – from new employees to veterans, junior staff to senior managers. They can all act as brand ambassadors on your behalf – once they understand what procurement does and have seen examples of success. Try to be creative and have some fun with your approach – be it a gallery of pictures, videos, even just some headline figures, surprising facts or comments from satisfied customers. Tell stories, share recognition and, ideally, make your communications easy-to-follow and visually pleasing.

If this all sounds a bit much, you may be envious to discover some procurement teams are enlightened enough to have their own internal communications support. Three years ago, construction giant Kier Group created a permanent position to raise awareness of its new shared service centre. The success of that role has more than paid for itself, helping the procurement team save £120m by spreading the word (see box).

There is even a sales job to do when a business mandates purchase of all goods and services goes through the procurement system, such as at Paddy Power Betfair. Colum Colbert, head of procurement services, says for his team it is not so much about raising awareness that procurement exists, as why it is there: “We have a Facebook page and a procurement policy on our website, but that doesn’t do much to bring people into the fold. What works is serving internal customers well, saving them money, helping them with a problem with a supplier and getting them over the line with a purchase order. That’s what gets people to come back, before any commitment is made or deal signed.”

The more you reach out to internal customers to explain your services, the more they will reach out in return. Simples. 

Pulling heartstrings at the National Trust

Claire Smart, procurement director at the National Trust, heads up a team of 13 who work on contracts across the organisation, which employs almost 6,000 staff and has another 62,000 volunteers working at historic houses, gardens and buildings across the British Isles.

“If you’re on the Farne Islands looking after puffins all year it may be difficult to understand how procurement is relevant to your life; so while we’ve done a number of things to promote procurement internally, some discussions have to be face-to-face.”

Smart approached the NT marketing department for help to pull together a video presentation about why procurement does what it does: “We did research into advertising and discovered people tend to make decisions with their hearts and then ratify them. So it’s not about educating but trying to appeal to hearts, especially here where people tend to have a passion for the cause.”

The animated video slideshow, set to music, points out the National Trust is far more powerful as a purchasing organisation if it can apply its combined spending strength of £250m a year. It also shows images of founding member Octavia Hill and recalls why the charity was set up – to preserve historic gardens and houses. 

“We showed it to the NT top tier at a leadership conference; we also played it to management teams and at workshops. It instils pride and we wanted them to feel and connect with it. We wanted people to want to use the things we buy and to understand why it’s important, not just to be told to use them. 

“It also demonstrates that procurement is behind the key vision of the organisation; people were surprised by it. It’s like the NASA cleaner who told President Kennedy he helped to put a man on the moon. No matter how large or small one’s role, we are all working towards the same aim.” 

Kier Group spreads the word

In summer 2013, construction giant Kier Group set up a procurement shared service centre in Rushden, Northamptonshire. To make the most of this new unit, group procurement director Kevan Jepps – a firm believer in the merits of communication – appointed two temporary communications staff to raise awareness of its existence. By 2015 it was agreed that a permanent hire was required, and Jane Cowan took on the role of group procurement communications business partner.

Three years on, Cowan is responsible for ensuring she communicates what procurement can do to as many employees as possible. She uses different channels to reach everyone from office staff to mobile tradespeople.

As well as ensuring the company’s procurement intranet pages display the latest information, she produces soft- and hard-copy preferred supplier lists, has helped devise a mobile app staff can purchase from and creates material used by procurement at stakeholder roadshows, as well as posters, brochures and catalogues.

Additionally, she generates monthly newsletters and goes out to talk to stakeholders when a category is up for review.

From a standing start the shared service centre now receives more than 18,000 purchasing requests a month for indirect, direct and hired services, resulting in more than £120m of savings over three years.

After 20 years in communication Cowan says it is not hard to get procurement professionals involved in her work: “This is one of the most engaged groups of people I’ve ever worked with.”

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