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In Conversation With: The CEO Series featuring Joanna Swash, CEO of Moneypenny

July 20, 2021

 

In this interview, Ruby speaks to Joanna Swash, CEO of Moneypenny. Joanna shares the Moneypenny story through the pandemic – lessons learnt, the highs and lows, the vision and thoughts for the future.

Ruby Shera:

Hey everybody, I’m here today with Joanna Swash who is the CEO of Moneypenny. Moneypenny is a call answering and live chat receptionist business. It has been invested in by ECI, since November 2018. As a business, you have over 25,000 customers, you’re about £50 million turnover, you’ve grown 20% more or less year on year, and you have about 1,100 people in the company.

I’m here to talk to you about how this last year has been and navigating your way through a pandemic. I believe your business would have had a bit of a challenge. I would love you to share some of those stories and insights with us.

So would you mind just telling us a little bit about what happened in 2020, when everything first occurred?

Joanna Swash:

I’ll start with saying that we bought a business in February 2020 in Atlanta. There was myself and a couple of team members, I was out in the States signing the deal, flew back, I think it was the 20-something of February.

It’s this new telephone answering business to give us a much bigger platform in the States, and there was this bug going round, let’s say. We were actually given some savlon to put up our noses by one of our colleagues in the States, so that we didn’t catch it on the plane on the way home and how we’ve all moved on since then.

So we came back to the UK expecting full well that we would be back out there, big transition team, integration teams in March, and that we would be all over this this business, which was Voice Nation in Atlanta. Clearly that didn’t happen.

I remember coming back into the office, first week of March, we sat down as a management team and we said, we need to create a home working model. I think we’ve probably got about two and a half, three weeks. Our CTO, Pete, was fantastic.

We’ve never considered a home working model. It’s not something that we’ve ever thought about and it was just nowhere near our agenda. If you’d have said what’s important to me at the beginning of last year, my biggest thing keeping me awake would have been office space here in Wrexham. How do we keep growing with this growth rate. Actually, we’ve got 100,000 square foot, we’ve only been in here five years, and we’d be full. So that was the problem.

And it was amazing because we did it. And I think this is such a good example about what you can achieve as a team if you put your mind to the problem. Everything else goes out the window, because you have to fix that issue, you’ve got no choice, have you? Two and a half weeks later, we had 1000 people and 900 people all working from home. Some of the tech was a bit ropey as I’m sure everybody’s was, but you know what, at least if you can get the 80% sorted, go into the 80%, make it work as best you can, and then go and do those edge cases, and make those work as well. It was just an incredible year. As I said, I suppose it just shows what the team is actually capable of delivering, when you can put all those things together.

Ruby Sheera:

I like that. It’s the art of the possible. Now, what I wouldn’t mind asking you now is you and I had a chat about April last year, just after a lockdown happened before any vaccine was out there.

I think your business along with a lot of others, including our own, was going through a bit of a challenging time then. I remember having a conversation with you, one of the reasons why I love talking to people like you, you’re so positive and optimistic even at what I call one of the toughest points.

Would you mind just expanding on that and talk a little bit about that journey from that low point, through to how you sort of evolved it, got people together, got a real camaraderie going amongst a team to sort of do more.

Joanna Swash:

Our experience was, as businesses started to lock up their offices and go home, we were in a storm of, with our people all moving to home working, we had all our clients, their call volumes and their chat volumes were going up. Rather than doing an overflow outsource to us, they were just diverting all their phone calls to us at once.

We knew that we had to keep delivering service levels no matter what we did. Then it got to April and this was really the moment when we all started to go grey. I think there was this moment of thinking, call volumes just dropping through the floor, we were about 50% of our normal call volumes, chat actually didn’t have that much of an impact. And interestingly, the States didn’t have that much of an impact either, I think that was that whole approach to the market.

I remember standing my kitchen and April thinking, you’ve almost got this risk analysis for most other things that might happen. But global pandemic was nowhere on it. I had to almost give my head a wobble and think, okay, we can either hide, survive or thrive. And I created these three states of mind. So the team could all buy into a state of mind, rather than buy into something that was all just a bit ambiguous.

Right, we’re not going to hide we never have, so we’re not going to put our tin hats on and wait for it to be over. We’re never in survival mode. We’re normally operating in thrive mode, where we put money towards marketing campaigns. But actually, what you need is the confidence to go and do stuff. I said, we still need to behave like that, so there needs to be a big part of our mindset that needs to survive.

How do we cut costs? How do we more efficient? How do we make sure that our service levels don’t suffer even though we’re at home? We’ve got fluctuating call volumes, etc. But how do we go and absolutely maximise this, this business growth opportunity, ie, outsourcing has almost never been on the agenda as much as it was in, you know, the first half of 2020.

So as a business, we had to really embrace that. So the other phrase that I created was brave and bold. Because you can either hide or you can be brave and bold. So we decided we were going to go with national advertising campaigns, at a moment where nobody else was buying media, they couldn’t give this stuff away half the time.

We were doing national full page ads about now’s the time to rethink how your office works. We’re not going to go back to the old ways of working and it was really tapping into that change mindset of leaders. We saw exactly the same behaviours, if you think about it in the downturn, so 2008, it’s that time where leaders step back and think, okay, I’ve been doing it like this, for goodness knows how long, how do I need to act and behave going forward?

So we tapped into that mindset of change. This is the moment to change. This is the moment to reimagine your office. This is the moment to say, how can I be more cost effective, productive, efficient? How can I get better engagement with my people?

I think that’s really come through. That’s why we had a good year in 2020, we beat our original business plan, we needed to make sure that we kept our founders and investors happy. We needed to make sure that we kept our clients and their callers and their chat visitors happy. And our people and engagement was absolutely critical.

So for me, the optimism came from making sure we looked after all those stakeholder groups and think what do I want? If I’m wearing their shoes right now, how do I want to behave? And what’s happening in the overall market, and let’s be brave and bold, and let’s go and drive change, which we did.

I wish I’d kept a diary. I kept thinking I need to start writing some of this stuff down. And those feelings at the time when you’re just thinking, Okay, let’s just go for it now, it’s really key.

Ruby Sheera:

That’s so true. I think when you go through the experience that we’ve all gone through, I always describe it as you walk to the edge of a cliff edge on certain feelings, thoughts, concepts, and you surprise yourself, how different your perspective is when we get to that edge, which for me has been a great learning curve.

What I wanted to ask you was, at the heart of all this and capturing that fantastic growth that you have this year, have been your new employees. How have you managed to keep them engaged? What have you done that’s been different with them? I hear lots of good stories, including certain stories about turkeys at Christmas, so can you just tell us a few of those insights?

Joanna Swash:

Shall we start with turkeys at Christmas then? So let’s go right to the end of 2020, and nobody had seen each other for so long. they’d all be working at home. And from a management team perspective and all leaders, we need to engage with our people don’t we. So you always have to think what’s the driver behind the turkey.

So the problem that we were trying to solve was how do we say hello and embrace our people and make them feel special after the most difficult year anybody has ever had? Personally and from a business perspective. We’re only a little part of people’s lives aren’t we? It’s only work at the end of the day and they’ve got all this other stuff going on in the world.

So how do we engage them, make them smile, have this sense of togetherness. And also how do we drive recruitment in Wrexham? But what we do do is drive social media locally so that you get a great, great reputation. And we came up with the idea of a turkey drop, so it was “Cluck and Collect.” Thank you. That was mine.

So it was “Cluck and Collect” in the carpark, we had the management team dressed up in turkey suits, and they drove up. But they had to pimp their car up, so they had to have all Christmas decorations and everything all over their cars. They could have nut roasts, hams, or turkeys, we built it into Workplace so they could order everything.

I love Workplace by the way, we need to talk about that too. And they drove up and it was pouring with rain. I think that just actually added that cherry on the top because we were freezing cold, absolutely soaked and freezing cold. But we did it and it was amazing. It’s just that sense of bringing everybody together to do something.

But we did quite a lot of that throughout the whole of the year. Shall I tell you some more? Okay, what else did we do, there was a Scare Fest locally in Wrexham so it was like a drive-thru Halloween thing. So we took the whole night, we took the press night and we gave everybody tickets to drive-thru Scare Fest with their families, because you still need to do something with your people, even though you can’t physically interact with them in the same car.

You can give them experiences but you just have to be really creative about how you deliver that. We had some great companies locally that baked brownies and everything and we’d send them out. I hand wrote every note for everybody, thank you so much for all you’re doing, keep smiling, here are some brownies.

NHS as well, so we baked cookies, this time for Valentine’s Day, and we said nominate a family member or a friend who works for the NHS, or works in care services, and we sent them cookies on their behalf. So that was our Valentine’s Day present.

But what’s been a key thread throughout was Workplace, which I absolutely love.  We’ve had it, and we were part of the beta test group around 4-5 years ago, whenever they first got launched. And we use that anyway, we have really high engagement levels, and they’ve always used us as a case study.

I’ve done videos on a Sunday morning, walking the dogs with a bit of a business update. I’ve done ‘walk arounds’ in a completely empty office, posted up all the stats, figures, everything we’ve been really open with so that they felt they were really getting the information from the horse’s mouth almost. So they had it at that moment in time and that’s really been super, super helpful.

We’ve had lots of mental health groups on there, too. So that people just felt connected to their teams, even though everybody was working remotely. It’s been hard work for all leaders to be able to go and keep that engagement level high. Topped off by the fact that a couple of weeks ago, we were named in the top 20 of ‘Best 100 Large Companies to Work for in the UK’. And to have that in the pandemic year, then I’ll take that as a bit of a win.

Ruby Sheera:

Definitely congratulations in order there. How has ECI been throughout the process, obviously your investor. As you said, you went through a bit of a tough time, call volumes dropped. You sort of been doing all this stuff, how have you found them?

Joanna Swash:

I have found them super, super supportive. And I’ve said this in other forums and discussion points all the way along. It was about providing us with the appropriate resource, at the appropriate time, that wasn’t forced down your necks at a time that you didn’t need it, because you had other things to concentrate on.

We had weekly sessions with them. But we didn’t feel like they were asking information all the time. We had to feel like they really trusted us that as a management team, we had the skills and the resources and the tools. And they were with all in the motivation to go and make the best of our current situation.

And also, we had to be careful, we had to have one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator because we could have sped off and just grown and grown. But our current client base, we needed to make sure we looked after those. So ECI were very, very supportive all the way through. But that’s been my experience with ECI anywhere, I think they’ve been really great to work with.

Ruby Sheera:

Another question I’d like to ask is a little bit feedback actually if you wouldn’t mind. So we’ve had the privilege of working with you on one of those senior appointments during the course of this year, and we got the opportunity to actually meet your entire team and get you to run through our leadership dynamics and our PACE models, which is our own IP that we’ve developed.

As a CEO in a mid-market portfolio company, and I know you started off quite well ‘Do I really need to do this? I’ve done a few of those.’ Give me a bit of honest feedback as to how he found it, and was it useful in the process?

Joanna Swash:

Okay, I’ll go straight to the end, yes, it was really, really useful. But I remember the phone conversation, I don’t know what these results are going to come back like, it didn’t really feel very appropriate to me. And I get the results back and I thought, wow that really is me to a tee.

I love the way that you’ve mapped everybody out so that we can all see how we all interact with each other. And they were absolutely spot on. I really do believe in the whole science behind profiling, and having the words to describe ourselves for one and each other. Because you could describe what you wanted to eat off the menu, couldn’t you, but sometimes to describe how you think it’s a real skill to be able to find the words and the other way of expressing that, and that can only be a really, really good thing.

So I think if you have got clients out there that haven’t actually gone through that process yet, I would absolutely recommend it. Because I just think it’s all about the 1% for me. If you can go and do something that adds, that makes you and your team 1% better, marginal gains, you need to go and do it because there’s no big magic button you can press to go and drive change and growth, but that has been a great process.

Ruby Sheera:

Thank you very much, really appreciate that feedback. Lastly, I want to talk about the future of Moneypenny. You’ve obviously got a great platform and continue to grow. I know there’s big plans to grow, maybe internationally, maybe US and there’s some sort of spoilers there. But could you just give me some insight to what the future holds?

Joanna Swash:

What I need to make sure I do is to motivate my team and keep pushing for growth. We are trying to maintain a 20% year on year growth rate, which as we all know, gets harder as we get bigger.

But look at this, look at the US market, it’s massive, there is no other player out there with the same kind of go-to-market proposition as Moneypenny has – where one receptionist isn’t based in your office, there’s nobody looking at outsourcing for large companies, there’s switchboards, etc. So the opportunities that we’ve got over there now to take this UK model of looking after larger businesses, law firms, accounting practices, put those actually there into the States and make it work out to the new Atlanta location, I just think it’s enormous.

Plus there’s the live chat opportunity too. We’ve really grown live chat over the past 18 months almost from nothing through to a significant amount of revenue. But there’s so much more we can do on that as well both in the UK and fresh market in the States.

So for me, it’s about making sure that we continue to look and refine the management team, so that you’ve got the best people doing the best possible job at that moment, and that we’re all appropriate for our roles. And that we are maximising all the different opportunities that come along.

We also have to make sure that we are all over AI, we work a lot with Pete, who’s our CTO and is incredible, and the knowledge base is this AI side of it, so that we can go and be an aggregator of all this technology that would normally be only the preserve of the really large corporations and turn that into something that smaller businesses and medium sized businesses can use.

So I am optimistic. I’m always looking at everything through a bit of a pink rosy tint, because I just think for a business that wants to be brave and bold and wants to get out there and wants to take some risks, then I think there’s a huge opportunity for us.

Ruby Sheera:

Thank you very much. I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s a double whammy pleasure for me to be actually talking to a female CEO and I’m hoping there’ll be many more to come.

Joanna Swash:

Thank you as always, it’s lovely to chat to you.

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