· 5 min read · Features

Harvey Nichols' people management secrets


Overseeing seven UK stores and 15 overseas, it is Monica Goitiandia’s role to keep Harvey Nichols’ staff happy in their work, wherever they are based and whatever their ambitions. She explains the upmarket retailer’s philosophy.

Harvey Nichols has come a long way from towels and tablecloths. Originally opened in 1831 as a linen shop run from a terraced house on Knightsbridge, London, it has since become a mecca for fashionistas, who flock to its stores to get their perfectly manicured hands on designer clothing, accessories, make-up and even high-end groceries. And as the name Harvey Nichols has become synonymous with luxury and cool (it attracts a younger, hipper crowd than its neighbour and competitor Harrods), it is only appropriate that its group HR and people development director, Monica Goitiandia, is almost intimidatingly well put together. After all, people, as she says, are the “ambassadors” of this “powerful, iconic brand”.

With more than 1,400 customer-facing staff in its seven UK stores, not to mention the 15 outlets around the world in places such as Istanbul, Kuwait and Hong Kong, Goitiandia has a big job to ensure her “ambassadors” help Harvey Nichols live up to its brand promise. Her philosophy for achieving this is clear: staff must be treated as well as customers. “We have to focus on the customer,” she says. “But for me, there are two types of customer: external customers and internal customers – our people, without whom we wouldn’t be able to succeed.” She concedes such platitudes may be common in the service industries, but adds: “There is a big difference between saying it and doing it. Harvey Nichols actually does walk the talk.” In designer heels, of course.

In practice, this means a laser focus on development and clear career plans in every part of the business. “We’re just finishing an L&D framework to guide people in whatever career path they may choose,” says Goitiandia. “We will support them in their decision-making and make sure the job they do, any special projects and training are all geared towards them achieving that ambition and following the path.” That means being “academic” about knowing the skills needed to achieve in each job, from the sales floor upwards. 

However, alongside this is an understanding that not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder. “We know not everyone can progress, be promoted or be in a managerial role,” Goitiandia acknowledges. If someone is happy where they are, that means finding other ways to reward them: “If someone has performed in an excellent manner, they are likely to be rewarded better than if they have performed in an acceptable manner.” 

So what does performing in an excellent manner mean? Unsurprisingly, it comes down to customer service, whether that’s a sales assistant going above and beyond or a member of the HR team shining in their support of staff. It also means attracting staff with the right “attitude and aptitude”. “It’s not all about experience, as we can teach you and develop you to be the best at what you do,” Goitiandia says. The emphasis on development means retention rates for those who want to have a career in retail or hospitality (the department stores have their own restaurants and bars) are high for the sector. 

She says great customer service can be defined in many ways: “Each customer is different and each customer’s expectations have to be addressed individually. In simple terms, good customer service means helping a customer achieve what they want, whether that’s handing something over the counter, explaining the benefits of a product or advising on what to wear to an event.” Many of Harvey Nichols’ customers have long-term relationships with the store, so it is important that staff take the effort to know them and what they like. “For some customers, excellent service might mean calling them when the new collection from their favourite designer comes in, or finding the perfect pair of matching shoes for that dress,” Goitiandia adds.

To help them reach such high expectations, all employees from every business unit have been trained in the Gober Method, developed by Mary Gober, known as the ‘Martha Stewart of the customer relations world’. Goitiandia says: “It’s about being in the right frame of mind to offer a service: ‘being in the black’ versus ‘being in the red’. ‘Being in the black’ means being calm and being able to make the right decisions. ‘Being in the red’ means being angry or upset and being unable to see things clearly. 

“One gets ‘into the red’ several times a day, from the moment the underground isn’t running on time to the moment someone is rude to you,” adds Goitiandia. “We have taught staff to get away from the red and ‘into the black’. Employees tell me it’s helping them in their home lives too. That’s great as I want them to benefit from working for Harvey Nichols. I want them going home feeling they have achieved something.”

As well as this philosophy, the organisation has created two other values in its attempt to “make excellent customer service a way of life”. These are to always offer a positive response first and to “treasure” complaints. “When one of my colleagues has a complaint about my department, I want to hear it immediately,” says Goitiandia. “And when a customer has a complaint, I want them to feel encouraged to tell us. The only way we can improve and be better than our competitors is by doing something about what we don’t do so well.” All this is helping Harvey Nichols stay firmly on top of the competition, bouncing back from a recession-triggered decline to post record turnover of ?£160 million in 2012, and a 19.1% rise in pre-tax profits in its last set of financial results. 

Goitiandia herself has had a career as varied as the products in her stores. She has worked as an HR director in businesses big and small (Tesco and local department store Coopers of Stortford), in HR consulting at PwC and as a visiting lecturer for the business school at the University of Hertfordshire. Before joining the HR function, she was chief of nursing at a hospital in her native Spain. She has also lived and worked France and Chile as well as the UK and speaks English, French and Spanish fluently, giving her a global outlook as Harvey Nichols expands overseas.

In 2003 Harvey Nichols returned to private ownership after seven years on the stock market. Its CEO is Joseph Wan, who recently announced his retirement next year. Goitiandia’s close working relationship with Wan is a driving force behind the organisation’s people agenda – and a key reason in her accepting the job in the first place.

“I was unsure about whether I wanted to go back to commuting into London [after working close to home in a smaller organisation],” she says. “But, when I met Joseph, I was fascinated by his way of thinking and struck by the similarities between his and my way of thinking about HR.”

Two and a half years later, she has no regrets and Wan has proved himself to be as people-focused a CEO as she could have hoped for, one who places HR matters at the top of the agenda, as evidenced by Goitiandia taking a seat on the management board. “I do believe, generally speaking, CEOs who truly believe in the importance of good HR management would have an HR director sitting at the table,” she says. “If there isn’t one, I question how important it really is to them. When I sit at the table, I don’t only contribute to HR and people, I contribute to the business strategy and it is much easier for me to do my job as a result. It means I can make sure L&D is not overlooked when we discuss operating costs, and that pay remains competitive. I want to be an employer of choice, and I can’t do that if I don’t have a seat at the table.”

Having her seat at the table also means Goitiandia is involved with the next big step for Harvey Nichols: the launch of a website with a full multichannel offering and, she promises, many innovative surprises. “We are entering a critical stage in our multichannel strategy, which will complement our excellent customer service big time,” she says. “With that launch, I have a critical role to play. The website will be launched only if we have the skills to do it.”

Despite this push into e-commerce, the magic of bricks and mortar has yet to lose its sparkle for the store’s diverse and loyal customer base. Harvey Nics, as it is affectionately known, will remain a destination for fashion lovers, and much of that will continue to be down to the quality of its staff as much as the quality of its products. “We help customers decide what’s right for them, without them knowing it before they come to see us,” says Goitiandia. Overall, it’s simple: “We make people happy.”