Best Buy internal communications promotes a culture of transparency during challenging times


According to Mike Voss, Senior Director of Internal Communications at Best Buy, the company never shies away from controversial topics at their quarterly Town Hall meetings – a channel they first introduced to staff a little over three years ago.

“When we started it, it was eye opening. Employees really loved it. The comments were overwhelming, and over time, there became an expectation that our CEO Brian Dunn and all of our leaders would be just as accessible. The vehicle has done quite a bit for establishing credibility with employees feeling they have trustworthy leaders with whom they can talk and pose questions.”

At the Town Hall I just attended at Best Buy’s Richfield, Minnesota headquarters, Dunn tackled hard-hitting questions from employees via a live employee webcast from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Anyone following the media these past six weeks knows that the electronics giant came under fire during the holidays for its inability to fulfill several online purchases. Not to mention a scathing article in Forbes predicting that Best Buy will go out of business within a few years.

That piece prompted a sharp rely by Dunn on his blog to set the record straight. During Best Buy’s internal Town Hall – moderated by Voss – Dunn addressed the media situation in front of an audience made up Las Vegas store employees (on site) and an auditorium filled with employees watching the webcast back at headquarters:

“When I read those things, I feel sort of how you (employees) feel. I look at it, I get angry. Then I get past my anger and look at these things – what’s troubling about it is that there are elements of truth to what we’re reading and what people are saying and this cries for us to change.”

“We need to be nimble”

According to Dunn, there is a “sense of urgency that we need to go faster. I think that’s the gift of this kind of media attention we’ve had in the last few weeks.”

Town Hall attendees who questioned the company’s ability to process online orders were assured by Dunn that Best Buy does indeed have the right strategies to move and grow fast enough.

But it’s clear that it all comes down to a great customer experience.

“The most important thing we have is our customer franchise. We have a billion customers a year online and in stores. We’ve got to make that experience better – it’s always been important to provide a great experience when a customer walks into our stores or goes online. The truth of the matter is, it’s never been more important than it is now…people are the soul of our business model. We have to create outrageously great experiences for our customers regardless of the capabilities we have to work with…that is the long-term, only sustaining advantage for us.”

In-store etiquette addressed

Dunn also addressed employee comments from his D.Brief blog – one of which implied that Best Buy store employees tend to “hound” customers with credit card protection plans and warranty information.

Dunn replied:

“It has never been the intent of Best Buy to shove anything at the customer they don’t want, period. It is our responsibility when a customer comes into our store or comes to us online that we understand what it is they want to do, what they’re interested in and provide them with a slate of solutions. Our job has always been to make presentations to customers so they understand the full tilt of benefits available by shopping with us.”

Dunn commended the blog comment for its honesty and authenticity and according to members of his communications team, those are the types of questions they frequently try to address by employees.

“Those are our most favorite questions to get,” says Jennifer Rock, Best Buy’s Director of Internal Communications and Dialogue and Town Hall producer. “If an employee is brave enough to share such a thing, we better be brave enough to answer it.”

“It’s all about the employees” 

Two weeks before a Best Buy Town Hall, Rock and her team send out a global call for questions to the company’s 180,000 employees and emphasize that no topics are off limits. The communications team then prioritizes the hundreds of questions they receive and create a 90-minute agenda.

“We make sure we get the hottest topics employees are talking about and group the questions into themes. It’s completely about the employees. We ask them what’s on their mind, they tell us and Brian addresses it,” Rock explains.

One particularly heartfelt question at January’s Town Hall came from a Best Buy employee who asked Dunn how a CEO can “stay so calm and cool in the face of adversity” and wondered how staff can experience “the positive stories that Best Buy can share?”

Dunn answered:

“There were a handful of employees who said, ‘yep there are things we have to do better but I love working for this place and here’s why.’ I have to tell you it’s those folks that get me out of bed and get me on fire about doing a better job. I spent some time this week talking with them on the phone appreciating their courage.

I stay calm because I believe I know our strategies are the right thing. I know our Blue Shirts and our agents. People need us to make a difference. This technology we sell is changing the world.”

He continued, “Do I get huffy about what we’re hearing? Of course – because I love this institution and what it stands for and I don’t ever want to let us down. My job is to stay calm in the storm and drive us forward.”

A morale booster

During these uncertain economic times, Voss says it’s critical to have an internal communications channel like these Town Halls to reassure employees and help them understand the company’s business strategies.

“We try to mirror the company’s culture at events like this. We’re open and transparent; we want to make sure employees feel like they’re working for a good company. We sell fun stuff, we have fun doing it, our leaders are self-deprecating enough where they’ll make fun of themselves or take ownership of things when they don’t go right. These are things as a communications team, we’re fortunate to see in our interactions with those leaders and to be able to bring the rest of the company alive.”

He continues, “To see that, is very powerful. It gives employees a shot in the arm each time we do one of these Town Halls. It’s an inspiring event where people can feel good about the direction of the company and see that we’re thinking through the issues they see and that there is work being done even if they don’t have visibility to it in their day-to-day jobs. As a result, they can get a sense of confidence regarding the direction of the company and feel like they can be good ambassadors for Best Buy.”

Social media

Voss works closely with Dunn to maintain Best Buy’s open and transparent culture online. He credits his “communications-savvy” CEO for understanding the value of communications and social media.

While Dunn tweets and uploads Facebook postings himself, Voss and the rest of the communications team are active in helping him plan the editorial for his D.Brief blog.

“We make sure the content is fresh. We monitor comments to make sure customer issues are brought to the attention of the customer care team. We help Brian draft posts for his D.Brief blog; he goes through them, makes some edits, then approves them before the post is uploaded,” Voss explains.

Best Buy has been a champion of social media since the beginning and has worked hard to implement an effective social media policy for its staff.

Rock recalls:

“Several years ago social media was pretty new so we sat down with our Communications team, Employee Relations, and our Legal team to discuss what kind of social media guidelines to put in place – not only to protect the company but to keep in line with the culture of Best Buy. We did a lot of research in terms of what other companies were doing their own social media policies. So we started with three very basic rules for employees: Be Smart. Be Human. Be Authentic.”

Establishing communities

In 2006, Best Buy received kudos for developing an online community for their employees called Blue Shirt Nation – a site where staff could share knowledge, best practices; even a few jokes.

The site has since been discontinued, but these days, employees have another tool which enables them to vent and share ideas internally with colleagues: the WaterCooler.

“The WaterCooler is our online forum. It allows employees in the field to communicate with employees in Corporate. It’s pretty low tech but very efficient and effective when it comes to providing answers for employees as well as creating some personal networking,” explains Andy Hokenson, Best Buy’s Instigator of Communication.

So why the unusual title?

“My official title is Senior Specialist of Employee Dialogue and Intranet Strategy – that doesn’t fit on my card so I just went with Instigator of Communication because ultimately it’s what I do – engage employees in conversation.”

According to Hokenson, anything goes in the WaterCooler – employees have more or less free rein to post whatever they want.

“It ranges from anything to everything. We have comments that relate to a specific business function (e.g. product inventory) or you find people letting off steam, entertaining themselves, telling Chuck Norris jokes. I really think there is value to all of it – there’s value to the business discussions that happen but there’s value to the networking capabilities as well.”

In keeping with Best Buy’s transparent culture, discussions are moderated to a minimum and all comments are welcome.

In light of recent events, it’s no surprise to find several comments reacting to the harsh media criticism.

“We saw going into this particular town hall that our internal channels were having the same kinds of discussions we were seeing in the media. Employees were discussing the coverage Best Buy was receiving and analyzing commentary, point by point, saying whether they thought comments were true or not,” Hokenson says.

Having a vehicle like the WaterCooler can even be a comfort to employees, especially newbies. “Imagine you are an employee starting off in a store in California. Literally your world is just the other people in that store or you might be the only employee in that position in that store. You end up dealing with issues that others may not have to deal with, so it can be a lonely island.

“Employees can use the WaterCooler to express those issues and get them out to a larger audience. On the site, there are always people willing to share with each other problems they’ve had or success stories they’ve experienced. It helps employees realize that they are not alone; there are always others who have gone down that same path.”

So how effective has the vehicle been?

According to Hokenson, “There are mixed emotions about it. There is a level of understanding you run into with our leadership and other employees. To be fair, we’ve been doing this for years (e.g. Blue Shirt Nation) but the concept is still kind of new to lots of people. Myself, I see the value in this but it is sometimes a struggle to sell that value to others. It certainly has a value to the company in the fact that we can capture specific data from our field. We have over 1,100 stores so we are not going to be able to personally hear from all those employees. The WaterCooler opens the door to where we would have only been able to talk to a certain number of employees – now we can talk to 10,000 employees. It just magnifies the level of communications we can actually have.”