Agile Digital and Ecommerce teams at the BHF

The BHF Digital Teams, like many digital teams, take Agile approaches in their work.

The Digital team uses Scrum with Product Managers writing user stories from other parts of the organisation and taking them to the Development team for prioritisation and planning. The Dev team consists of front end and back end developers, business analysts, and testers. They estimate the size of the tasks and work in two week sprints to complete the tasks. Using Scrum means that once the tasks are prioritised for that sprint they don’t change it. This works well for software development as it’s repeatable work that benefits from a timeboxed approach to deliver value.

The Ecommerce team uses Kanban. We aren’t specialists like the Dev team and our work often involves a broad range of work, including customer service, logistics, developing merchandise, marketing campaigns and products, as well as website development. We accept that with priorities changing rapidly and with what work we can undertake being dependent on others, attempting to plan with any degree of certainty or timebox our work isn’t going to be an effective. We maintain a high-level roadmap that shows what we expect to be working on over the next few months, and we have a very low-level tasks list that we refer to and update daily. This works well for ecommerce projects as the priorities change quickly and often.

Digital Team using Scrum
Ecommerce Team using Kanban
Cross-functional team of specialists, including Product Managers, Developers, Testers, Business Analysts, UX.
Single functional team of generalist who cover Platform Development, Customer Services, Logistics, Marketing.
Daily stand-up meetings to estimate, prioritise and assign work.
Weekly planning meetings to prioritise projects for the next few days.
Works in fortnightly sprints to complete predefined tasks.
Works in continuous flow with priorities changing daily.
Uses a ‘push’ system with work forecasted weeks ahead by the Product Managers and Developers.
Uses a ‘pull’ system with demand from the business and/or customers deciding what work is focused on this week.
Kanban isn’t better than Scrum, or Scrum better than Kanban, each works for the team that applies it in the right way for them.

A bot to help you choose the perfect Christmas card 

The British Heart Foundation has over a hundred Christmas cards in this year’s range. That’s a lot to choose from.

So, what people need, what they really really need, is a bot that can choose the perfect Christmas card for them. So, that’s what I did. I made my Interniser bot with a simple conversational flow that would select from the range of British Heart Foundation Christmas cards and suggest them to people chatting to the bot.

To make the bot do a bit more than just choose from a list of Christmas cards and to get a bit more engagement, the first few interactions are the bot asking some Christmas -related questions as a kind of personality test to help it determine the perfect Christmas card for the user. The bot then suggests a Christmas card and asks the human if they’d like to see another (just in case the suggestion wasn’t perfect).

From idea to implementation took less than three hours. One of my testers suggested that the questions could be used to select a persons choice of Christmas cards based upon useful questions that match the product filters on the website, such as “Do you want Christmas cards with glitter?”. Maybe that could be the next iteration.

To give the bot a try, just click Get started on Messenger or go to the Interniser Facebook page and start messaging from there.

Pivoting BHF Ecommerce

What is a pivot?

“A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision.”

– Eric Ries

Pivoting is a lean start-up practice that helps a business iterate on their business model to find the best way to meet the needs of their customers. Eric Ries calls it ‘iterating from plan A to a plan that works’. It’s a great way to respond to changes that mean the current business model is no longer viable.

Our Plan A

Our plan A was a three tiered business model that gave us the means to increase our offering for customers with lower upfront costs and an increased delivery speed, to test opportunities and learn what works, and to scale the business and make more money for life saving research. Tier one was acting as an affiliate to market products and services that our customers might benefit from, and which they would want to use via the BHF as it would involve a contribution to life saving research at no cost to themselves. This affiliation model gave us a way of quickly testing a new service or product offering whilst keeping set-up costs to a minimum, and learning how to market the new offering to a potentially new customer group. Tier two was drop-shipping and allowed us to take the learnings from tier one and iterate the opportunities that were working into a more profitable model. This tier had slightly higher set-up costs but the increased margins made it a commercially viable option for increasing the product range without having to buy stock or handle distribution. Tier three is our stock-held option. It means greater upfront costs and longer set-up times but greater profits and more control over product development.

In identifying which model would work best for which opportunity we would first consider our customer segments. The products offered through an affiliate link could work for those customers that were further away from the cause as they wouldn’t feel short-changed by going to a third-party website to make the purchase. But those customers who were more closely aligned with the cause would be more likely to want a branded experience of ordering a new product as they would want to feel part of the BHF. Pretty much all our branded products would be in the stock-held model, so we wouldn’t necessarily start with a affiliate or drop-ship model for those products but would still test them by sourcing non-branded versions to learn how they sell.

Testing and learning to drive continuous improvements in everything that we do is something that we’ll always use in whatever plan we’re delivering.

Pivoting away from weaknesses

What we learned through implementing this strategy was that there were some pretty significant barriers that were preventing us from delivering at the speed we wanted. They were mostly internal barriers; not enough resources in the right areas, bottle-necks in departments that worked in different ways, misalignment of objectives.

And as we thought about the direction the ecommerce business would grow over the next five to ten years we realised that it was out of alignment with other parts of the business. As Ecommerce was developing increasingly complex models to meet increasingly diverse customer needs the rest of the business was working towards consolidating and simplifying itself.

Learning about the weaknesses in our plan A meant we could pivot to find a way that worked better.

Pivoting towards strengths

Meeting the needs of our customers is still our top priority. We’re still all about providing BHF supporters with the means to show their friends and family that they support the nation’s heart charity, be it through wearing a pin badge, a wrist band or a hoody. And we’re still all about raising funds for life saving research. Ecommerce is the part of the BHF that gives supporters a way to add value to their experience with the BHF, whether they are entering a fundraising event and want to wear a BHF t-shirt or having our pin badges as wedding favours at their wedding, in return for money. And 100% of our profits still fund life saving research.

So, we’re going to move to be better aligned with other parts of the charity, and leverage their strengths. 750 shops with millions of customers? Let’s tell them about the Online Shop. Tens of thousands of people entering fundraising events? Let’s develop clothing they’ll want to wear whilst they’re training. CPR training doubles the chances of surviving a cardiac arrest? Let’s provide CPR Training Kits at an affordable price so small businesses and families can learn how to save lives.

This new plan isn’t going to come without it’s challenges, but as we implement it we’ll learn even more about how to give every supporter an excellent experience of the BHF and raise more money for life saving research.

Why you should buy your Christmas cards from a charity

According to the Institute of Fundraising, two billion Christmas cards are sent every year, and 30% of those cards are charity Christmas cards. That’s 600,000,000 cards. To make the maths easier let’s say that Christmas cards are sold in packs of ten, which means 60,000,000 packs are sold each year, and that a pack costs £3, which makes charity Christmas cards a £120 million a year business. Sounds like buying charity Christmas cards is a great way to support charities. But interestingly, of that £120m spent on charity Christmas cards only a small percentage of cards are actually bought from charities.

The majority of ‘charity’ Christmas cards are sold by commercial retailers, not charities. Retailers know that many people are predisposed to buy charity Christmas cards and want to leverage people’s feelings to sell their Christmas cards. Retailers form agreements with charities where a percentage of income from the sales of their Christmas cards are contributed to the charity. This percentage is often as low as 10% of the Ex VAT sale price, meaning that for every pack of Christmas cards you buy for £2.99, the charity receives just 25p.

If retailers really wanted to support a charity they could sell the charity’s Christmas cards on behalf of the charity, but of course they are a commercial operation that exists to make money so instead they sell their own range of cards and make a donation of a percentage of the sale to the charity. Of course the charity still benefits, and in some cases benefit quite a bit as even a small percentage from the large volume of Christmas cards that a retailer sells can generate considerable income. But of course, these kinds of agreements excludes any of the smaller charities as they don’t have the resources to work with retailers in this way. I don’t blame the retailers for this, it’s just business, but there is a better way for you to buy charity Christmas cards. Have you guessed what it is yet?

Charity Christmas Cards

Why do people buy charity Christmas cards?

People buy and send Christmas cards to their friends and family to wish them a happy Christmas and let them know that they are thinking of them at a time of year when being part of a family or social group is important. But charity Christmas cards add another layer to this, a deep and often emotional layer.

People buy charity Christmas cards to raise money for a charity, show support for the cause, show their friends and family that they care about the work of the charity, and for reasons far more emotionally complex than just wishing friends they haven’t spoken to for a while a merry Christmas. As many as they are personal reasons for people buying charity Christmas cards, one thing they’ll all have in common is the expectation that a charity will benefit from their purchase.

So, why do people buy charity Christmas cards from retailers instead of charities?

Probably because it’s convenient to add a pack to their weekly shop as they walk around the supermarket, and most likely because they don’t even know that the charity they want to support is even selling Christmas cards.

Christmas cards sales, for retailers and for charities, is a rush to get there first. They are all competing to be front of mind with potential customers because Christmas cards are the kind of product you only buy once a year, and once you’ve bought them you don’t buy again until next year. But charities don’t have the marketing budgets to compete with the retailers, so you may never know that your favourite charity sells Christmas cards that are just well made, and have equally beautiful/amusing/interesting designs, and contribute far more income to the charity.

Why you should buy your Christmas cards from a charity

Charities sell their Christmas in their shops and online, so before you buy your Christmas cards from your usual retailer, try googling the name of your favourite charity and ‘Christmas cards’. With a bit of persistence you’ll find some wonderful Christmas cards that your friends and family will appreciate. And if you don’t have a favourite charity, maybe now is the time to think about what causes are important to you and what charity you could support. The charity will get far more of the profits from the sale going directly to their cause and you’ll feel better about yourself knowing that at Christmas, you’ve done something good.

This is a better way for you to buy charity Christmas cards.


In case you didn’t know, I work for the British Heart Foundation where 100% of the profits from our Christmas cards fund life saving research. If you or someone you know has been affected by a heart condition you can show your support for the work of the British Heart Foundation by buying our Christmas cards and sending them to your friends and family.


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Building Love Notes

At the British Heart Foundation we have an annual fundraising campaign called Love Notes. People visit our shops, pay £1, and write a message on a red paper heart that is then put in the shop window. This year we want to build a digital version. It would need a means of collecting the message, taking payment, having the message approved, and then making the message publicly available and shareable. 

My first thoughts about how to do included using a messenger bot, but the payment would be an issue. We could have also built a separate microsite but that might prove too expensive for a speculative venture like this. So, for cost effectiveness,  speed of build and ease of management, I decided to look at using Magento, the platform our Online is built on. Using our Online Shop would mean we already have the platform, infrastructure, payment gateway, etc. working for us to use for Love Notes. 

I did a quick user journey map of how it could work. 

Starting on the home page, which would display some of the recent Love Notes and two options; ‘See more Love Notes’, which goes to a category page displaying all the current Love Notes messages, and ‘Create a Love Note’, which goes to a page with a form to take the details of the Love Notes including who it’s too, the message, and who it’s from. Completing this form takes the user to the payment gateway to take payment and within Magento creates a product with the message as the product name. This product would be held in an On Hold state until it has been checked and approved, and will then be displayed on the Online Shop and an email sent to the customer with a link back to the product page. The product page displaying the Love Note would have options to share on various social networks. 

The next step is to write the requirements, get some costs, and start designing the pages. 

My feedback on the first Digital and Customer Experience Away Day

I think the customer journey mapping exercise was interesting (and I’ve done similar exercises in the past) but I think it needs to carry on, perhaps with some informal drop-in training sessions or maybe something more formal. We have a programme of training for our finance system and understanding how our customers interact with the organisations is even more important. I think everyone across the BHF should be involved in some journey mapping to understand how they contribute to the customer’s experience of the BHF.

What in particular worked well about the day?

Having everyone in the same room and seeing how big and how diverse the team is. It made me excited and enthusiastic about what we can achieve together.

What improvements would you make to the day?

I was only there for the morning, but I think the challenge with days like these is trying to do lots of things to give people a broad overview but also delivering some value to those people. So I wonder if we should have fewer but more focused sessions.

What would you like to see included in the next Away Day?

Building on the journey mapping and understanding how the customer experiences the BHF.

Do you have any other comments or suggestions that you’d like to share?

This might not be within the scope of the Away Day but I think there could be some benefit from inviting selected people from other directorates who have strong connections with D&CE so they can see of the department is changing.

Customer Service Systems: Not just another inbox

Thinking about how to implement a Customer Service System to avoid the system being used as just another mailbox, as just a different way to receive emails from customers and send replies. A customer services system should be so much more, and with some consideration it can be. And I think that consideration starts with agreeing some principles.

Good Customer Service starts with principles

Four principles that are important to me for customer services are ‘Presenting one organisation to the customer’, ‘Customer experience is everyone’s responsibility’, ‘Aiming for the fastest route to resolution’, and ‘Building capacity for information sharing across the organisation’.

Presenting one organisation to the customer

I heard a stat from some customer services research that said that companies that have three ways for customers to contact them only answer the same question with the same answer 23% of the time. Three channels of communication and the giving customers the same answer falls to 8%. And if a company has four means of speaking with customers the same answer is provided 0% of the time. A good customer service system coupled with an organisational shift to wanting to be customer-centric is important for presenting one organisation to the customer. And presenting one organisation to the customer is simply what customers expect.

Customer Experience is everyone’s responsibility

This is a favourite of mine. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in the organisation writes replies to customers (although that is one way to go) but it’s vital that everyone in the organisation understands how they play a part in the experience a customer has of the organisation. Making the aim of providing excellent customers experience the responsibility of the finance clerk who banks cheques, the warehouse picker who double checks he’s got the right items, and the customer service agent who takes an extra few minutes to properly understand the issue the customer is facing helps the principle to filter throughout the entire organisation.

Aiming for the fastest route to resolution

Speed is important but competency is more important. There is little point being fast if the answer doesn’t resolve the customers issue as they’ll be back with further questions. Aiming for the fastest route to resolution involves understanding and optimising the route. This means being able to analyse reoccurring issues to fix the cause and identify barriers to resolution, so it isn’t quite as simple as just answering the customer as quickly as possible, it requires a lot more thought and even more action.

Building capacity for information sharing across the organisation

Answers found for one customer should be available for other customers and for other agents. This principles is important for optimising the discoverability of answers and encouraging self-serve. For the agents it means having a comprehensive knowledgebase that is kept up to date with new answers added by people from all across the organisation. For customers it means having a front-end system available that gives them the answers they need when they need them.

Principles, and getting everyone bought into them, are essential for shifting people’s thinking from ‘just another inbox’ to having and using a customer service system that delivers real value to the organisation and it’s customers.