Jill Palmer, CEO of Click Travel, explains how the business achieved growth by shifting the emphasis away from individual financial incentives and onto effective teamwork.

Click Travel is an award-winning, high growth, corporate travel management business and has been courted by over 25 private equity firms. Click Travel has been listed in the Sunday Times’ ‘Best Companies to Work For’ six years in a row and featured twice in its Fast Track list of the 100 fastest-growing private companies in the UK. In 2018, the business was included in the prestigious Tech Nation Future Fifty list of the UK’s best late-stage technology companies. In 2018 it secured funding from Business Growth Fund (BGF).

Click Travel's CEO, Jill Palmer, on the right team for growth.

Until I joined Click, it was led by two founders who were brothers. I was the first non-family member on the board, brought in because they acknowledged that their fast growth required more operational experience. They were doubling their turnover every year, and had a committed and engaged team working all hours, but they needed better control of their processes and operations. In fact, when I started, there wasn’t even a management team to lead through, which I certainly wasn’t used to. I remember meeting my direct reports for the first time; there were about 15 of them, and they were all pretty junior.

One of the first things I did was identify the leaders of the future, as well as where we had some gaps that needed external hires. I had to be careful not to upset the excellent people we already had, and I’m incredibly proud to say that, where I’ve brought in leaders to manage existing employees, none of those employees have left the business. We’re passionate about building our own, and we have a strong employee value proposition that enables us to retain people while also bringing in new people with the skills we need to drive growth.

“We had to put on ice some interesting side projects that the engineers were enjoying. But sometimes it pays to be boring.”

Jill Palmer, CEO, Click Travel

Restructuring sales

At the point I joined, Click’s rapid growth was putting a strain on the infrastructure, especially the telephone system. The only time I’ve ever cried at work is when it broke down for the second time in a week! Fixing it and getting an operations team in place was the foundation for our future success. Once we’d stabilised the operations area, we focused on sales. The sales team were a hardworking, engaged group, running after every opportunity. I decided to focus them solely on opportunities where we had the most potential to succeed – where we could delight our customers and make money at the same time. That was a key turning point as it meant that our energy was being directed with much more clarity and renewed purpose.

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Jill Palmer, CEO, Click Travel

Getting rid of bonuses

We also wanted to encourage our sales team to work together more, so we scrapped the entire bonus structure and gave them a collective target instead. We’ve had spectacular growth at Click, achieving between £35m and £45m worth of sales every year for the past five years, and we did that without paying a single bonus or bit of commission at the time.

We also introduced a team code to sales, which they collaborated with us to develop. We discuss that code in every sales meeting to ensure that everyone understands the values we want them to adopt. This code has meant taking tough decisions: we only want people who live by our values, which means that some had to leave. That’s always difficult, but it’s crucial to get these behaviours right.

One of our values is, ‘None of us is as smart as all of us.’ Quite simply, teamwork is key. We don’t outsource any aspect of our operations, and we employ all our own software engineers, who work closely with our account managers and customer support experts to develop our platform in the way customers want. You wouldn’t get that in a business that outsourced its technology development.

Sharpening the focus

I think that our values and culture proved incredibly useful when it came to rebuilding our technology platform. First, we had to put on ice some interesting side projects that the engineers were enjoying, and get them to focus on developing the platform to the exclusion of everything else. That took a fair bit of persuasion – engineers love to innovate. But sometimes it pays to be boring. With the platform up and running, we could then return to some of those more exciting ideas.

We also had to engage the sales team, asking them to sell the new platform a full year before we migrated existing customers. This was hard without testimonials, especially because customers loved the old platform, but it was a necessary step and having the right culture in place made it much easier.

To me, growth is dependent on having the right culture, which requires engagement, collaboration, focus and fearlessness. Our people feel inspired to come up with great ideas, and empowered as a team to try them out.

Jill joined as Operations Director in 2012, then became MD in 2015 and CEO in 2017. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and two sons. She’s a big fan of cricket and has a lively cockapoo called Sydney.

For more on people and skills, and many other aspects of growing a private business, download our Moments That Make You guide.

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