The Megabuyte Interview: Ian Churchill
BigHand’s London offices sit just across the street from the Crossbones Garden, the recently prettified Medieval burial ground for prostitutes and paupers. Ian Churchill isn’t familiar with the history, but he only joined BigHand in November – there’s been more pressing matters than local sightseeing. But Borough Market is a vibrant area to work in, the CEO tells me as we walk through the office, decorated in BigHand blues and repetitions of the phrase “Make Big Happen”. The meeting room has a view of the Shard, and also, of employees playing ping pong outside: “We’ve got a great atmosphere here.”
Digital workflow developer and consultancy BigHand is best known for its dictation software, used by 80% of the UK’s 200 largest law firms. But this is more than a fancy dictaphone outfit. “The way we see it, we’re enabling fee earners to become more efficient,” says Churchill, tieless in a suit and subtle leaf-patterned shirt. “Law firms are increasingly centralising their back office functions. Our heritage is dictation, but we’ve branching out into more task delegation.”
This development is partially inspired by what Churchill calls client-led innovation, as users were bending the solution to transfer things other than voice files. “We work closely with our clients to meet their needs. We’re focused around the attorney and the back office interface, streamlining it and making it more efficient.” Law firms are keen to lower their ratio of support cost to revenue, explains Churchill; essentially they want to reduce the number of people needed to transcribe documents. This means BigHand is working on improving speech recognition software, and yes, the software works – if you’re prepared to train it:
“But we’ve found that lawyers are not prepared to train a speech recognition engine. I don’t think I’d be prepared to train it; I’m not patient enough!” He laughs – the problem is we all mumble a little. The untrained software brings back a 90% accurate text, says Churchill, and the training happens when you edit and correct the text. I ask if full automation of dictation is the ultimate goal: “It’s one of the things we’re working on,” says Churchill, adding that working with clients on product development has also led to better integration of document management systems. For example, lawyers in the UK and Australia are required to keep records of every meeting, but these documents are only needed if there’s a dispute. So 90% accuracy may actually be enough: “Because it creates a word document, it becomes searchable. We retain the speech file as well, so if they ever need to go back and get it 100% right, they have both pieces. But this strips out a massive amount of transcription work.”
Outside of the legal profession, medical consultants are the most dictation-prone. BigHand’s healthcare business works with a number of NHS Foundation Trusts, for which transcription represent a significant expense. “From a product development focus, we’re going to continue to be very close to our clients, and continue to develop products with them to solve their business issues,” says Churchill. He lists recent developments in task delegation and capacity management: “The feedback we’re currently getting is that it’s difficult to understand the peaks and troughs of work within teams. So we’re working with law firms to build a tool so they can do that.”
A high level of customer satisfaction, along with exciting new products and a stable financial base, were key reasons why Churchill opted to join BigHand last November. “You start to get a feel for the organisation as you go through an interview process, and it just felt like a really nice place to work. Five months in, I still think it’s a great place to work.”
Churchill (47) grew up in Cornwall, and studied Accountancy, Finance and Economics at the University of Essex. “I went straight to KPMG from university. I’d qualified as a Chartered Accountant in Bristol and had a summer job with KPMG, and got a recommendation. One of the things I’ve benefited from throughout my career is doing a good job, and therefore being recommended for my next role. People ask me, ‘How do you progress?’ – I’ve always tried to make by bosses’ lives easier.”
But Churchill wasn’t always a top performer. “In Cornwall, in the seventies, I was taught to read phonetically. It really didn’t work for me. I was a poor reader, to the extent I failed my English O level.” Although Churchill passed on his second go, he remembers the moment at KPMG “like it was yesterday”, when he’d written a two-page document misspelling “acquisition” every time. “I remember sitting there, watching the partner circling the word ‘acquisition’ throughout this letter, and almost feeling myself physically shrink.” But never again: Churchill polished up his spelling and punctuation after that. “That taught me that I have to keep learning. You have to keep getting better. I learn from everyone, everyone in the organisation, and everyone I meet. That’s really important to me.”
After KPMG came five years at Vodafone, followed by Northgate Information Solutions where Churchill ended up as Managing Director of the justice business. He moved on to Capita in 2007, where held a number of directorships. It’s a very professional IT sector specialist CV. Was there a conscious drive to progress to the CEO seat? Churchill won’t quite go along with this: “You know, at times I have to pinch myself to believe I’ve got this job, because I’m so enthused by it. I suppose my ambition has grown as I’ve seen the opportunity.”
Churchill cites a certain business turnaround as a significant lesson in management: “I learned a lot, particularly around people’s motivation. The link between having motivated staff and satisfied customers came through strongly. The business had lost touch with its customers, and customer satisfaction was declining rapidly. That strongly drove employee dissatisfaction, because they didn’t feel the business was treating its customers appropriately.” Not everyone made it through the turnaround, says Churchill, but the people who did were the ones with the “greatest passion”: “They really drove the change.”
The trick to nurturing a company through this kind of change, says Churchill, is to find the people who actually want it to happen, regardless of what level they’re at. “I ran with a very simple message: we’re going to improve customer satisfaction. In its widest context, [that means] we’re going to send them the right bills, we’re going to deliver software that works, and when the software breaks we’re going to support it in a courteous manner. … That had a resonance and people got behind it, … and the business flourished as a consequence.”
Learning every day
Churchill lives on the edge of the Cotswolds with his wife Kathryn, a northerner. Kathryn recently purchased a dog – Churchill shows me a photo of an extremely black “goldendoodle” mix. He likes the dog, he’s quick to say, it’s just that he didn’t want daily responsibility for one. “As soon as it got rainy, my wife went, ‘It’s your turn to walk the dog!’ Oh no.” He laughs – it’s definitely her dog. But it’s an outdoorsy family: Churchill spends a lot of time with their two teenage boys – one does rugby, the other triathlons – both play cricket. The whole family skis, and Churchill cycles a lot.
Churchill’s wife is a teacher, as well as both parents-in-law: “I developed school software for eight years, but obviously, if you’re not a teacher you know nothing about education!” Churchill laughs. Back in Cornwall, his parents ran their own grocery business, but he thinks they’re surprised at where he’s ended up: “I think people were less pushy in the eighties. Certainly both my parents encouraged me to do the best I could, and were very supportive of me going to university.” But why are they surprised? Churchill thinks about it. “I don’t know. I grew up in a small village in Cornwall, you know. Probably in their eyes, a country boy.”
What this alleged country boy wants to do now, is continue to grow BigHand: “Make it as successful as we can, working with the team, whether that’s three, five, or seven years.” Then he’ll see – he’s only just started, and he’s enjoying the journey: “Loving it. Really loving it.” We’re wrapping up by this point, and I tell the CEO I’m going to have a look at the Crossbones Garden, which was a paved lot the last time I saw it. Churchill comes along for a wander, and points out the Boot & Flogger – that’s the pub where he was first introduced to the BigHand management team. The sign on the BigHand building says Union Hall – Churchill doesn’t know the history, but he emails me later: the building was opened in 1782 as a meeting house for justices of the County of Surrey. You learn something every day.