Retail Therapy: What you say to customers is just as important as how you say it…

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On the high-speed up to London this week – a totally hilarious announcement from the train operating company. ‘We apologise for the lack of available seating on the train this morning. This is due to excess passenger loading’.  What on earth!? Apart from loud guffaws and wry smiles from the passengers,  this maladroit message got me thinking about the importance of corporate language.

In advertising speak it is called ‘tone of voice’ but in an increasingly connected world, what you say to customers is just as important as how you say it.  A badly worded customer message is as likely to be trending on Twitter as a bake-off recipe – only the results are probably not as tasty.  So how can companies get it right?

Know your customer!

Yep, this is pretty obvious, right?   In retail it’s key that your ‘message’ is consistent across all customer touch points whether in the real world or the virtual one. Increasingly this means that organisations are reliant on robust customer data.  The rise of Omni-channel retailing is challenging CMOs everywhere to think carefully about how they spend their budget in order to improve the bottom line. Continuing to bombard your customers with those annoying internet adverts long after they’ve purchased the actual item in question can be detrimental to your brand, and will disengage your target market.  So data is a vital ingredient in keeping the message fresh and relevant.

Integrate, then innovate!

In the absence of a complete, accurate view of your customer base across your sales, CRM, campaign management and delivery mechanisms, you are simply keeping fingers crossed and hoping that the right message is getting through at the right time.  The stats I’ve seen estimate that 20-30% of operational expenses are directly related to bad data.   This is because poor data quality drives bad market intelligence, which in turn magnifies the inaccuracies of your strategic marketing decisions.  Having a marketing strategy with data quality at it’s cornerstone,  and a business plan that integrates IT and creativity, can mean better customer information, and a more finely focused way of engaging and delighting your audience.  No point in spending big bucks on advertising if the message is wrong.  You will just annoy, instead of inspire.

Customers are the lifeblood of any retail organisation.  So what you say is as important as how you say it.  In the words of Michael leBoeuf : ‘A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all!’

Business Transformation: Ready, Steady…Stall!

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Recent headlines documenting the ongoing saga at Tesco bring to mind Lao Tzu, who wrote: ‘If you do not change direction, you will end up where you are heading’. No doubt many column inches will be devoted to the analysis of what went wrong and why. Did management ignore the warning signs within? Or did they simply fail to adapt and react to changing circumstances in their external environment?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. If it is to appease shareholders and customers, Tesco’s incumbent CEO, Dave Lewis will need to transform it’s business, to do so radically – and in a short space of time. In this case, the £250m hole in Tesco’s finances, a property portfolio of large and unprofitable stores, and a devalued ClubCard and brand, are all powerful incentives for change. But, what happens when the organisation isn’t ready?

In my experience, things only change, when you do. Such change may be conceived in the boardroom, but it is delivered with and through the people inside the wider organisation. And this is where the challenges begin. I often say that business transformation is about psychology, not methodology. So it’s just as important to understand the ‘who you are dealing with’ as well as the ‘what needs to be different’. Just ask the team who are transforming the Co-Op!

Instead of charging headlong down the transformation tunnel, it might be wise to ask:

Is the vision clear?
Is the appetite for change genuine?
Are management’s messages consistent with their actions?
How ready is the organisation to make the change?
Do the resources and business conditions support change?

The greater the complexity of change, the more vital it is to understand where you are starting from. Otherwise, ready steady go ends up as ready steady stall.

Engagement, not Enragement…

As a consultant who specialises in stakeholder engagement, I am by turns amused and horrified by the abject levels of treatment that pass for customer service in the UK.  Many organisations, lured by the cost savings that can be made by installing automated customer management systems, or outsourcing their call centres, or whatever pea-brained managerial trend is current…seem to have forgotten one thing. While cash may be king, customers represent cash.  Engaging the people that buy your product or service is not only good for your brand, it’s good for your bottom line!

Today was a case in point for me.  My car insurance is with a company who claim to be ‘winning the battle for cheaper insurance’.  Sadly, they haven’t won the battle for my heart and mind. There have been several errors with the policy – all of them as a result of adminstrative bungles by the people who inhabit the parallel universe on the other end of the phone.  Yesterday I received a letter saying that my policy had been cancelled. Oh really? That’s strange since the insurance premiums keep going out of my account on a regular basis. This was in addition to a letter that queried my no claims bonus information & practically accused me of insurance fraud – information that the insurer already had since this was the 2nd year I’d renewed my policy with them.  What a fabulous way to reward customer loyalty. Needless to say, I shall be voting with my wallet and cancelling the policy for real this time.

But the hilarity continues. In the spirit of good customer service, my energy supplier wrote to me to say that a meter reading had been scheduled. Now, this is progress because usually the meter readers turn up when you aren’t at home – yes, I do work for a living!  Even better, they left a number for me to call, to rearrange should this not be convenient. So, I did. Cue…an automated customer service system which asked me to put in my account number and then said…‘Sorry’ before it disconnected.  What on earth were they apologising for…? The fact that they placed so much reliance on IT that it had let them down, when in fact employing a real human being might in the end be a better option? The fact that they weren’t actually providing a service, just wasting my time, and dime?   Really, these machines should have an option that says…Press #5 and hang up if you want to speak to someone who actually gives a monkeys!

Mary Kay Ash, the US businesswoman who founded a cosmetics empire based on personal service is well known for saying; ‘A company is only as good as the people it keeps’.  While this certainly applies to talent retention, it’s a maxim that UK retailers, recruitment agencies, banks, energy providers and insurance brokers would do well to take to heart when it comes to their customers.