Wednesday 13 October 2004

New blockhead on the block

The great Dr Johnson ruled that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ So I am now, officially, a blockhead. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has sought my advice on financial public relations during the last two decades.

Certainly, financial PR requires slightly more intelligence than certain trades and professions, such as being a stockbroker or a traffic warden. But fundamentally it calls for the ability to listen and a dash of common sense.

‘Here’s an idea – why don’t you put the sales increase and the new store openings at the beginning of the release, and the factory closures and your new share option scheme on page 17?’

‘Great Scott!’ says the grateful client. ‘I’d never thought of that!’

Listening is critical because you can’t help people explain themselves to their best advantage until you have listened closely to what they have to say. And, if you are venturing into contested territory, it’s equally important to listen to the opposition, too. Hear their concerns, understand their arguments, and then totally obliterate them through the relentless application of logic, cunning and low abuse.

I’ve recently witnessed two countervailing approaches to listening – one in my professional capacity and the other as a ‘consumer’.

As an adviser to DFS, I watched with keen interest as Lord Kirkham attempted not to hear those institutions who felt he wasn’t offering quite enough to take the company he founded private. As a man who started with nothing and built his business from scratch, he has a proper appreciation of the value of money and naturally takes against City types who say glibly, ‘Come on Graham, it’s only another million.’

But in the end he listened and paid just enough for his offer to succeed.

At the opposite end of the scale, I have been dealing for the last six months with a garage proprietor – let us call him Mr McC. My car was sent to him by my insurance company after a minor accident, and repaired with such consummate brilliance that it started falling to bits as I was doing 70 mph (and not one mph more, officer) down the A1(M), thereby scaring me out of my wits.

Persuaded against my better judgment to return the car so that Mr McC’s merry band could attempt to put things right, I eventually got back a vehicle so badly repaired that I had to sell it for considerably less than its book worth.

Mr McC has evidently based his whole approach to customer service on the philosophy expounded by Admiral Lord Fisher: ‘Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologise. Those are the secrets of a happy life!’ (Though the last seems unlikely as a happy Scotchman is, surely, a contradiction in terms?)

So all my requests for explanations and compensation have been stonewalled, with the result that I now shall not rest until Mr McC’s long-established business is reduced to a smoking ruin and his family are stewing grass for subsistence.

Lord Kirkham, on the other hand, has his heart’s true desire.

Ah well, he listened.

Originally published, in edited form, in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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