Tuesday 21 March 2006

The perils of insulting your customer

Earlier this year some national newspapers caused offence by printing photographs of a troubled corporate lawyer leaping to her death from the fourth floor of a Kensington hotel. Outraged readers wrote to ask what public interest was served by publishing such intrusive and distressing images.

Committing professional suicide, by contrast, seems to be considered fair game for blanket media coverage and general merriment. We have seen many examples from the ranks of the present Government (Mandelson, Blunkett, Jowell – oops, sorry, no, she’s still hanging on at the time of writing.) While in corporate life the best-known example is, of course, the legendary Gerald Ratner.

Now, as it happens, Gerald was a long-standing client of the PR firm for which I used to work, though I never advised him myself. He is an engaging character, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, and he had two favourite jokes: one explaining why his eponymous shops were able to sell a crystal decanter and six glasses, complete with silver tray, at such an incredible price; and the other comparing the longevity of Ratners’ earrings with a similarly priced Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich.

He’d cracked these jokes on many occasions and they’d appeared in print, notably in a profile of him in the Financial Times. Then came the fateful day when he was due to make a keynote address to an Institute of Directors conference at the Royal Albert Hall. He circulated his script to his fellow directors for their comments, and they suggested it was a bit light on jokes, so he added his two favourites. The rest is history.

Not only did the screaming tabloid front pages - ‘Ratner sells crap!’ - lose Gerald his job, they even led to the Ratners name disappearing completely from the high street. He now leads a fairly low-key existence, selling jewellery online.

I was powerfully reminded of all this recently when I read another profile in the Financial Times, of one Carl Michel. Mr Michel is an expert on camping. Which is to say that he is chief executive of a firm called Holidaybreak, of which Eurocamp is a division. Despite an inescapable tendency to snigger and adopt a Kenneth Williams voice when pronouncing the name, Eurocamp remains his principal brand.

Having started out providing holidays under canvas in Brittany more than 30 years ago, Holidaybreak now offers tent and mobile home holidays on more than 200 European campsites, promoting the idea with a touch of sophistication as ‘hĂ´tellerie en plain air’. (You can ask Willy Poole for the translation.)

It also sells adventure holidays, and short breaks in UK and European hotels. Surely, thought the FT, the last area is the one that must be most vulnerable to online competition, with all manner of great deals obtainable through Google? Not so, argued Mr Michel. First because the scale of his operation meant that he could negotiate better prices with hotels, and second because of the loyalty of his typical customers, whom he described as ‘Mr and Mrs Northumberland, coming down to London on a GNER train.’

Am I alone in finding that description somewhat insulting? And am I right to detect a presumption that dear old Mr & Mrs Northumberland – which is you and me, or would be if I could ever get a Mrs Northumberland to the altar – are too thick or too lazy to shop around?

If I am right, then the risk is illustrated by countless businesses that failed because they took their customers for granted, or failed to treat them with due respect. In fact I only know of two men – both publicans – who made that a successful career strategy, because the entertainment value of watching them berate other customers vastly outweighed the risk that they might turn on you. If I were Mr Michel, I’d be biting my lip in future, and hoping that not too many Mr & Mrs Northumberlands read the newspapers the way I do.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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