Tuesday 6 June 2006

Vision, passion and service

I had a cracking day out at the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Conference in Gateshead last month. Well, almost a day out. I missed the first speaker, Brian Souter of Stagecoach, because my bus was late. But all the other contributors were excellent – entertaining, informative and incredibly open in sharing the secrets of their success.

I came away feeling, like Del Boy Trotter, that I would be a millionaire by Christmas. But unfortunately that’s where I keep going wrong. I’m focused on the money, whereas the key to success is to regard it as a welcome incidental. Your real passion has to be for a product or service that your intuition tells you the public really needs, probably in defiance of market research and conventional financial advice. Oh, and it helps if you are prepared to work all the hours that God sends, and cope with horrific levels of stress. So that’s me back to the National Lottery, then.

One thing on which all the speakers were agreed was the vital importance of getting all your employees to share your vision and passion – particularly the junior ones who are most likely to have direct contact with the public. Tim Waterstone told a heartbreaking story about how the positive effect of millions of pounds of airline advertising had been undone by just one member of checkout staff, and her rude and uncaring reaction to his deafness.

By contrast, and pure coincidence, I was browsing in Waterstone’s in Grey Street that very evening, and heard one of their staff dispensing some of the best-informed and most enthusiastic customer service I have ever heard. And that’s despite the original ethos of the business allegedly having been diluted since Tim sold it for the second time.

Retailers occupy a very peculiar position because they all acknowledge that service is important, yet end up manning their stores, at the busiest times, with people whose knowledge is pretty much restricted to what day of the week it is: the dreaded ‘Saturday girl’. To ensure equality of misery, some appear to have decided to dumb down service throughout the week to the same execrable level. This is particularly common practice in the electricals sector. Small wonder that growing numbers of customers are migrating to shopping on the Internet, which is at least reasonably informative.

With an on-line retailer, your key personal contact becomes their delivery driver. I have had excellent experiences with some, and terrible ones with others. A potentially good customer was lost forever to johnlewis.com when a time-critical van-load of domestic goods failed to turn up on the appointed date, allegedly because their contractor had called at the wrong house. Though as it was a snowy Friday afternoon, another explanation did suggest itself.

Equally important is the call centre operator. What a job, knowing that every person who gets through to you will have been hanging on until they have almost lost the will to live, listening to some music they don’t like and being assured that their call is important. So even if they weren’t angry when they picked up the phone, they are by the time they get to talk to you.

Every month I receive a bill from Britain’s leading cable company for a phone line I’ve never had and never ordered, at a London address I’ve never occupied. I’ve tried ringing, I’ve tried writing, but still they come, each one inflated by penalty charges for non-payment of the previous invoice. The call centre never answers in less than 45 minutes, then a ‘customer service’ operative says that I need to speak to some specialist department that only functions from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, provided there is an R in the month. Get through to them, and they tell you that you have been misinformed, and really need to speak to … aaarrgh!

I just wonder: where did the original passion and vision in that company come from, where did it go to, and how on earth do they stay in business?

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

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