Opinion Robert Bruce - Take a reality check

It's time for management to realise what customers really want: honesty, simplicity and value.

Robert Bruce.

As the year gets into its stride it is time to look for underlying trends which will make the practice of management more successful. This is the point when CEOs who believe they have a strategic bent will talk about 'magic bullets' when in their hearts they mean 'the next big thing'.

They want to be able to recognise that elusive drift in the marketplace which shows in which directions their customers' minds are moving.

Human nature is the key

This year, as so often in plain management, the key is human nature.

Strategists need to look at what predominates in current marketing and take the opposite view. Invariably what we see all around us is what the market is already bored with. That works on a shallow season-by-season basis. It also works on a deeper and far more long-term basis.

What management should focus on now is what customers have and what they do not want. This is simple, and therefore rarely looked at by managers.

A simple test can start you off. Phone the number which a customer would normally use to access your company's services. The first test is whether or not it is a freephone line. If not then you have already started to irritate the customer. Why should you be forcing them to pay to have access to you?

The second test is whether the customer is put through swiftly to a member of your staff who can quickly work out what the customer wants and direct them to the appropriate department. If you find that you are put into a lengthy 'press one, press six, press four' rigmarole then you know that your systems are upsetting customers big time.

The customers will not necessarily spurn your business. They know that the vast majority of companies treat their customers as badly as this.

Your competitors are probably irritating their customers as much as you are. But that is not the point. If a customer sees contacting you as an infuriating grind then you have sacrificed all that work in areas like brand identity and customer focus.

Gut feeling

What is required to form a major part of strategic thinking this year is what David Boyle, the author of a recent book, calls authenticity*.

The book is full of examples and argument. But essentially it is saying that in a world which seems full of flim-flam, what people yearn for is reality. And by that the author means something which is a gut feeling.

And I know what he means. In a world which on the surface is awash with, for example, media-related celebrity culture and all its attendant nonsense, it is terribly easy to think that this is what people really want. It is not true of course because it doesn't relate to the great majority of ordinary people who live quiet and relatively straightforward lives.

In a supposed era of limitless geographical and personal boundaries, half of the UK population now lives within half an hour of where they were brought up. As the author points out: 'This isn't exactly globalisation.' He could have also pointed out that stability is growing. Despite people's belief to the contrary, the length of time that people stay in the same job is actually growing.

This is why people like things like farmers' markets. And it is why management is so out of touch with customers' needs. Customers want honesty, simplicity and value. Management has become obsessed with measuring and evaluating.

'Numbers', as Boyle points out, 'can't grasp the complex - and genuinely authentic - human factor.'

* by David Boyle is published by Harper Perennial at £8.99

Robert Bruce is a business journalist and the Financial Times' accountancy columnist.

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