@Morrisons customer service: Fluke or designed to delight?

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At the end of May 2013, I wrote a blog post about a loaf of bread. Whilst this might sound rather odd to those of you who have not had the chance to read it, the loaf of bread itself was not the centrepiece of the story. The story centred on the use of social media to address a customer issue and ultimately improve the customer experience. If you would like to read about it, you can do here – http://ijgolding.com/2013/05/28/18-hours-how-a-loaf-of-bread-helped-improve-the-customer-experience/

Many people who have read the story have wondered whether my experience was/is repeatable. Was I just lucky that Morrisons dealt with my issue in the way they did, or are they able to replicate this recovery process over and over again? Whilst organisations all over the world still try to grapple with social media ‘strategy’, the ability to deliver good, reliable, repeatable social service is becoming more and more important.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted via Twitter (or course) by a social media expert called Mike Sutton. Mike was keen to investigate the repeatability of my experience. What you are about to read is the result of his investigation in his own words – it is very compelling……

As I was sifting through the data that Bizbuzz was providing about potential ServiceChat customers,  I came across Morrisons – a British grocery and supermarket business that has about 12% of the UK grocery market (source: Economics Help)

I was looking at their ‘apology’ buzz – a tracking of how many apologies they are making to customers and that would lead me to who they were apologising to – an unhappy customer with some feedback dressed as a complaint.

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The date was May 27th and as I scanned the apologies, I picked one at random to see the details of the apology – what triggered it and perhaps, any further conversations in the thread. The apology I picked related to Ian Golding’s tweet.

I read Ian’s profile and reached out to him to seek more context about the events that led to his experience. Learning more about Ian revealed that he is an active blogger and passionate customer experience specialist, striving to help businesses delight their customers – my kind of guy!

Ian had written fairly extensively about his Morrisons’ experience and after I read it I wondered whether Morrisons’ level of engagement and the resolution they demonstrated in Ian’s experience was typical and part of a designed approach to delighting customers, or was it simply a fluke. After all, I knew from my data that on May 27th – the day of Ian’s experience – there were 12 other customers who sent Morrisons a variety of feedback via Twitter.

What were their experiences of Morrisons’ engagement with them about their feedback? How many felt they got a satisfactory resolution from calling Morrisons’ attention to something they perceived needed improvement in a store, with pricing, product quality and/or staff behaviour?

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Some Immediate Observations

1. Morrisons uses auto-responders

As I was looking through the content it became obvious that Morrisons’ responses are a template and most likely a template used by an auto-responder. They appear to be semi-customised templates where they try to get the first name of the account that sent the tweet they are responding to and use it to personalise the reply. They clearly also have responses they either cycle through so that they appear human.

2. All responses are redirection

All the responses I saw for this date (May 27th) and the other 180 apologies in Morrisons’ buzz are all asking the other person to DM their phone number and email to the Morrison account. I imagine this is to put it on a queue for their customer service desk to deal with.

I did not observe any attempt to address the feedback directly online. The DM leads potentially to some further engagement offline – via a phone call or email. This was borne out in Ian’s case and caused me to wonder – What do Morrisons’ customers think of this lack of readiness to engage completely online.

3. Morrisons is not being social on social media

A quick snapshot of Morrisons’ activities on Twitter show an account that is not about engagement (contrast this with @Waitrose). It is almost exclusively about pushing offers, tips and other canned responses out there (pardon the pun!). There is no seeking engagement nor responding to any tweets coming back in. They are missing a great opportunity to build rapport with their customers and do the other canned stuff in a way that would improve their brand perception.

@Morrisons vs @Waitrose – who is more engaging on Twitter?
@Morrisons vs @Waitrose – who is more engaging on Twitter?

What About the Other Customers?

I approached the other twelve customers to whom Morrisons had auto-apologised on May 27th on Twitter, asking for their input in answering the above questions.

The responses were mixed. Five of the 12 other customers responded to my invitation. Their experiences were quite different, sometimes quite starkly different. Some didn’t get any further contact despite sending a DM replying and others got a mixed resolution from the extended engagement.

@missySimps replied to the auto-apology as a DM. She didn’t have any further engagement from Morrisons or any resolution to the situation.

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@tracySmith2k, @jakimccarthy, @pauldavid28 and @captainratall got a reply to their DM and a call. But their experience were also fairly different:

@tracySmith2k was uncomfortable with the call she received from the store manager – she felt it was confrontational- and would have preferred it was handled by an objective intermediary.

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@jakimccarthy got to speak with the store manager who explained the situation to her and apologised again. She doesn’t know if they did anything to rectify the dirty fridges she complained about, but she felt heard and the experience has not put her off from shopping at Morrisons.

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@pauldavid28 – was pretty pleased with how it was handled, how Morrisons engaged with him and how his query was finally resolved. Awesome!

@captainrat – got a call, had the issue resolved and even got a token of their apology. Great outcome!

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What Does It All Mean?

Let’s do the math. We now know how 6 of the apologies that Morrisons made on May 27th turned out.

  • 75% were happy with the level of engagement
  • 50% had a resolution they were satisfied with
  • 10% had no further engagement beyond the auto-apology.

I think Morrisons do have a desire to engage with their customers on social media. I also think there is a strategy to genuinely engage and resolve customers queries that are received from social media platforms, in this case Twitter. From the interactions I have had with their customers, they seem to understand the value of engagement, even if currently it is mostly about handling it offline.

They may be being a little cautious online and currently don’t do anymore than auto-respond. For example, their activity on twitter smacks of auto-everything. There don’t seem to be any humans at home, which is very strange for a social platform.

Clearly, in the instances where they engage with customers, they try to get the ‘right’ person to engage with the customer. In the cases I explored, it was almost always the store manager.
This is good – let the person who can do something about the issue deal with it.  In only one instance did I find that this wasn’t satisfactory.

I must confess, I am disappointed with the whole auto-responding aspect of Morrisons’ social media operation – at least on Twitter (I didn’t do any Facebook exploration). I am especially disappointed with their auto-apologising. An apology is supposed to be sincere and human. I think automating an apology – especially those in response to a complaint – cheapens it. Not such an issue if you almost immediately follow it with human engagement – like a phone call –  where you can have the conversation. But if, as in the case of @missySimps, all that was experienced was a nondescript, auto-reply  – even one faked out with personalisation – it can feel insincere.

Making people think they were contacted by a human when it was just a program is pretty ‘Matrix’. Difference is ‘Matrix’ was cool and this isn’t.

Auto-responding communicates to me that they don’t really understand the power of social media or are being advised by people who don’t really understand the power of social media!

3 Things Morrisons Can Do To Improve

I’m all about improving and this post is primarily about giving Morrisons some feedback to sweeten its social media operation and let it complement the great work they are already designed to do with store manager calls etc.

So here goes, my top 3 things Morrisons can do better at:

  1. Lose the auto-responders and put humans on the social media desk. With the low volumes of social interaction you currently have, you might not even have to hire more people right now. You can get software to route tweets to your customer service folk.  But you must make sure they know how to use social media. Social is entirely about being human. Something you can do right now, Morrisons, might be to completely de-personalise the auto replies, make them authentically robotic. For example, ditch the first name thing and reply with  ‘We aren’t here right now, we auto followed you, so please DM us…’, then route them to the store manager and work your magic. First names are for humans to speak to humans.
  2. Get tools that promote and  facilitate online engagement. People chose to engage with you online, redirecting them to some offline mechanism might suit you but it usually just frustrates them. Oh, and shun those tools that promise to help you deal with scale. The scaling problem comes later. Focus on getting great with online engagement then fix the scaling problem. From a quick search on Twitter, @Morrisons gets about 10 mentions a day, most are not about them per se. And their bizbuzz page shows they are apologising an average of 3 times a day. This is the time to get in and get good with this exciting world of social media.
  3. Be open about your journey in trying to delight your customers on social media. There is a growing generation that will love you for it. You might be thinking “we sell groceries, we don’t need social media”. Everyone is going to need social media. Your competitors are embracing it and once they are fully established in it, it will be almost impossible to wean customers off them.


I am deeply grateful to @missySimps, @tracysmith2k, @jakimmcarthy, @captainrat and @pauldavid28 for responding to my tweet and being so generous with their time to listen and engage with me on this topic. It helps to continually renew my faith that people want to be connected, be heard and to engage. Thank you.

Mike Sutton is a startup entrepreneur specialising in helping businesses engage better with their customers on social media. His startup –Servicechat – provides a super easy way for businesses to immediately chat with any twitter user safely and confidentially, right on the web. He tweets as @mhsutton and everything else that doesn’t fit into 140 characters lives on http://mhsutton.me

I am very grateful to Mike for producing this guest post. If you would like to comment on it, both Mike and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

‘The managers promise’ – what do you commit to doing for your people?

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‘I promise to…’ are three words commonly used in everyday life. From husband to wife (and vice versa); child to parent (often); company to customer (sometimes). Promises are broken as often as fulfilled, but they are made all the same. The intent is usually there, and that intent is a key driver of relationships. One thing that has always puzzled me with ‘the promise’ is why it is not as prevalent in work relationships as it is in our personal lives, and that is the subject of this blog post.

Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to judge the Customer Service Training Awards. I feel fortunate to judge awards like this (I also judge the UK Customer Experience Awards) because I get to see first hand some of the inspirational, passionate, committed customer service and experience practitioners at the absolute peak of their profession. Even if a finalist does not win an award, it is still a rewarding experience being able to feedback to individuals and teams about some of the amazing things they have done to make lives better and easier for staff and customers. This year was no exception.

One of the finalists in the ‘training team of the year’ category was a company called Restaurant Associates. Part of the Compass Group, Restaurant Associates is as the Compass Group website states:

“For organisations who want to partner with a specialist company whose brilliant food will bring their people together in powerful ways. It will bring out the best in them so they can perform at their very peak”

The Restaurant Associates website (http://www.restaurantassociates.co.uk/index.htm) goes on to say:

“We’re trusted every single day by a very special group of high-profile clients. Lots of them are leaders in their own markets. They choose extremely carefully. And they choose us because our inspirational food is created by talented chefs and matched by excellent service. They love the fact that we run a Michelin star restaurant”

Sounds impressive – it is a shame that I have never worked for a company whose in-house catering is managed by them. Restaurant Associates presentation was impressive. Delivered as a collaboration of senior management and staff, it was very clear how significant customer service is to their proposition, and how passionate team members are key in their strategy to inspire other colleagues. Amongst other things that they presented was an A4 sheet of paper entitled ‘Managers Promises’. It is this sheet of paper that made me think of the last time…….any time……that a manager of mine made a promise to me.

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It is abundantly clear that engaged, motivated, supported employees will consistently deliver better customer experiences – especially when they are an essential element of a customer experience management framework. Whilst it is common to see employees ‘promising’ or committing to do certain things in support of company strategy, it is less common to see managers committing to do the same for their employees. Where businesses have established performance management mechanisms in place, employees ‘promise’ to achieve certain things, behave in certain ways, and develop themselves on an annual basis. Their annual remuneration is determined according to their ability to meet their promises, and adhere to company values. Whilst performance management goes someway to driving behaviour, if it is supported by open, supportive, committed managers, the effect on the employee, and thus the customer can be even more effective.

What Restaurant Associates have done ,very openly and transparently, is communicate with their people how managers will behave. I personally have never seen anything like this before. It is incredibly refreshing. It essentially puts managers and employees on a level playing field. If a manager is able to adhere to their promises, it is very likely that employees will want to do the same. It brings certain phrases to mind – ‘practice what we preach’; ‘walk the talk’ – cheesy perhaps, but very true. If you read through some of Restaurant Associates managers promises, how many of them would you be prepared to commit to? I know plenty of ‘managers’ who would not be able to commit to any of them. However, the effect adhering to these promises must have on employees is huge.

One of Sir Richard Branson’s most famous quotes is:

“The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers”

It is a wonderful quote. The way Restaurant Associates treat employees clearly underpins their consistently great customer service. It is this great customer service which led to them being shortlisted for  a national award. I have no doubt that they will win awards in the future, as well as deserved recognition for the great things they are doing. Their approach is creating engaged employees who have the ability to be, or already are, advocates of their brand. This is an essential ingredient in any customer experience management framework (http://ijgolding.com/2013/03/26/strategy-measurement-people-a-simple-framework-for-managing-customer-experience/). As an independent consultant, I no longer have the pleasure of directly managing employees. However, I always believed in committing to do certain things for the people I was lucky enough to work with. Yet even though I made commitments, I never wrote them down – I never made my commitments transparent – I never reviewed my commitments on a monthly basis. I spent all of my time reviewing my people’s commitments, without ever holding the mirror up to myself.

I applaud Restaurant Associates for what they are doing. It is not easy, but it is bold. I would like to think that anyone who reads this will ask themselves whether they would be prepared to openly publish their promises to their people. Those who will – I applaud you too. Those who do not – ask yourself why not – I would be interested to know the answer(s).

‘It’s a…..baby!’ The greatest experience of them all

As news breaks that the Duchess of Cambridge has gone in to early labour, the media furore that will ensure the world shares her joy (and pain) is already in full flow. With Our future King at her side, the Queen’s third great-grandchild will very shortly be with us.

There are few experiences that every human being can claim to have had a part of. Participating in the childbirth experience is one of them. We have all been there. Those of us who have had our own children remember the experience(s) only too well. It is unlikely that any of us remember our own experience of being born – we must be thankful for that!!

The news today inevitably will lead to parents all over the world recounting their own experiences of bringing little people in to the world. The experience is magical. It is an experience unlike any other – creating life is what life is all about. It is such an emotional experience that we remember everything about it. We remember what we were doing when we went into labour (I am using the royal we here – I am pleased it was Naomi and not I that had to do the hard bit!), the drive to the hospital, the smells and sounds………childbirth is the perfect reminder as to how experiences have an emotional component – the way experiences make us feel is something we do not forget.

Undoubtedly, Kate (if I may be so bold to call her that) will be having the exact experience stipulated in her birth plan. She will give birth in a room decorated to her requirements. She will have the midwife of her choice. The ambience, lighting, music, will all be to her satisfaction. Whilst she cannot guarantee how royal baby will behave on the way out, everything else will be planned to perfection. You can read about Kate’s delivery suite in the Sun newspaper (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/royals/royalbaby/5007373/Kate-Middletons-10000-delivery-suite.html). Just because Kate is producing a royal baby, does not mean that her experience should be better than any other mother giving birth today anywhere else in the world.

However, like any ‘customer’ experience, the experience that parents have of childbirth is mixed and inconsistent. The experiences regrettably lead to memories of the wrong kind – even when we are talking about one of the greatest experiences of them all. I remember very clearly the moment that Naomi went in to labour with Ciara – our eldest child – ten years ago. I remember Naomi’s waters breaking just as the theme tune to Coronation Street started. I am not sure if we ever watched ‘the Street’ again! Naomi was a week overdue, and we were slightly anxious.

We were a combination of excited and nervous. It does not matter how many ante natal classes you have attended, when the actual day arrives, you do not quite know what to expect. Ciara was born in hospital – like the majority of babies in the UK. We were expecting kind, attentive caring throughout the experience. That is what you would expect as the minimum ‘level of service’ from the childbirth experience. Yet what we experienced was a long way from what we expected.

It is important to note at this point that this blog post is not intended to openly criticise the midwifery profession. Quite the contrary. As you will read a little later on, it is without doubt how wonderful midwives are in the job they do. You only need to watch ‘one born every minute’ on Channel 4 to know that. Yet what we experienced proved how hard it may sometimes to be to maintain and sustain a certain level of experience – something many businesses find hard to do as well. To cut a long story short, our experience was not great. Whilst it was a wonderful miracle to see Ciara come in to the world, we felt as though we were an inconvenience to all the hospital staff. Ciara arrived during a shift change – the midwife finishing her shift could not wait to depart. The midwife coming in had a very different style to the first one. Naomi was very tired and in pain – she just needed someone to listen to her and care.

Fortunately, we had decided to hire the services of a Doula – a birth partner. Jo was amazing. Jo was the consistent support that we knew we could rely on. We are so thankful that we did. Without Jo, I am not sure as the wobbly husband how well I would have been able to support Naomi in the absence of empathetic hospital staff. What the staff displayed to us was behaviour of people who were ‘just doing their job’. That was just not good enough. We were going through the most amazing experience of our lives, and we NEEDED the staff to acknowledge that. Sadly they did not.

Our experience was such, that once we had decided to go for baby number 2, we immediately agreed not to go near a hospital – if we could help it! If you use this as an analogy for corporate customer experiences, this particular company had lost our custom. Failing to meet customer expectation will likely lead to a lost customer. Creating negative emotion will lead to a customer who will also tell many others about it.

Caitie, child number 2, was born at home. The experience was so far removed from the first time that it is difficult to put in to words just how different. The knowledge that we would be in our own home with a midwife that we had met before had a very warming effect on Naomi. Unlike the first time, Naomi actually went in to labour in the middle of the night. Being the lovely lady that she is, I was not even told! I do remember feeling Naomi’s breath on my face throughout the night, but that is about all. Naomi was so relaxed, she managed to sleep through the early stages, getting up in the morning and having a bath. By the time the midwife arrived, it was lunchtime. As quick as a flash, Caitie had arrived in our front room in front of the telly. Maybe that explains why she likes watching TV so much! It was all very civilised. It was such a wonderful experience. The contrast with Ciara’s birth was huge.

The difference between the two experiences were clear. The environment was one factor – there is nothing like being in your own home. But it was the behaviour and attitude of the two midwives that made the difference. They were amazing. They were attentive, caring and most importantly of all, listened to Naomi. They listened to how she felt, what she wanted and did not want. They did not force her to do anything she was not comfortable with. It was as we expected childbirth to be, and our faith was restored.

Just to complete our childbirth stories, I’ll quickly tell you about Jack – child number 3. Jack was also born at home – having read what you just have, you may not be surprised by that fact! Jack was more than two weeks overdue. The hospital was very concerned. We on the other hand were not. Daily heart rate monitoring confirmed that everything was fine. The hospital agreed, but were still demanding that Naomi be induced. Naomi was getting very anxious again. Naomi was listening to the scans and her body – she knew everything was ok – she did not want to be induced. We were so concerned, that we started to doubt that the midwives sent by the hospital for the homebirth would be supportive. Some of the language used by the hospital and midwives caused us to have considerable concern. We felt that we had no choice but to take matters in to our own hands. On the 6th November 2007 we hired a private midwife. She had been recommended to us. In the early hours of the 7th November, our private midwife arrived – Naomi had gone in to Labour. Just knowing that we could rely on an expert midwife who could match her expertise with the compassion we needed had the effect of relaxing Naomi. The birth was wonderful. The calmest and most serene of them all. It was as though the midwife was not there. She was worth every penny. The look on Caitie and Ciara’s faces in the morning when they came into our bedroom to see jack in mummy’s arms will never be forgotten.

Anyone in business can learn a lot about customer experience by looking at experiences we have every day and throughout their lives. There are so many analogies that we can learn from. Whilst you can not lay the same significance on an online shopping experience as you can one of life or death, the principles are very similar. It all comes down to the emotional component of customer experience – what are you going to remember about your online shop – the fact that the product was great, or the fact that the delivery was late?

I hope that Kate and William have only wonderful memories of what will happen today or tomorrow. I hope that the media will allow them to enjoy the wonder of what they are about to achieve. I am very sure that everyone involved will be doing their utmost to ensure that is the case. I also hope that all other mums and dads around the world that are also bringing new life in to the world receive exactly the same level of care and attention. We all deserve it – whether we are royal or not!

‘We only want one room!’ Will your summer holiday experiences create the right memories?

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As the UK basks in glorious sunshine, many of us have already got into the summer holiday spirit. With the school holidays here or about to commence, suntan lotion is being stocked up, new bikinis and swimming costumes being purchased, and plenty of reading material is being downloaded onto Kindles.

Whilst it is impossible to predict the weather for a British summer, it is possible to predict that families from all over the UK will be embarking on their summer holidays in the next few weeks. Some will choose to stay at home (something we have done before very successfully). Some will choose to holiday within the British Isles (and with weather like this, who can blame them). Others will take the more adventurous route and board planes, trains and boats to different parts of the world. It is all very exciting – especially if you are a little person.

If you think back to your holidays as a child, there are likely to be a lot of very happy memories. Like all great experiences, it is the best ones that you remember, and holidays rank right up there amongst the most memorable of all experiences we have. I will never forget the time I was lucky enough to be taken to Disneyland in California. I remember boarding the bus to go back to the car at 2am – it was the first time I had ever stayed up so late – I remember it so vividly. It was an amazing experience.

Holidays should be great experiences – not just for the children, but for everyone – from the youngest to the oldest. The holiday experience should be a great experience from beginning to end – from the minute you start to investigate where to go, to the minute you return home to start doing the washing!! Ok – it will never be a great experience once you get to the washing part, but there are some ‘moments of truth’ in every customer journey that cannot be avoided (unless you can afford to have a maid that is!!). In reality, holidays are not always great ‘end to end’, and that is the reason for writing this blog post.

We have all had experiences of accommodation that was ‘not quite what we expected’. I’ll never forget the ‘luxury’ cottage B&B in the UK that ended up being a ‘hell hole’. When we entered the room, all we could hear was buzzing. The room was full of flies – we could not even stay the night! We all also have plenty of horror stories of the travelling ‘steps’ of the journey – from being stranded in airports, to uncomfortable flights, to not realising that the low-cost Ryanair flight planted us miles away from the centre of the city!

However, I do not want to focus on the usual ‘holiday nightmares’ – I want to focus on the bit right at the beginning. The bit that is usually done by Mrs Golding (thankfully). The bit that is becoming more and more stressful. Booking your holiday should actually be quite exciting. Dates have been agreed, location decided upon – you can start dreaming of white sandy beaches and wonderful food that makes the pre holiday dieting worthwhile. So choosing the hotel, villa, resort, mode of transport etc.. shouldn’t be too hard….should it?

When I first met my beautiful wife Naomi, it certainly was not difficult. As a couple, we could wait until the very last second to book a holiday. On one occasion, we opted for the ‘find out where you are staying when you get there’ option – it was so easy and fun. Yes it was a lottery, but it added to the mystique. We could travel at any time of the year. When Ciara came along (our eldest daughter), things were a little more tricky, but still not too challenging. We had different requirements, needing our chosen destination to be ‘baby friendly’, but there were plenty of options. Even when Caitie arrived (daughter number two), we were still able to affordably identify suitable holiday options. Most hotels were designed for 2+2 – families with two children. So although travelling with young children was more complicated, a family of four can very easily find somewhere to stay.

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Then little Jack came along. Our only son, like our two daughters, was an amazing addition to our family. Funny, witty, with a smile that can turn even the grumpiest Dad to mush, Jack does not realise what trouble he has caused. Jack turned our family from 2+2 to 2+3. Jack has made booking a holiday a complete nightmare. For the last six years, we (I say we, but I mean mostly Naomi) have increasingly struggled to find accommodation that will accept our little clan in one room. I have at times observed Naomi tearing her hair out!

Unless you have three children or more, it might be difficult to understand, but why oh why is it such a challenge for the tourism industry to accommodate families of 5 or more ‘economically? All the way back in 2001, the Guardian published an article about the rise of families with three children (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2001/apr/04/familyandrelationships.features102). The author, Sarah Ebner, reported that even though the average birth rate was falling, and the number of lone parents increasing, more of the children being born at the time were the third in their family. Families with three or more children are not a new concept.

Fast forward to 2013, and the picture is different. In March the Telegraph produced a similar article to Sarah Ebner’s – the difference is that this one was entitled ‘the rise of the one-child families’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9954280/Rise-of-the-one-child-families.html). The change is summed up as follows:

One-child families have increased by 5 per cent over the last 16 years to 47 per cent, while families with three or more children fell by 3 per cent to 14 per cent, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey of 100,000 families found.

Whilst one child families are increasing, there are still 14% of families in the UK who have three or more children. The European average is 11%, whilst the Netherlands have the greatest percentage at 19%. That is a lot of families who need accommodation that is not 2+2! So why is it so difficult to find a holiday to accommodate the millions of families who fit into the ‘large family bracket’?

I do understand that there are options. We could go camping. It is completely up to us how many people we want to fit in a tent! We could rent a villa – something we often do – and mainly because it is the easiest way to find accommodation for a family of five. But there are times when we want more than a tent in a field, or a villa can provide. Sometimes we want a holiday where someone else makes the beds and cleans the bathroom. Where someone else cooks the meals and provides the entertainment. A holiday where everyone gets a rest – not just the kids. We want these simple luxuries to be affordable. That is why it irritates me so much when hotels will only accommodate us in two separate rooms!

This is now going to sound like a rant – I suppose it is, but when you are faced with having to pay inflated summer holiday prices, you do not want to have to pay double!! I do not understand why it is possible for smaller establishments (such as B&Bs) to accommodate as many people as they want in a room, when hotels militantly demand that no more than four people can stay in one room. An old colleague suggested to me that it is clearly a health and safety issue……I am not sure I agree. No one has ever made it clear as to why hotels do not allow more than four people to stay in one room.

At a time when families are struggling with less disposable income, we need/demand easier, more affordable experiences. Is it not enough that there is nothing to stop hotels and travel operators from charging families more during the summer holidays? Not only do I not want to have to pay for two rooms, I do not want to be split up from half of the family every night either. Why do we want to go on holiday to spend the holiday in separate places?!

Families with three or more children face this battle on an annual basis. They have been for many years. I found this interesting conversation in a forum on Martin Lewis’s website (http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?t=993159&page=1) – it is a fascinating insight that helps contextualise the problem. If only hotel owners could put their customers first and think about the challenge from our perspective. If only they could consider larger families when designing new hotels. Wouldn’t it be cool if hotels were designed as flexible spaces – where rooms could have moveable walls that could be made bigger or smaller depending on the guests requirements. Now that would be something.

The holiday experience should be memorable for the right reasons. So if you are reading this on your tablet whilst sipping a Pina Colada on a sunbed in Barbados, just spare a thought for the mum or dad who is still trying to find suitable affordable accommodation (that is not a tent) for their family this summer!

By the way, if you do not the ‘official’ reason why hotels will not allow more than four people in one room, I would love to know what it is!!

‘I’m not serving you!’ When is the customer NOT always right?

You can be pretty certain that when Jo Clarke went to buy some groceries at her local Sainsbury’s store last week, she did not expect to see her face on the pages of every national newspaper the following day! When a checkout assistant refused to serve her because she was deep in conversation on her phone, Jo decided to take action and complain. The result – an apology from Sainsbury’s and the creation of a huge nationwide debate about customer service and manners. Here are links to a sample of 3 of the articles in the media:

BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23158579

Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/10156070/Sainsburys-apologises-for-worker-who-refused-to-serve-customer-on-mobile-phone.html

Daily Mail – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2357193/Sainsburys-says-wont-discipline-worker-refused-serve-shopper-talking-phone.html

It is such a compelling debate, that I have decided to get in on the act. Who is in the right, and who is in the wrong? Are they both right? Are they both wrong? The story made me think of the old adage ‘the customer is always right’……..a statement that can spark a new debate all of its own! So let’s explore the questions – was the customer ‘right’ in this situation?

Every day, organisations all over the world interact with customers. Customers come in all shapes and sizes. Some customers are very nice, some customers are not. Some customers like to have a conversation, some like to avoid human interaction altogether. Some customers now transact with companies without ever seeing, speaking or touching another human being!! Welcome to the world as we know it in 2013. It is a world of ease and convenience, where consumers are able to do whatever they want, wherever they want to.

The sight of a customer walking and talking and eating and drinking whilst doing something on their smart phone or tablet is not unusual in society today. It is not uncommon to see people talking in to a phone whilst tapping away at their tablet simultaneously. Whether it be for work, or for pleasure, our ability and desire to stay connected much of the time has become a fact of life. Hands up if you go to bed with your smartphone sitting within 1 foot of your pillow?

What I am trying to say is that Jo Clarke will not have been the first customer to roll up at a checkout in a supermarket with a phone glued to her ear. Jo Clarke is unlikely to be the last – despite the publicity her experience has generated. As technology has evolved over the last twenty years, social etiquette has unfortunately evolved at a very different rate. What people perceive to be acceptable today, they would not have perceived to be so twenty years ago.

What Jo Clarke did last week is , in my opinion, rude. What she did though is not technically wrong – there is no policy or law that prevents a customer of Sainsbury’s (or any other retailer as far as I am aware) from conducting a transaction at a checkout whilst at the same time participating in a telephone conversation. There is no policy or law that would have prevented her from having a face to face conversation with another customer or friend at the same time either. However, just because there is no law against it, does not make it socially acceptable to do it.

The environment we live in today still contains people – you or I. It is bizarre to think that there are more of us in the world now than there were before these techy whizzy smart phone devices were invented. Yet despite their being more people, we interact in person less and less. That may explain why manners for many have gone out of the window. However, where we do interact with people ‘face to face’, there is no reason why we should pay them any less respect than we would have done a hundred years ago.

I feel I am well placed to talk about this subject. Last year, I spent three glorious weeks experiencing life at the beginning of the twentieth century in the BBC programme, Turn Back Time: the Family. Living for a week as an Edwardian middle class local council clerk allowed me to see how important manners, etiquette and social behaviour was. There is no doubt that the overly strict social heirs and graces in Edwardian England were a little rigorous, however as we fast forward over a hundred years to 2013, we may have gone a little far in the other direction.

Me as a Middle Class Edwardian council clerk and my very well mannered wife and family!
Me as a Middle Class Edwardian council clerk and my very well mannered wife and family!

The debate on manners is one thing. The reaction of the Sainsbury’s checkout assistant is another. Reports in the media have seen many spring to her defence. Driven by the manners principle, it is argued that she was quite right to refuse to attend to someone who was actively disengaged in the transaction. Whilst I will repeat that I am not disagreeing with the manners principle, I do find myself on the side of the fence that says the checkout assistant was in the wrong to refuse to serve Jo Clarke.

I believe that all employees should be empowered to do what is right for the customer. I believe that employees should be actively encouraged to do what it takes to make an experience positively memorable for customers. Only last week I was fortunate to judge the customer service training awards in London. Haven holidays told a great story of a guest who visited a Haven Park recently. The guest realised on arrival that they had forgotten to bring a travel cot for their baby. Haven did not have any spare. The receptionist took it upon herself to call her husband – asking him to bring their own travel cot so they could lend it to the guest for the week. That is what I call positive empowerment! I also believe that employees should not under any circumstances be subjected to inappropriate behaviour from a customer. Abusive, aggressive customers are not the kind of customers a business needs. It is on the rare occasion that a customer behaves inappropriately that I would agree that the customer is definitely NOT right.

I do not believe that there is a sufficient argument to suggest that Jo Clarke was inappropriate. Although rude (in my opinion), she was neither abusive or aggressive. Her behaviour did not prevent the checkout assistant from doing her job. The checkout assistant also had no idea what the purpose of the call was. Jo Clarke could have been on the phone talking to the hospital about a sick relative. She could have been answering an important call from work, or listening to a message from school about an injury to her child. I do not believe it is within the rights of an employee to take it upon themselves to ‘discipline’ a customer when the customer has technically not done anything wrong in the eyes of the company.

The fact that Sainsbury’s decided to apologise suggests that they agree. It would be a brave retailer that would make a decision to ban the use of mobile phones from the checkout of their stores. There is nothing to stop retailers or other organisations suggesting that the use of mobile phones at the checkout should be avoided, but they are unlikely to actively stop it.

Like any debate, it is difficult to reach a conclusive result. There are as many people agreeing with Jo Clarke as there are with the checkout assistant. A discussion with the lovely Mrs Golding last week about this story resulted in a full blown argument. Naomi is in complete agreement with the checkout assistant. It is understandable as Naomi spent a year working for one of the big supermarkets. She has experienced first hand what it feels like to serve a customer who just expects you to get on with it whilst they merrily chat away on the phone. Naomi said it is extremely dispiriting and de-motivating. Naomi says it almost makes you feel like a worthless piece of furniture. This does help to understand the frustration of being on the other side of the till, and why the checkout assistant took the action she did.

I still feel that it is for the company to make a decision as to what is acceptable and what is not. It is then the responsibility of the company to invest in training their staff on how to best deal with situations like this. I am pleased that Sainsbury’s apologised. I am also pleased that they are not taking any disciplinary action against the member of staff. Jo Clarke has suggested she will not shop in this Sainsbury’s again. Is that because she is mortally wounded by the experience, or because she is afraid of the disapproving looks she may get from other shoppers? Hopefully the experience has served as a reminder to her and others of basic manners. If so great. However, we should sadly resign ourselves to living in a world where social etiquette continues to ebb away at the same pace as technology continues to evolve.

What side of the fence do you sit on? I would love to know.

‘What a brilliant day!’ How communities can help revive Britain’s High Streets

This is the historic city of Chester in North West England. With Roman remains a plenty, including the largest uncovered amphitheatre in Britain, the beautiful River Dee, and the world-famous ‘rows’ (two rows of shops – one on the top of the other) along the four main streets in the city, Chester has a huge amount going for it. Chester also boasts one of the best Zoos in the world, the oldest racecourse in the UK, has a modern business park populated with big names from the financial services industry, and is just down the road from the enormous Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Cheshire countryside, or the proximity of Chester to both Liverpool and Manchester. All of this is just over two hours on the train from London.

Chester attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year – both from inside the UK and from all four corners of the globe. With so much history to enjoy, it is not surprising. Chester also has a rapidly growing University, with thousands of students coming and going throughout the year.

Sounds good doesn’t it? It certainly did to me eight years ago when Naomi and I decided to relocate our family from London. One of the things that had always struck me with the Chester was the vibrancy of the city centre. You can sort of understand why – Chester is a very busy place. The shopping was absolutely renowned as being amongst the best outside of London. People would come from Liverpool, Manchester and even further afield to visit big brand names sitting alongside the dozens of small independent retail specialists nestled along the rows. 8 years after re-locating though, the centre of Chester feels very different.

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This is the Forum Shopping Centre – slap bang in the middle of Chester. It is directly opposite Chester Cathedral, and less than sixty seconds walk to ‘the rows’. Bearing in mind the picture I have just painted of Chester, you would expect a shopping centre like this to be bustling with locals, students and tourists on a lovely warm, sunny day. This picture was taken at 12pm yesterday – Sunday 7th July. It is almost completely deserted. Like many of the cities in Britain, Chester has been devastated by economic instability since 2008. The majority of the shops in the Forum shopping centre (which also houses the Chester Market) have closed down. Only a couple remain. Spiralling business rates have forced both chains and independent retailers out of business, as has the effect of large ‘out of town’ superstores. A brand new Marks & Spencer store has opened near to Cheshire Oaks, a big outlet village only five miles from the centre of the city in Ellesmere Port. The centre of Chester still contains two, more traditional Marks and Spencer stores. It can only be a matter of time before one, or maybe both of them close down as well.

It is so sad to see the centre of such a beautiful and historic city ebbing away. This story can be repeated for many cities around the country – regrettably this is now a more common story than not. However this blog post is not intended to focus on the negative. Whilst retail experts, politicians and other interested parties lobby government to address the issue of business rates, it is time for the great British public to start taking matters in to their own hands. Whilst it is very difficult to control the behaviour of governments and landlords, it is within our control to keep our cities living and breathing – and most importantly creating great EXPERIENCES that encourage visitors and tourists to keep coming.

The scene at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival
The scene at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival

Yesterday afternoon, just a few yards from the entrance to the desolate Forum Shopping Centre, just such an EXPERIENCE was being created. From 12pm to 6pm, anyone lucky enough to be in the Northgate Quarter in Chester was treated to a festival of choirs. As the sun blazed down, hundreds of people were treated to the amazing voices of a dozen choirs on three different stages. Spearheaded by Chester’s very own musical supremo, Matt Baker, it was quite frankly the most amazing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It was an experience that anyone who was there will be recounting again today. As visitors delighted in the ‘free’ concert, restaurants and bars were full to the brim. The shops and market stalls that were open were doing a roaring trade. In a beer garden where another stage was located, it was difficult to find space to sit.

The Chester Mystery Play Chorus at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival
The Chester Mystery Play Chorus at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival

All of this was going on despite the fact that many people were glued to their televisions to see if Andy Murray could end Britain’s 77 year wait for a men’s champion!! Chester proved yesterday that it is possible to bring vibrancy back to Britain’s high streets. Chester proved that if local communities and local councils are prepared to work together, it does not cost a lot of money to bring people in to EXPERIENCE your town or city. What is required is a huge amount of time and commitment. Matt Baker is a great example of this – Matt and his colleagues gave up their time for nothing yesterday. For him, and many of the people performing, yesterday was his only day off from a gruelling schedule. Yet Matt understands that what happened yesterday was important. It was important for the community to stage an event that would make Chester proud. To stage an event that would bring people out in to the city centre. Matt and the other organisers of the event yesterday deserve a big round of applause.

Culture and entertainment is a critical component of a successful high street. If embraced, it can ensure a steady flow of visitors who will all need feeding and watering. Many of those visitors will need a bed for the night, and might partake in a little light shopping the next day. At the moment, Chester is lucky to be enjoying a run of the Chester Mystery Plays – a five yearly spectacle that celebrates stories from the old and new testaments. The plays are being shown in the nave of the Cathedral – a remarkable setting. Thousands of visitors are coming from all over the world to see them – it is great for Chester, and great for Chester’s economy.

Last week I visited Stockport. Another town in the North West that has not escaped significant economic decline. The state of their high street is even more extreme than Chester. However Stockport also has enormous potential. I was in Stockport to see Ciara, my eldest daughter appear in the choir alongside H from Steps (remember him?) in a production of Joseph. The production was being held at the Stockport Plaza – an amazing art deco theatre – if only Chester had a theatre like this!!

The benefit that this theatre will bring to Stockport is huge – it will be a draw to thousands of visitors well in to the future. Again, every visitor will have money to spend – and that is another reason why theatres like this need to be supported by a suitable high street – and vice versa.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not think that a festival of choirs, or an art deco theatre alone will save Britain’s high streets. I completely understand that it will take a little bit more than a few volunteers giving up their time to bring back national and independent retailers. What these volunteers did demonstrate though is what a positive effect the local community can have on bringing people into the centre of their towns and cities. If more people like the Matt Bakers of this world are prepared to do things like the choir festival, then more and more of us will join in. The more wonderful events that are staged every week, the more great experiences we will have. It is these great experiences that will keep us coming back, and that will lead us to telling friends and family to come to.

If this community effort AND common sense at a political level can come together, our high streets will start to go in the right direction. If retailers are supported by councils, government and landlords, our high streets will have a very bright future.

What fantastic events have you attended in your local high street? Where are communities working together to bring people back to the high street – I would love to hear your stories.

Restaurant, drinking house, play centre or social club – just what makes a good British pub?

In May this year, the Daily Mail reported that the number of pubs closing on a weekly basis had risen to 26. 26 closures a week!! What an astonishing statistic. At a time when you would imagine that the great British public might seek solace in a little tipple, the establishments that used to be the bedrock of the community are disappearing at an alarming rate. You can read the full Daily Mail article here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2321010/Were-giving-pubs–beer-Number-closing-week-reaches-26-sales-lager-fall-year-low.html.

So just what is it that is causing the dramatic demise of one of Britain’s most famous ‘assets’? Why is it that the city, suburbs and countryside are no longer seeing the demand for a product that has survived hundreds of years of productive and profitable use? There are of course economic and political factors at play. There is no doubt that as disposable income has dropped, so has the consumers ability to spend their hard-earned money on ‘going out’. Then there is the debate around alcohol duty and ‘cut price’ supermarket deals – I will not dare to enter that foray. It is also true to say that societal changes are significant. As the electronic world has developed apace, more and more communities are adjusting to meeting up ‘via Facebook’, rather than catching up on the gossip with a pie and pint at the local boozer.

However……there is always a however in my blog posts – how much of the demise of the great British pub is actually down to the behaviours, attitudes and actions of the people who run them? I strongly believe that one of the key driving factors (in addition to the ones I have already mentioned) is …….Customer Experience – the customer experience often served up by a pub that is just no longer fit for purpose. The customer experience that no longer meets the needs of the customer. A customer experience that is just no longer viable to sustain a business.

Think about it for a minute. These days, a pub is no longer just a place to go and have a drink. Many pubs have transformed into restaurants. Often they have been turned into ‘gastro pubs’, dishing up Michelin starred food in wonderful surroundings. Some pubs have played to the family market, creating amazing outdoor playgrounds, or even teaming up with soft play indoor ‘fun factories’. Some pubs have invested in idyllic surroundings with lush gardens and roaring wood fires. In all of these cases, the pub tends to be in a location that is ‘fit for purpose’ and that meets the needs of the existing and potential customer base. But how many pubs that have sadly ceased to exist failed to adjust to the marketplace around them? How many of them decided NOT to ‘change’ to better meet the needs of their evolving customer base?

An example of a pub that is perfectly placed to meet customer needs is a brand new one in my hometown Chester. The White Horse has been built INSIDE the world-famous Chester Racecourse. It has been designed extremely well with lovely interior fittings and features. It is the perfect place to come for lunch at the weekend, or to enjoy as part of a hospitality package during the races.

Not only is it a fantastic environment for adults, it also plays brilliantly to younger visitors. A superb ‘pirate ship’ themed playground ensures that both adults and children can be constantly entertained. The Whitehorse has it all – an amazing location, great environment, good drink and food, and lovely entertainment for children. They have thought very carefully about their PROPOSITION, and now just need to be able to deliver it consistently (great drink and food).

The White Horse has one very big advantage over the thousands of other pubs that have ‘met their maker’. It is brand new. The site has been specially selected by its owners to meet the needs of its customers. Thousands of pubs around the British Isles do not have this luxury – to reselect their location. Yet we must not forget that their locations were selected for exactly the same reasons as the White Horse – at the time, there was a need – a requirement from consumers. As we all know, and as I have already alluded to earlier in this post – what consumers want, and how they behave changes over time. We no longer ‘do’ the same things, and as a result, all organisations MUST adjust to better deliver what we want.

I recently visited four pubs in one afternoon in West London. The pubs all belong to one pub group – a very well-respected brand. The four pubs have been around for a very long time. The first pub – on a busy high road was what I would describe as ‘traditional’. It looked like a pub from the outside with a few strategically placed picnic benches, and the signage gave a hint that it also served food. It was dark and dingy on the inside and furnished as you might expect any pub to be. It was not particularly memorable (but not in a bad way). It was just a bog standard pub – nothing special. It was not particularly obvious what food was on offer, with no defined dining area – I would guess that it is a ‘bar food’ kind of establishment. I do not know if it is ‘profitable’, but I would not be surprised if it is not. The location did not seem as though it would work well as an establishment to survive on ‘drinking’ alone.

Pub number 2 was further down the same high road. Again, from the outside, this too looked very much like a traditional pub. Yet on the inside it was completely different. An interior designer with some skill had overhauled the Victorian building. Fabulous furnishings, random light fittings and an eclectic mix of paint made the interior a sight to behold. They even had a row of old cinema seats along one wall. It was amazing – a completely different environment to pub number one – a much more memorable one. Unbeknown to me from the outside, this pub also had a restaurant – a genuine sit down Thai restaurant out the back. I am not sure if they were keeping it a secret, or if it was just me not noticing the discreet menu at the entrance. This pub seemed to be far more viable than the first one – yet it was still unclear as to what it was trying to be. Was it a drinking/meeting up establishment or was it a restaurant with a pub out the front? I guarantee that a proportion of the thousands of people passing its front door on a daily basis would have no idea that there was a restaurant in there.

A brisk ten minute walk saw me arrive at pub number 3. Wow – was my first impression. This is what I imagined most of the ‘doomed’ British pubs to look like. Although it was housed in a Victorian building like the other two, it just looked tired. A sandwich board was on the pavement outside advertised ‘London’s best sausage’ served here! Peering through the windows I seriously doubted this claim. The inside was no better. It was a 1970’s throwback. Split into two bars separated by a door, the barman/landlord looked less than pleased to see me enter. When he eventually decided to serve me, it was most certainly not done with a smile. I sat at one of his tables adorned with table mats my grandmother used to use – they had a variety of animals such as cockerels adorned on them. London’s best sausage turned out to be hot dogs out of a tin. As I sipped my soft drink, an old dog ambled up and smelt my shoes. The pub was slap bang in the middle of a heavily populated area. Do I give it much hope? I’ll let you make your own judgement.

Pub number 4 was a few miles away. Yet another completely different experience awaited. In a suburban setting, this pub loked like it was a member of a chain of identical establishments. Big screen televisions, glossy menus on every table – it looked liked a place where you could come and watch a Six Nations Rugby match or bring the kids for a Sunday Roast. There are thousands of these ‘chain’ type pubs around the country, and they seem to do pretty well. They are designed to attract a certain type of customer, and tend to be in the right location to do so.

Four very different experiences. Despite being so different, they are all part of the same industry. They are all owned by the same company. What the consumer does not necessarily know is that some of the pubs are ‘managed’ on behalf of the pub group. Some of them are run by a ‘tenant’. Pub number 3 on my ‘tour’ was an example of a ‘tenanted pub’ – in that case, there is fundamentally nothing wrong with the building or the location – it is the attitude and behaviour of the tenant that needs to be addressed. This just shows that there are significant differences in the autonomy that these two models offer. However, whoever is in charge; whoever is empowered to make decisions; it is vital that each and every pub that still exists in the UK does one vital thing…….CLARIFY its PROPOSITION!!

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One of the three elements of my customer experience management framework, ‘understanding the proposition’ is the starting point for any business in determining its ‘customer experience strategy’. This is a concept that is unfortunately lacking in many organisations today and is all too evident in my mini West London tour. What is our proposition?’; ‘why do customers transact with us?’; ‘why do customers come back (or not)?’; ‘what do we want our business to be for customers?’ These are all questions that every pub should be asking itself and its customers. If the existing proposition does not successfully meet the needs of customers, it will need to be changed. Inability to change, or lack of desire to do so could well result in failure. It is not wrong to have a big emphasis on families. It is not wrong to turn your pub into a specialist in local ales – just ensure that whatever you want to be, the customer base is there wanting what you have to offer.

It should be pointed out that over 10,000 British pubs are owned by just two companies – both of whom are understood to have debt issues. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to invest in the infrastructure of their pubs to make them fit for purpose. Although the location, décor, facilities and so on are a critical component of the customer experience strategy, where you are unable to invest in making changes, you must rely on other elements of the customer experience management framework. The thousands of hard working people who, unlike the Landlord of pub number 3, make customers feel so welcome when they enter a pub are equally as important as the pub itself. Even if a building is crumbling, if you have engaged, positive, motivated staff who build a relationship with customers, it can go a long way to ensuring the survival of the business.

So what makes a good British Pub? Businesses (Pubs) grow because they provide something that customers want and need and are able to successfully and consistently deliver the experience they expect. Businesses (Pubs) decline because the same customers no longer want or need the things that they offer or because customers have given up waiting for you to do what they expect. In todays competitive economy, it is as vital as ever to continually ask whether or not the experience that you are able to offer does what you and your customers want it to do. You must be able to continually improve or transform. It is tough, but it is also reality.

Do you know of pubs around he country that deliver brilliant experiences? Or indeed pubs that are on their last legs? I would love to hear about them.

Update – 9th July 2013 – a reader of this blog post has written an excellent response – you can read it here – http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-fox-and-hedgehog.html