Building a Customer-Centric Culture– it’s all about the 3 L’s!

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Whenever you start to talk about the concept of a ‘customer centric culture’, you run the risk of doing the following:

  1. Sounding as though you have magic powers that can ‘change the world’
  2. Sounding ‘fluffy’
  3. Sounding like a ‘consultant’

Now there is nothing wrong with any of those things in principle. I have always aspired to be a super hero – sadly I am a long way from achieving that aspiration! You should also not think it wrong to talk about the significance of your organisation possessing a customer centric culture – or at least wanting to possess one.

The reason why some see customer centricity as a ‘taboo’ subject is that they are likely to be afraid. They may be afraid of change; scared to look at the world within their organisation differently; worried that by holding up the mirror, they may not like what they see.

A while ago, I looked up the definition of customer centricity. If you do a Google search, you will be greeted by a variety of words describing what it is to be customer centric. The definition I like the most goes as follows:

“Putting customer focus at the heart of everything you do, in order to achieve customer satisfaction and loyalty”

I have put this definition in front of many customer experience professionals over the last 12 months – professionals plying their customer experience trade all around the world. I have not recorded every response, but I would approximate that only 20% of my colleagues said that ‘hand on heart’ their organisations lived up to this definition.

That is why I consider the 3 L’s to be a simple recipe to help a company to start the journey to becoming more customer centric. I highlight the word help, because when it comes to changing the culture of an organisation, or even just tweaking a culture, many factors come in to play. Becoming a customer-centric culture could sound a bit overwhelming too.  Even a small amount of change is hard and when you talk about culture change that can feel impossible.  The more help you can get the better!

So just what are the 3 L’s? Let us have a look at each one in turn:

LISTEN – any business that wants to start building a customer centric culture MUST start to open up its ears. It must LISTEN to what its customers are saying. It must LISTEN to what its employees are saying. It still surprises me how many organisations do not enable their employees to have a voice. They are the eyes and ears of any company. They know what happens every day, and they what works and does not work. Listening to BOTH customers and employees provides a business with unbeatable insight. A business that genuinely wants to LISTEN and ACT on what its customers and employees are saying is definitely one that is on the road to building a customer focussed culture.


LEARN – learning is something we start to do the minute we are born. Learning is what a brand new organisation does in the early days of its existence. Continuously learning is something that should be in the fabric of any customer centric business. The challenge for companies today is that the world around them is changing faster than ever before. If you stand still for too long, you will quickly fall behind. The word INNOVATION has become more significant in the race to LEARN how to stay ahead and continuously meet ever-changing customer needs. It is therefore vital to encourage learning in your business. Learn from LISTENING to what customers and employees are saying. Encourage your employees to continuously develop their skills – identifying new products, services, technologies and methodologies. Allow your people to learn from mistakes – do not punish them for getting things wrong, but encourage them and empower them to find better ways of doing things. Organisations that love LEARNING are ones that are very likely to have a customer centric culture.


LIVE – yes live. For any business to be customer centric it must LIVE and BREATH its customer experience. It must walk in its customer shoes on a daily basis; experience what they are experiencing and feeling the joy or pain before they do. LIVING the customer experience also applies to the employee experience. LIVE and BREATH what your employees do every day. See for yourself what works and what does not work. Acknowledge and appreciate what your people and your customers do. Only by LIVING the journey will you know.  I have blogged in the past about TV programmes such as ‘Undercover Boss’. Any business leader that chooses to use a TV programme to find out what the employee and customer experience is like for the first time, is not one that I would consider to be customer centric!


As I have already said, there are many factors that determine whether or not an organisation is building a customer centric culture. The 3L’s are just 3 factors that WILL undisputedly help. The challenge is that even these factors are not necessarily that easy to deploy – even if they sound easy to some of you reading this. It is important to recognise that every organisation is different. Every organisation will have a different state of ‘readiness’ when it comes to adopting a customer centric culture. If you push too hard too soon, you may fail before you have even started.

The best customer centric organisations in the world – companies like Ritz Carlton, USAA, Disney and Zappos – are organisations that apply the 3 L’s without even thinking. It just comes naturally to them. Yet even they need to continually look at how they are LISTENING, LEARNING and LIVING – the reason why they regularly come at the top of independent customer satisfaction studies is because they never rest on their laurels.

This post is part of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s Blog Carnival “Celebrating Customer Experience.” It is part of a broader celebration of Customer Experience Day. Check out posts from other bloggers here.   


‘If we close our eyes, they may go away!’ How bad must things get for a company to listen to its customers?

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I have often wondered how bad things need to be for organisations to recognise that they have a problem. Hopefully it is not at the point that there is a loud knock on the door with a large van outside waiting to remove valuables from head office! In a world where most large companies profess to ‘listen to their customers’ and where CEOs confidently talk about their NPS (Net Promoter Score), why is it that on so many occasions, we the humble customer feel ignored? It is quite amazing to find on a daily basis, more and more examples of customer dissatisfaction being publicly expressed via Facebook and Twitter – businesses do not even need to pay to get feedback on their products and services – it is out there for all to see.

It does sometimes appear that companies who experience the full force of customer anger hope that if they shut their eyes for long enough, the problem will just go away. If they put their heads in the sand, or their fingers in their ears, there may just not be a problem any longer. Of course I am being rather sarcastic and cynical, but examples of corporate ignorance and inactivity keep building up to make the argument rather plausible.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a company failing to listen is United Airlines. Over 13 million people have now viewed a video on YouTube that was the result of a very disgruntled customer feeling that they had no choice but to write a song about his experience with the company. Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, witnessed his expensive Taylor guitar being broken by United Airlines staff. The inability of the airline to acknowledge the issue, and take appropriate action led to him penning the song ‘United Breaks Guitars’. 13 million views on YouTube demonstrate that the story has become a case study for customer experience professionals all over the world. United Airlines share price plummeted – but why did a customer have to go to these lengths to be listened to? If you have not seen the song, you must watch it, and can do so here

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Another example from the US is maybe even more dramatic. JC Penney, one of the countries largest retailers had to issue a public apology in May this year following a catastrophic set of decisions. Their new CEO, Ron Johnson who had been poached from Apple, oversaw a number of changes to a very traditional American brand. The changes were made with little if any consultation with customers. They were changes that led to the company losing over $4 billion in revenue during Ron Johnson’s time at the helm ( Once Johnson had departed, the company’s leadership team felt they had no choice but to apologise for failing to listen to customers. A nationwide TV advertising campaign acknowledged the mistakes, apologised and said ‘we’ve listened’. It is quite astonishing. Can you imagine if that happened to your company? Why did it take so long to realise that there was such a big problem? Why did it happen in the first place? If you have not seen the advert, you must watch it, and can do so here –

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JC Penney customers were lucky – they could very easily demonstrate their dissatisfaction and disdain towards the actions of the company by ‘voting with their feet’. It was only at the point that there were almost no feet left in the stores, that the company decided to do something about it. Not all customers are as lucky. Yesterday, I noticed a post on Facebook from an old university friend of mine. The post was as follows:

When I receive poor customer service I usually try to give constructive feedback however there is nothing more I can say about how awful EE is as a network! I am 6 months into a 2 year contract with a phone that does not work and a provider whose staff tell me “my team leader does not want to deal with you right now”. Hopefully tonight’s watchdog program will do some damage to them. In the meantime I’d greatly appreciate your signatures on a petition to force them to give a better service.

Just to clarify, my friend did not instigate the petition. She found it, and is now promoting it to her friends and family. She used to run customer service teams and so knows the pressures of having to deal with complaints on a daily basis. EE stands for Everything Everywhere. EE is a mobile network operator and internet service provider company and is the largest mobile network operator in the UK, with around 27 million customers.It operates under the EE, Orange and T-Mobile brands and currently only offers its services within the UK. EE is a 50:50 joint venture between Deutsche Telekom and Orange S.A., formed in 2010 through the merger of their respective T-Mobile and Orange businesses in the UK. This is what the company claims about its products and services on its website:

We aim to deliver the UK’s best service, through our websites and customer service apps, over the phone and in-store. We have over 11,000 customer service and retail employees who are trained experts in mobile device operating systems. Every year, our service centres teams have over 86 million conversations with our customers, and more than 40 million customers come through the doors of our more than 700 retail stores. Online, we have over 35 million visits per month to our websites

The numbers are staggering. However my friends Facebook post suggests that the claim and the reality are very different. Her experiences have pushed her to the point of almost no return. The difference between her and a JC Penney customer is that she cannot just as easily ‘vote with her feet’. As many of EE’s 27 million customers are tied in to a contract, they cannot just walk away. That is why she, and a dozens of other customers have gone to the lengths of signing a petition to get their voice heard. A petition!!!!!! Why should a customer of a company have to feel that this is what they have to do to get the company to listen to them? How bad does it really have to be? The noise about EE is growing. Customer sentiment is being aired in consumer TV programmes, media reports, and thousands and thousands of them are turning to social media to express their feelings. So why is nothing changing? Why are the company not responding?

When their contracts reach a conclusion, many EE customers will leave them – for good. Their competitors are almost certainly rubbing their hands together with glee. A company that today has 27 million customers is at serious risk of seeing that number drop like a stone. I have no sympathy for them. None of us should ever let things get to the point where a customer feels that they have to create a petition to get you to listen to them. Things should never, ever get that bad. Listening to our customers continuously MUST be an integral part of our DNA. It must be an essential ingredient into the strategic decision-making process for our organisation. When I showed the draft of this blog post to my university friend, she shared this with me:

The issues I have with EE have been going on a long time, it finally got to me in an emotional sense last week when my 11-year-old son started at senior school and said ‘I tried to call you to tell you how my day went but I couldn’t get through, I wanted to speak to you’

Stating the obvious, without our customers there is no company. EE executives could do well to remember that. Leaders of all businesses should ensure that everyone in their organisation remembers that. Customers are our lifeblood, they pay our salaries. They need to be looked after and cared for. Failure to treat customers with the respect they deserve could ultimately spell disaster for your company.

Are you an EE customer? Have you reached the point of no return with another company? I’d love to hear your point of view.

Shhhhh!! Don’t mention Six Sigma – the truth behind the stigma

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I am about to say something that I rarely do in public these days (I bet that got your attention!). I am a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. There…..I did it. To those that do not know what this means, you are probably wondering what on earth I am on about. To those of you that do, you may be thinking ‘so what’. Please allow me to explain.

Over the weekend I had a little time to review my Twitter feed. I have been following a very clever man by the name of Ted Coine (@tedcoine). Ted describes himself as a ‘business heretic’ and is named as a Forbes Top 10 Influencer. With over 270 thousand followers, his excellent musings and submissions from guest authors get to be seen by many people all over the world. This particular weekend, a blog post from one of his network of experts, Dr Andrew Smart, caught my eye. This is the tweet that got my attention:

Hopefully you will all take the time to read the blog post he refers to, especially if you have been involved in or around business improvement/customer experience programmes that have used Six Sigma methodology in some way. The post is excellently written, and essentially see’s Andrew make the case for Six Sigma ‘programmes’ limiting employees and organisations abilities to be creative and innovative.

Before I get in to the meat of why I am telling you about this, I need to provide a little bit more background. I first became exposed to Six Sigma in 1998. I became indirectly involved through my wife Naomi. Naomi was working for GE, and like many business professionals around that time, was involved in the Jack Welch Six Sigma machine. Naomi was a Black Belt in a GE business looking at improving finance processes. She knew straight away that the methodology would appeal to me. Just over a year later, and completely coincidentally, I found myself taking up a Black Belt role in a different GE business.

We never intended to be a six sigma ‘couple’ – it just happened. Whilst Naomi moved on to other things after her Black Belt stint, I, as Andrew alludes to in his post, became hooked. I can categorically state that GE and its development of me as a business improvement professional changed my career – and for the better. It was the first time in my working life that something was explained to me that actually made sense. A set of tools and principles to help improve what we do as a business to better meet the expectations of our customers. It sounded so obvious, and I wanted to be a part of it. Six Sigma and its later association with Lean principles have underpinned everything I have done in business ever since. Now, as a customer experience professional, this is still the case. What I have learned from the methodology, is fundamental to my approach in improving the customer experience. So if that is the case, why am I so afraid/ashamed/unwilling to even let people know about it?

To answer this question, we have to delve deeper into what happened at GE and other corporations around the world in the nineties and early noughties. Jack Welch’s motivation behind the implementation of six sigma across the GE empire was in my opinion absolutely bang on. In their fast-moving industries and environments, it was essential that every business was able to understand what customers wanted, and how capable existing processes were of giving it to them. Six Sigma as a methodology ticked all the right boxes. Not only did the methodology work (it delivered millions and millions of dollars worth of PROVEN financial benefits, as well as happier customers), it also acted as an excellent management development programme.

Jack Welch
Jack Welch

However (there is always one of those), there were many, and I mean many, issues with the way GE deployed their six sigma programme. In my opinion, it is the legacy of the deployment, and many similar ones that used the GE model, that has left an indelible stigma that many trained Six Sigma professionals find hard to shake today. People knew that to get on in GE, you needed six sigma certification. They knew that the better the certification, the more likely it would become that you may be eligible for a senior role. Likewise, a trend commenced whereby ex GE professionals applying for new jobs would cite all sorts of six sigma achievements and certifications on their CVs. In reality, much of what they claimed had never been achieved. When I was deploying a six sigma programme at a UK retailer, I reviewed countless CVs when helping to bring in new resource. At least 70% of the time, the person that came in for interview was nothing like the person described on the CV. All of this was helping to damage the reputation of both the methodology and the ‘real’ six sigma protagonists.

Not everyone saw the benefits of becoming a ‘belt’. GE’s approach in 2000/2001 was one of ‘you have no choice’. Jeff Immelt, on taking over from Jack Welch, decreed that a minimum percentage of employees in every GE business (I forget what the percentage was), MUST be certified as a Green Belt, Black Belt or Master Black Belt. At the time, I was a full-time six sigma trainer for GE’s reinsurance business. I trained hundreds of people all over the world who were taking on the knowledge because ‘they had to’. This led to many disaffected business professionals who just did not believe in the method – they were being forced to learn it and conjure up projects that were often of little importance. As they have moved on from GE, they can comfortably dismiss it as something of no value.

Today, the ‘big bang’ deployment approach a la GE is rarely seen. Hundreds of people doing attending training course after training course; conducting pointless project after pointless project, was never going to be sustainable. The big deployment made everyone believe that you had to follow a completely prescriptive framework for utilising six sigma methodologies, and every tool in the box had to be used. It made the method look complicated, time-consuming and frankly very irritating.

The sad thing is, that whilst I completely agree with what I have just said, I still believe that six sigma is of HUGE benefit to organisations all over the world. If it is applied correctly, by the right people in the right way, it can transform the effectiveness (capability in six sigma speak) of your business processes. When Ted says that the use of ‘process’ is wrong – I cannot disagree with him more. Everything we do is a process whether we like it or not. Every customer journey is enabled by a series of underlying processes. It is our ability to use the method and tools that comprise it appropriately that is the key. A Six Sigma expert is not one that can fill out a set of spreadsheets and tick a number of boxes. An expert is one who can use what is needed at the right time to have the greatest impact. Sometimes the application of the skillset can be remarkably simple.

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I do not tell people that I am a Six Sigma professional because they do not really need to know. I do not want them ‘thinking’ the wrong things about me. The astute business leader will want to know why I do the things I do – I may then tell them where a lot of my actions come from. Six Sigma changed my life – it is something  will always thank GE for. Never write off a method that has delivered so much value to so many people and so many businesses. If you disagree, you need to talk to people who applied it correctly.

‘Happy People Sell!’ – happiness and a good LIFE BALANCE benefit everyone

In case you don’t know, this is the wonderfully charismatic Nev Wilshere. Nev is the CEO of a company called Save Britain Money ( According to their website, the company ‘provide a range of money saving services to the British public including; energy efficiency surveys and installation, renewable energy advice, pensions, mortgage reviews, online and telephone fuel switching.’ The business operates two contact centres in Wales – contact centres that have recently been the subject of a BBC3 TV documentary (which is now being shown on BBC1).

If you have not seen the programme, whilst not the most cultured of viewing, it is extremely entertaining (here is the link to one of the episodes as a taster – As someone who has worked in and around the customer service industry for the majority of my career, there are elements of it that make me rather uncomfortable. Indeed the nature of the way the company conducts its business does not necessarily align with my own values.

However (there is always one of those), the legitimacy of the organisation is not the purpose of this blog post. The reason why I was compelled to watch the programme, and why I have become an admirer of Nev, is for a completely different reason. One thing that no-one who has watched it can deny, is that Nev has very strong beliefs. The strongest belief of all perhaps, is that happy people are more productive. ‘Happy people sell’ has become Nev’s catchphrase, and even writing this, I can feel myself saying it in his distinctive Welsh accent.

Nev and his team have a tremendous amount of fun. On watching the programme, what they get up to may not be to everyone’s taste – that is why we do not work there. You would not work for the company if you did not buy into their culture. But their culture undeniably has seen a group of young people in an economically deprived part of the UK earn a decent living whilst having a lot of fun. I was almost envious watching the goings on. I have never worked anywhere that appears to have as much fun as they do! That is why there is absolute truth to the saying that ‘happy people sell’ – in fact happy people will do better at almost anything. And that is the real purpose of this blog post.

What does it feel like when you walk into a shop and the shop assistant looks at you with a genuine smile on their face. How does it feel if the person you are interacting with is clearly not happy? Happiness in the work environment is the result of a number of things – some of which I will go in to in a second. Happiness in the work environment will have the ultimate effect of delivering better customer experiences. Not every business is led by a Nev Wilshire – maybe that is a good thing!! What that does mean is that we cannot all rely on being led by someone who inherently understands the need to have fun in the working environment. It is a trait that other leaders could look to Nev for (although they might want to tone it down just a little!!).

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Have you ever discussed the ‘work life balance’ at work or at home? Have you had heated debates with your partner about spending too much time at work? Are you expected to devote too much time on work, and not enough time on just living? Even if you have a fantastic fun boss like Nev, if you are not able to effectively balance your work with your personal life, something will suffer. Those effected by that suffering are likely to be your family, your colleagues, or the customers you serve.

Although we tend to talk about the work life balance a lot, we rarely do enough to either understand how balanced we are, or indeed act on the things that cause imbalance. In my work, I come across a lot of business leaders who instinctively understand the importance of people. In their customer experience or customer service related roles, a significant portion of their work revolves around ensuring their people are engaged and happy.

A few years ago, I had the fortune to meet one of the best exponents of this. Stefan Osthaus was at the time a senior leader for a global business. With teams of people all over the world, it was critical that he was able to have happy and effective colleagues whose work benefitted from having a good LIFE BALANCE. Stefan believes that one’s life comprises a number of areas: you as a person, your relationship, your family, your friends, and your work. It is because of his practical ‘hands on’ experiences that Stefan has decided to make a career out of helping others to do the same. This week, he has launched a brand new business called ( – a business that is dedicated to helping everyone and anyone – individuals to organisations – better understand their LIFE BALANCE, and the actions that can be taken to improve the balance. You can watch a short video about mybalance here:


Users of complete a survey. The survey has been developed with leading scientists from around the world. It will give you a full report with detailed Life Balance scores for five main areas of your life as well as tell you where to focus to improve your Life Balance. It is very interesting, and instantly makes you challenge what you could do to make your life more balanced and as a result happier. I completed the survey, or test, as an individual, but wouldn’t it be great if your company encouraged you to do it – as part of a plan to ensure that all employees know what they could do to have a better life balance?

To achieve Life Balance, all areas of your life have to provide energy, not consume it! — this is why Life Balance matters. Don’t settle for one area of your life eating the energy the others create for you. Have them all contribute energy and happiness! Stefan Osthaus, September 2013

A better life balance cannot guarantee that you will be happier, but it will have a huge effect on enabling happiness. Happier people enjoy every aspect of their lives more. Happier people at home have a more content home life. Happier people at work are more effective at doing what they do – it just makes sense.

So if you want to know whether or not you could/should improve your life balance, have a look at now. Show it to your HR or People director. Also get your bosses to watch the Call Centre – and ask them why they are not as much fun as Nev!

‘You could win £500!!’ Should you incentivise customer feedback?

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I have often wondered about the pros and cons of incentivising customer feedback. I am not sure what kind of person this makes me – hopefully one that is forever focussed on all of the things around us that can and will contribute to customer experiences being made better!

Capturing customer feedback is not easy. In fact, some organisations find it very difficult to get customers to tell them what they really think. Some would argue that this is because customers ‘do not care enough’. Some would say that particular organisations do not have a large enough customer base, and as such, opportunity to capture feedback is limited. Customers might point out that they never see what happens with feedback that is provided, so why bother!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote a blog post about the retailer Boden. They had used Facebook as a means of capturing feedback about their brand. It was a very economical, quick and effective way of doing it. However, 8 months later, and we as Boden customers have no idea what they did with the feedback – this is despite me contacting Boden directly to ask (they did not respond). You can read the full blog post here –

Boden’s actions, or inaction in this case, will ensure that a proportion of customers who gave feedback in January may not do so again. This will only make it harder for them to continuously capture feedback going forward. It is this word ‘continuously’ that is vital here. Capturing feedback from customers MUST be a regular, continuous process. You cannot capture feedback today and never ask again. Unfortunately, customers are tricky things – what they want today, may be completely different in six months time. It is critical to CONTINUOUSLY understand customers needs over time.

If you do not capture feedback effectively, it will become more and more difficult to keep the process continuous. This interesting blog post from Econsultancy, states 20 ways to capture feedback The methods all point towards ways that can be used to encourage customers to feedback, thus helping you to maintain a continuous flow. Method number 9 is ‘incentivise me’ – it is this method I want to focus on.

One way of trying to ‘keep’ or ‘get’ customers ‘engaged’ with providing feedback is to incentivise them to give it. Many organisations do this. I recently took Jack, my 5-year-old son for a hot chocolate in Café Nero. On every table was a card. ‘Tell us how we did and you might just win free coffee for a month or an iPad’. Whilst Jack was tucking in, I pondered this. Will it really work? It certainly did not with me – I had no intention of being ‘coerced’ into giving them feedback when I did not really have any feedback to give. That was my instant reaction – I do not actually have anything to say, so why would I, other than trying to win something?

I suppose what I am trying to say is that I believe that incentivising feedback can (and I stress the word can) have the effect of artificially enhancing customer feedback. It is very likely that customers will give you feedback, just to be entered into a prize draw – not necessarily because they have anything to say. It is likely that feedback will be either positive or neutral than negative.

Capturing customer feedback serves a very important purpose. It acts as the external mirror to the organisation. It provides you with the reality of what customers think of your products, service and end to end customer journey. It enables you to understand WHERE in the customer journey you are failing to meet customer expectation. As a result, it provides you with the priorities for improvement (from a customer perspective). If you do not structure your customer feedback programme correctly, or use methods that have the potential to skew the results, you run the risk of failing to identify the correct priorities for improvement.

Last week, we had a family trip to Pizza Express. The service was actually first class, and I was very impressed. At the end of the meal, I was handed a card (which you can see below). I have not seen this in Pizza Express before. Like Café Nero, Pizza Express have decided to start incentivising customer feedback – in this case, you get a free portion of garlic bread or dough balls, just for giving the feedback! They will also enter you in to a free prize draw. I actually think the garlic bread and dough balls ‘giveaway’ is a smart move – a low value item that may not just get you feedback but that could also get you to return. However, I think it is unnecessary to add-on the £500 gift card as well.

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So how else could brands like Pizza Express capture feedback, without having to use incentives? The most important thing for any business is to get real feedback that allows you to take the appropriate action. Providing customers with simple, quick and instant methods to encourage customers to say what they think when they are thinking it is important. Maybe giving customers a tablet computer with a short survey to complete at the same time as receiving your bill could be a neat way for Pizza Express to do it. They are likely to get very high participation, create a little bit of theatre, and keep everyone busy whilst the bill is being paid. There would be no need for incentivising anyone. Additionally, they would be getting feedback at the point the experience is completely fresh in the mind – this is when it is most accurate and real.

So the next time you are asked to complete a survey to receive an incentive, have a think about exactly why you are taking the action you are. Are you doing it to get a prize, or because you actually have valuable feedback to give? Are you not doing it because you do not want to be ‘bribed’? Incentivising feedback can work, but be very careful how you do it, or the feedback you get will not give you the real representation of your customer journey that you need.

As always, your thoughts on comments on this blog post are very welcome.

Saving Britain’s High Streets – what can we learn from our European cousins?

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The state of Britain’s High Streets is a subject I have blogged about in the past – here are three of my most recent posts:

  1. I’m not paying to park! Why the British High Street might be struggling (October 2012) –
  2. Stop talking and act NOW!! Is it too late for our high streets? (March 2013) –
  3. ‘What a brilliant day!’ How communities can help revive Britain’s High Streets (July 2013) – (

Regrettably the subject is one that seems to get more and more significant on a weekly basis. An article in Saturdays Telegraph stated that ‘half of high street retailers are in danger of closing down’. The article pointed towards the release of a report by Bill Grimsey tomorrow. The report unsurprisingly will confirm that our high streets continue their rapid decline. You can read the Telegraph article here –

The reasons for the demise have been well publicised over the last couple of years. There has also been a huge amount of posturing from retail ‘experts’ and politicians about the causes and potential solutions. It is pretty clear that nothing appears to be working at the moment. I have visited a number of high streets in the last few weeks – Chester, Stockport and Redhill to name but three – with boarded up shops a plenty, it is not a very nice thing to see. It really is astonishing that a problem which is so visible is still not being addressed by central and local government.

If only something could be done about high street business rates – NOW. If only something could be done about parking restrictions and charges in and around high streets – NOW. Last Sunday, I spotted a traffic warden, or ‘enforcement officer’ (as a Twitter contact advised me they are now called). It was 4:23pm. Is it really necessary to ‘police’ parking in this manner in and around streets that desperately need customers. Surely we can have a break from this kind of thing on Sunday of all days…….we certainly used to! Local councils continuing obsession with raising money from parking fines is contributing to a far greater loss.

Putting existing challenges to one side for the moment, the major reason for creating this latest edition of my ‘British High Street Series’ is to share my thoughts on how we could look to Europe for some inspiration in our quest to ‘save the high street’. I have just spent two weeks driving through Northern Spain and Southern France. Whilst the primary objective was to enjoy a well-earned holiday, my mind never switches off when it comes to customer experience and customer service.

One thing that strikes me whenever I am in this part of the world is how different the centre of cities and towns feel. In Spain, the centre is usually denoted by a square, or ‘plaza de la ciudad’. The square is usually surrounded by bars and restaurants, and acts amongst other things as a social meeting place. The surrounding streets are full of boutiques, larger retail outlets and more bars and restaurants. In general, towns and cities feel less ‘commercial’ – they are not overrun by Tesco Express, or Costa Coffee. They appear to have a far greater proportion of independently run retailers and food operators. That is not to say that ‘multiple’ retailers are not in city centres. They are, but seem to nestle in amongst the independents, rather than take over.

Independent shops are run largely by families – families who have run their businesses for generations. It is in their heart and soul. Whilst the level of service can sometimes be considered a little brusque, that is only the nature of their culture and not a reflection on the quality of service they deliver. Out of town superstores and malls are becoming more common. Larger retailers operate in abundance here. We visited one in La Coruna last year (Marinada City) – it was impressive. The big difference is that the things you could get at Marinada City, you could not get in the city centre (and vice versa).

Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain
Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain

This got me thinking (dangerous I know) – why do we not help our British towns and cities to re-design their high streets in a similar way. Instead of ‘blaming’ out of town superstores and shopping centres for taking trade away from the high street, why not encourage large, multiple retailers to leave the high street to go to them. Let’s create more space for independent, family run businesses to populate our town centres. If we can make it affordable, and incentivise people to take up retail space, it is a bit of a no brainer. Independent retailers often offer a very different experience to ‘chains’. With innovative and unique products not usually sold by the big boys, and more personal, friendly and engaging customer service, the high street could become far more of a browse and buy destination. Visiting the high street could become the social event it once used to be – a bit of shopping, followed by a drink or meal in a bar or restaurant.

In France, especially Southern France, the difference is even more stark. Their is almost no evidence at all in the centre of towns of big multiple retailers. They exist, but away from the centre. The town acts as the meeting place – the centre of operations. Weekly markets still operate as they have done for decades. Locals and tourists alike throng to them on a weekly basis to see what local independent traders have to offer. If you want mass market produce, you can get it out of town – but if you want locally produced, well priced products, come to the town centre.

0 french market

Whilst we cannot physically rebuild our town centres to recreate the Spanish town square, we can certainly consider the effect of encouraging our town centres to be the domain of independent retailing. The combination of permanent independent stores, supplemented by weekly street markets could create something we cannot currently get from our big chain retailers. What this model also does is provide something you cannot currently get online – a physical retail experience. Coming to the high street should and could be an event. A day out. A place to meet friends and family. The experience of the town centre can quite happily be supported by, and even complemented by big out-of-town retail offerings and our continuing reliance on the convenience of online.

Could this become a reality? Why not? BUT…..there is always one of those…..mind-sets and attitudes need to change. Stop charging ridiculous rates that make it impossible for independent retailers to survive. Stop creating barriers that make customers think twice about visiting town centres – such as parking charges. Can it really happen – I certainly hope so. What do you think?