Bunhill: 'Customer wrong' shock

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The Independent Online
On a visit to the barber last week with Bunhill the Younger I noticed a sign on the wall proclaiming "the three rules of business". These were "Take Care of the Customer", "Take Care of the Customer" and "Take Care of the Customer" - though, to steal the joke about Labour's education policy, not necessarily in that order. (And we'd only gone in for a trim.)

Many companies pay homage to this kind of ethos, but perhaps what they'd like to say is: "The customer is a fickle oaf who doesn't know what he wants. Take care of the customer? I'll take care of the customer all right!"

This at least is the message from the management consultancy OASiS, which says the "whole climate of listening to customers breeds a culture of dishonesty" and can lead to companies losing money or even going out of business. "We're here to challenge the idea that the customer is king," says consulting director, Chris Cooper.

Iconoclastic? Absolutely. Take the advertising campaign from Midland, Mr Cooper explains, which like many bank ads focuses on the customer- friendly message that "we're here to listen". If that was really the case, he adds, there'd be no interest to pay on mortgage loans, no charges on overdrafts and the bank would go bust. It wouldn't do any of this, of course, but by "pandering to the customer", it is breeding expectations that can't be fulfilled.

OASiS sees its role as helping clients to grow - "we're not interested in downsizing," says Mr Cooper - but without damaging margins. The supermarkets, for example, have tried to build profits by satisfying customer wishes for discounts, extra checkouts, better technology and more flexible opening hours; nothing wrong in that, but they've all copied each other and ended up running fast to stand still.

The trick, then, is to find out what customers "value" - rather than what they "want". OASiS tries to achieve this by conducting face-to- face interviews with a cross-section of the public to discover what factors in their life trigger their buying decisions.

It may be, say, that they value the idea of convenience shopping - in which case how much more convenient it would be if they were offered a home-delivery service. Or it may be that the spending patterns revealed by loyalty cards lead the shops to place certain products in more prominent positions ... when what I really value is breaking my personal record for getting round the supermarket, so please stop changing the store layout every three months.

The notion that most customer research is rubbish is not a new one, of course, though it has yet to gain much currency, and we only have to look at our politicians to know that populism is a thankless task. As the comedian Frank Skinner observed: "You can spend your whole life trying to be popular but, at the end of the day, the size of the crowd at your funeral will be largely dictated by the weather."

I WAS delighted to receive an invitation from Reuters last week to attend a briefing on the dangers of "information addiction - the drug of the Nineties". People all round the world, the invite continued, are now "glued to the screen" and as a result they are becoming "data addicts". So Reuters had assembled a panel of experts to "discuss the implications for business and society".

Like I say, I was delighted to receive the invitation, but I resisted the temptation. And you know how? I just said: "No".

Just my type

THIS sentence comes to you in the classic Gill Sans typeface (as does the sub-headline, which is also a classic in its own right). And this sentence is produced in the long-established Times font. Look lovely, don't they?

The reason for this non-stereotyped introduction is to commemorate 100 years of Monotype Typography, purveyor of fonts to the gentry and the compositor of choice for national newspapers and book publishers. The headlines, straps and captions for the stories in this paper all come courtesy of Monotype, and the company's own story is almost as good.

Its first high-profile contract was with the Times in 1907 and for years it earned a living supplying both the fonts and the Monotype printing machines for the publishing industry.

But then disaster struck. The umbrella Monotype Corporation, whose main business was printing equipment, went into liquidation at the start of the 1990s and this setback was accompanied by the onset of digital technology and desktop publishing, which meant the use of typefaces wasn't restricted to any one machine.

The managers still had faith, however. In 1993 they bought out the typography division and the company that had forged its name in hot-metal printing now embraced the brave new world of DTP. These days Monotype is supplying fonts to giants of the computer world like Microsoft, Apple and IBM, and claims that 95 per cent of computers around the world feature some of its faces. Year-on-year growth since the buy-out, it adds, has been running at 20 per cent.

If there is a lesson in this story it is that no matter how old and wonderful you are, it is never too late to change. Which is just what I'm doing now.

INVESTORS in Tottenham Hotspur have plenty to worry about as the spectre of relegation from the Premier League threatens to banish their shares to the treatment room. So they won't have been reassured by the ambiguous remarks attributed to first-team coach Chris Hughton in the wake of the 6-1 home defeat by Chelsea. "We're stressing to the players that having got into this situation," he said, "they are the ones who now have to get out of it." Was this a call to players to win games and please shareholders, or an exhortation to drown their sorrows in the style perfected by near- neighbours Arsenal? Judging by Spurs' performance against Chelsea, when the team spent much of their time in the horizontal position, the answer is obvious.