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Going local to learn from Tesco's mistakes

by
01 September 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

FOR the last seven years, I seem to have done little other than talk about the inevitability of change and how the profession can, and in my personal view, must tackle change head on.

In my more excitable moments I’ve advocated some re-organisation of priorities and, with a little more hubris in the quieter moments, I recognise that this is a major challenge for any individual or practice, let alone a whole profession.

However, while change is inexorable and all around us, there is an underlying theme with which we can identify as part of refining our own market offering and that is the increasing awareness by the individual that he or she is seen as being a key decision-maker. As this relentless drive to empower the consumer has settled into some form of a pattern, it seems that many of us are becoming a little uncomfortable with this forced relationship.

Sitting in a hotel bedroom, I am surrounded by printed items wanting me to join the hotel chain’s Rewards Club, to give my opinion on the level of service that I’ve received and even one from the general manager, making promises to ensure that anything I haven’t liked would be immediately rectified and, most probably, having any errant member of staff boiled in oil.

The problem is that I don’t know who the manager is or even what the unidentified person’s responsibility might be – does he or she manage the hotel, all the hotels in the UK or maybe all the global chain? How credible is a printed promise on a folded A5 card, inserted along with a raft of other information into a neat acrylic holder?

If managers knocked on my door and introduced themselves, I might view it differently but this smacks of learned corporate behaviour rather than any genuine attempt to have a relationship with their customers.

In today’s paper, there’s a story of two villages in Hampshire where the residents are aghast that funding cuts and efficiency savings in the local police force will mean their village bobby will be relocated some 15 miles away.

It seems the residents believe that their local beat officer has “intimate knowledge” of the locality, developed over a consistent 10 years in their community, which would be lost if he were to be relocated and that their fear is “the ability to gather local intelligence and use this to guide preventive actions will also be lost”.

No one pretends this is driven by anything other than self-interest but the villagers are willing to stump up £60,000 a year to keep him there, which has set the cats firmly in the midst of the pigeons at police headquarters.

Hampshire Police managers have been faced with £55 million cuts since 2010 and clearly such a scheme could provide a financial lifeline but could also lead to a two-tier service with affluent communities better able to pay for a superior level of police coverage.

One of the most spectacular crashes back down to earth since Icarus melted his wings by flying too close to the sun must be the changes in Tesco’s fortunes in recent years.

From a high street behemoth with an invisible reach into almost every aspect of our personal lives, providing mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, home insurance, pet insurance accompanied by a detailed knowledge of our purchasing patterns, it seems that Tesco simply over-reached itself with what seems to be a position of arrogant self-confidence.

EasyJet used always to bid farewell to its passengers with the phrase “We never forget that you have a choice”, but perhaps Tesco did forget that cornerstone of consumer behaviour and the rest, as they say, is history.

Responding to customers’ feedback

Intriguingly, Tesco has announced a new initiative designed to make its self-service tills more helpful and less talkative. It is to ditch its strident and widely disliked “unexpected item in the bagging area” warning and to use a new voice which is male, friendly and reassuring in place of the “shouty” female voice which apparently annoys shoppers and puts them under pressure while they shop.

Keen to show that it listens to its customers, Tesco describes the new voice as being “friendlier, more helpful and less talkative” using softer phrases across more than 12,000 self-service tills in the UK.

Looking back, it seems that Tesco has consistently used the might of its brand to suggest all the brand values which it believed its customer base wanted but ignored the most important fact that supermarkets are not just selling commodities, they have now become commodities themselves because they have failed to forge the kind of relationship which binds consumers to them.

In the absence of an emotional tie, shoppers reverted overnight to a form of purchasing promiscuity simply based on price, where perceived value remained comparable.

I fervently believe that there’s a parallel here for companion animal veterinary practice although large animal practices had to wrestle with this 20 years earlier.

If we allow our practices to be seen as commodities where the price of products and services can easily be discerned as the flagship of our market offering, we will be viewed as a commodity and the trend for clients to cherry-pick different aspects of their veterinary needs from a variety of practices will accelerate.

There is little doubt that, in the main, people like to support their own community and may be prepared to invest in it to some extent, whether in a monetary fashion or by the loyalty of their purchasing decisions. Big is not always beautiful unless it is reinforced by a willingness to engage on a local and personal level to develop a lasting relationship.

Each of us has our own ideas about why Tesco’s fortunes have crashed and, by flying too close to the sun, it may have learned an invaluable lesson about according respect to people.

We may display similarities in our purchasing decisions but deep down, each one of us is an individual; we think as individuals, we have widely differing and unique backdrops to our actions and, overarchingly, we have the very human need to be treated with respect.

In veterinary practice, we have the opportunity to act as part of our local community, to engage with local people and to both forge and maintain relationships. If we examine our databases, how many people there have quietly drifted away from us and have we even noticed?

I think it will take more than a soft voice at the checkout to reverse Tesco’s fortunes but we have a massive advantage and every opportunity to maximize our position in our local communities.