NEWS: British reserve goes against the national interest

When Roger Partington of Safeway was quoted in the news pages of Marketing last week, little did he know he’d turn up in the first paragraph of my column today. It must be the equivalent of being in Knightsbridge, only to arrive later at Turnham Green.

When Roger Partington of Safeway was quoted in the news pages of

Marketing last week, little did he know he’d turn up in the first

paragraph of my column today. It must be the equivalent of being in

Knightsbridge, only to arrive later at Turnham Green.

Be that as it may, Mr Partington’s words provided me with the parallel I

required to make a point that had been craving expression but which,

until then, had laid limply in the black hole that doubles as my brain.

He was talking about the launch of the supermarket’s in-store TV trial;

a noble objective, no doubt, but one not without connotations. As for

me, I was glancing in the rear-view mirror, as we hurtle down the final

road toward 1997, and trying to judge the calibre of the year’s

marketing campaigns.

And so our worlds collided when I read these words: ‘The opportunity is

there for a conversation with our customers and for them to interact

with us.’

A conversation? By TV? When the store is full of real people? I can

understand TV interaction when those transmitting messages and those

receiving them are miles apart. But in the same store? What’s wrong with

proper people interaction on the shop floor?

How very British, I thought. Only we could put up a barrier, in this

case a TV, and pretend it’s a bridge. And that’s my conclusion: many

first-class marketing initiatives in the UK are tainted because we

remain useless at real customer interaction at the sharp end. It’s part

of our psyche, borne of an island race. It’s deeply embedded. Many Brits

still physically recoil when touched. So isn’t it logical to assume the

same emotion applies corporately, given that companies are only

collections of individuals? It lets us down. And it works at all levels.

Take Mr B at my new bank, one not unknown within royal circles, who when

prospecting for my business was tenacious and efficient. Why then have I

been unable to get him to talk since the account was opened?

Or what about the eccentric timekeeping at my Nuffield doctor’s

appointment? Why should I, as a paying customer, be forced to wait

beyond the agreed time? And why no apologetic phone call after I’d

stormed out in protest? Haven’t they heard that turning round an

aggrieved customer is easier than gaining a new one, and augurs well for

a longer relationship in the end? Or don’t they care? Or is it simply,

as I’m beginning to believe, the result of a national fault line in all

of us - that customer cuddling simply isn’t British?

This is our challenge for next year. Our brilliant campaigns must no

longer be created in isolation, creating expectations that can’t be

delivered. They must take into account the fundamentals of our national


Quentin Bell is chairman of the Quentin Bell Organisation


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