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
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
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