Having a customer conversation with Tesco

The influence of the modern supermarket on our daily lives is remarkably powerful. We take the big five for granted, rarely questioning  their hold  on how we shop, eat and behave.  Occasionally, we get very worked up about their part in the ruination of the local High St, or the damage they do as they squeeze the life blood out of local suppliers.  It’s trickier to justify this anger though, when they calmly tell us that what they do is designed to improve the customer experience and keep prices low.

So it’s no wonder they hold sway, when the deal is they rule the roost and we in turn acquiesce, only so we can walk into a clean store 24 hours a day and buy a range of food, healthy or otherwise. Personally, I have to own up to describing the whole food shopping experience as Sainsbores.  (No offence Sainsburys!)

While I am not a regular visitor to Tesco, I have always been interested in how Sir Terry Leahy pushed the posh boys out of the way (Sainbury’s and Marks and Sparks) and headed to the top.  I was therefore interested to read his new book Management in 10 Words. How would he describe the business methodology of growing a retail business to number one in the world?

For starters, I was surprised by his use of warm words – such as loyalty, culture and values. You would think Tesco was set up to save the world, not sell crisps. However, he is clearly a Tesco man, through and through. Passionate and obsessive leaders all have that in common. I met someone who works in Compliance at Barclays last year, and I asked her what was Bob Diamond really like?  She said he really seemed to be a Barclays man. He also talked about culture and values, as you will have read in my last two blogs.  In his own words:

Strong values underpin successful businesses.  They give managers a sheet anchor, something that holds their position and keeps them from being smashed on the rock when caught in a storm. Values govern how a business behaves, what it sees as important, what it does when faced with a problem.” (P 109)

Leahy was clearly a man with a big vision and a habit of doing things quickly. He says that intention is never enough and plans mean nothing if they are not effectively enacted.   He commented on his time at the Co-Op, at being frustrated by the length of time the democratic management processes took to make decisions. I am sure many others recognise the danger and destruction that slow and complex, unclear decision making can wreak on a business – especially one with growth ambitions.

Interestingly, we have introduced a decision-making model at LEYF known as ‘RAPIDs’ (courtesy of the excellent work from our SBT partners Bain & Company) to ensure speedier decisions.  It is something that also affects a culture; we want a culture of speed and intelligent response, not processes that actually work against the success of the business.

For me, the main thrust of Terry Leahy’s book was that it was all about the customer. You need to understand your customers and give them what they want.  It’s the only way to get loyalty, which in turn means a steady stream of income. For him, the Clubcard was key to his success, because it gave Tesco more direct access to customer’s data and better ways to talk to them.  The customer conversation became critical to the culture of the new Tesco, and meant they could provide the right products in the right places at the right price. It’s certainly the key lesson I have learnt from his book.

Whether you have read the book or not, what are your thoughts on the importance of  the customer experience? Is the customer always right? And what’s the best way to learn from them. Let me know below.

, , , , ,

  1. #1 by Karen on July 13, 2012 - 7:24 pm

    Interesting June. You won’t, however, be surprised to hear that other business stars consider there to be considerable value in democratic decision making (Johnson & Johnson is the example I’m thinking of). While it can slow down the decision, they consider the benefits it brings in terms of engagement, no surprises and buy-in to be worth it.

    As for giving your customers what they want (in terms of Tesco) on the surface of it, that looks to be common sense; but it may cause harm elsewehere. For example, I daresay customers want to buy milk as cheaply as possible – but given that supermarkets needs to deliver profit to shareholders, I wonder how much farmers suffer in terms of their living?

    So – horses for courses, do you think?

    • #2 by June O'Sullivan on July 14, 2012 - 12:23 pm

      Its true that focusing on customers is a double edge sword but focusing and engaging with them is one think responding to everything they want is another. We often find this with parents, they want things they have heard are really important but once an alternative is explained or why we would refuse to carry out their request is shared with a clear rationale they are very open and often surprised by how and what they have assumed that to be good. I think that is why I think direct conversations are for the better.

  2. #3 by laurachildcare on July 13, 2012 - 4:56 pm

    Love this June!

    I recently had a week stay in hospital (private) and I shared my positive comments (complained) to a senior manager. In short lack of consistency between the staff and standards. Me being me, of course I was armed with simple solutions! She agreed with me and as a result their staff training (induction and on-going CPD) will now have a strong focus on the individual needs of the patient!

    I did note a few weeks ago that Tesco’s profit was dented and they were going to have a focus on customer care, rather than on the type of fish fingers that they sell!

    Everything should link back to the values of an organisation and the leader needs to steer this. I was also recently impressed by Steve Job’s view on the customer’s experience.


    I recently commented in Nursery World that it is the recruitment process, where an organisation should promote their values to the prospective candidates.

    • #4 by June O'Sullivan on July 14, 2012 - 12:28 pm

      I totally approve of your action to help nursing staff understand why being caring is good for patient recovery. I joined the Patients Assoc in direct response to some very poor caring practices in not one but three different hospitals. As a former nurse, I was shocked that basic care such as a quick chat, filling water jugs, plumping uncomfortable pillows and straightening sheets was seen to be lowly and left to the patient!? or those lucky enough to have visitors. The usual call that they are understaffed and over-worked did not apply, in every case they were lots of staff about and much chatting at the nurses station far away from patients.

      I will check out the Steve Jobs interview. He is now up there with some of the greats.

%d bloggers like this: