Tesco: The Darling of Customer Marketing Guru’s Issues Its Fifth Profit Warning
Tesco continues to struggle. According to this piece from the Guardian newspaper, Tesco has issued its fifth profit warning, share price has plunged (down 16%): Tesco is on the floor. Why does this matter? Why is it worth me writing about. Let’s go back a little.
In the early 2000s Tesco was much lauded my many: the customer-centricity gurus, the 1:1 marketing gurus, the data mining and predictive analytics players, and customer loyalty program vendors. Tesco was the exemplar of harnessing customer data through a loyalty programme (Tesco clubcard), using data mining and predictive analytics to generate insights and then doing database driven marketing based on these insights. In the process Tesco went from being just one player amongst the UK grocery retailers to the the dominant retailer. At one point it looked like there would be no stopping Tesco.
Today Tesco is on the floor. Why? Because Tesco’s management ended up doing what management teams do: exploiting customers to extract surplus profits for the Tops and Shareholders. I think some wise person said something like “power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
What Can We Learn About The Challenge Of Building A Customer-Centric Organisation?
So what is it that you and I can learn from Tesco if we are grappling with the challenge of shifting a business towards a customer-centric orientation: one not based on using data/insight to exploit customers; one based on using data/insights to generate superior value (product, proposition, customer experience) for the customer? Here are the paragraphs from this Guardian piece that catch my attention (bolding is my work):
Lewis [CEO], who marks his 100th day in the job on Tuesday, said he was building “a new Tesco” that would eventually reward shareholders. “We need to get back to core principles. We need to improve the service and availability and that is what we are doing.”
Here is what strikes me, how I make sense of this statement based on my prior lived experience:
1. Moving an organisation from a business as usual (product-centred, extractive, short-term focussed) to a customer-centric organisation is akin to building a new organisation;
2. Building a new organisation is not simple, not easy, not quick. It requires the persistent application of substantial energy across a large number of people for a long period of time – years. Only a CEO who has the power and genuinely cares about the wellbeing of the organisation will do what it takes, and keep doing it over the long term of many years.
3. Part of the challenge in building a new organisation is sacrifice. This sacrifice especially involves shareholders. Why? Because usually the shareholders have gotten fat through ‘bad profits’ delivered by their agents (Tops) putting in place strategies-structures-people-practices that collectively take advantage of customers, suppliers, and the employees – extracting surplus rents (to use the term used by economists);
4. Building a customer-centric organisation is matter of getting back to core principles. Notice, it is not discovering some secret recipe nor the latest shiny miracle technology. It is about honouring already discovered, well known, rarely enacted, core principles. How does one honour a principal? By living it – being an exemplar of that principle in action.
What Specific Actions Does It Take To Be A Customer-Centric Retailer?
Let’s continue this conversation by looking at another paragraph that speaks to me. Here it is:
In a bid to improve customer service, the retailer has taken on 6,000 more staff since mid-October, and despatched 6,000 existing head office staff to spend one day a fortnight on the shop floor to get a taste for the sharp end of the grocery business. Lewis has decided not to lay off people after Christmas, a traditionally slack time for retailers, as part of this customer service drive. “Certain activities help you manage profits, but can have a detrimental impact on how you serve customers,” he said. “What we are trying to do is deliver better for customers … I believe that is the foundation from which we can build a new Tesco, which is financially attractive to shareholders.”
Here is how I choose to make sense of this paragraph:
- A customer-centric organisation is one which “delivers better for customers”. Delivers what better? Delivers better products. Delivers better service. Delivers better value propositions. I sum this up by saying it delivers a better Customer Experience.
Customer service is a key thread of Customer Experience. Organisation which seek to show up as customer-centric have to get customer service right. This is especially so for service heavy businesses where the employee to customer encounter is important, even critical.
Getting customer service right means investing in the people who actually are the customer service of the organisation. Please notice the word “are“. Your front line people are your customer service; they do not merely deliver the customer service that someone else (perhaps in head office) has already produced. This critical aspect of reality is much ignored: your front line people simultaneously invent-create-deliver customer service every time they encounter the customer – they are your customer service!
Investing in people is long term play. Think Warren Buffet: you select the right people and then you hold on to them over and for the long term. That means not laying people off during traditionally slack periods. Why? Because two way loyalty (sticking by one another) is essential to creating the context for greatness to show up from your people. When you, the CEO, take the pain for your people you are putting a deposit in the bank account of goodwill. And this allows you to draw on the goodwill of your employees when you need it. Think Market Basket.
The core challenge of building and then keeping in existence (over the longer term) a customer-centric organisation is this one: “Certain activities help you manage profits, but can have a detrimental impact on how you serve customers”. It occurs to me that this is THE most critical insight. There is a broad range of ingrained, celebrated, management practices that deliver the numbers over the short-term whilst at the same time chipping away at the quality of the Customer Experience. Over the shorter-term there is no visible impact. Then the hit occurs and when it does it is big. I refer to this as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.
The people who collectively constitute the biggest obstacle to making the shift to a customer-centric organisation and keeping this customer-centric orientation intact (and effective) are the people who work in head office: those who make policies, set targets, dictate management practices…. I am talking about the Tops and Middles: those who work with concepts and not reality. John Timpson of Timpson recognised this and turned the role of the head office from a dictatorship to a helpline, and in the process reduced the number of people in head office, and moved them to the branches where the real work of interacting with and serving customers occurs.
Final Thoughts: Leadership and Governance
If find it interesting that the management practices that have brought Tesco to its knees ended up being unconcealed when an outsider (no relationship to the Tops running the organisation) took over the role of CEO; and
It is the competitive world in which Tesco competes which has forced Tesco’s leadership to deal with these management practices. It is only when that which had been hidden (bullying of suppliers by head office folks, bullying of store managers by head office folks, manipulating profits through shady accounting practices) could no longer be hidden that both people and management practices are being addressed.
It occurs to me that Tesco is in crisis as there has been a fundamental breakdown in leadership and governance. The Board of Directors failed to do that with which it is concerned. Ensuring that the right person/s are running the organisation. And overseeing the actions (and management practices) of these people. Interesting then that the Chairman of Tesco has had to walk the plank.
I thank you for listening to my speaking. And I invite you to share your thoughts and experience with me. Looking forward to reading your comments.