Calling CEOs to read emails from your customers and learn about your own business

What happens when CEOs read emails from your customers and learn about your own business

You may well be an overworked CEO but when CEOs make corresponding with customers part of their work routine it can be extremely beneficial to business.

Tesco CEO used reading customer emails to help turn stores around

Tesco Group CEO Dave Lewis Helen Dewdney in storeWhen I met Dave Lewis the Tesco Group CEO soon after he started in 2014 he told me he got 2,000 emails a day! Gulp. But he also told me that he spent much of his first two weeks in the job reading emails from customers. He wanted to know the sort of things that customers complained about.

He then explained to the executive team how he wanted people to respond to them. (See more on my relationship with Tesco in the Tesco & The Complaining Cow case study)

The newly-arrived CEO of one of the biggest retailers felt it important enough to look at customer complaints as a key part of developing his strategy. Now he is less likely to respond personally (even to me!)

Tesco said “Dave responds personally to customers when he can, as do other members of the Executive team. However to ensure that we can get back to customers promptly, we also have a dedicated team of colleagues who respond to emails, letters and calls, and are equipped with the tools and systems needed to properly investigate and resolve complaints.” One wonders how much time he spends looking at complaint emails now.

However, when he started, customer complaints certainly fed into his strategy. I was mentioned in his Tesco Plc Half Year 2014/15 Earnings Presentation October 23rd 2014 along with all the complaints I brought with me.

I’ll tell you a little story, if I may. I spent three hours in a store on Friday afternoon with a lady who some of you may know. She has a blog called The Complaining Cow. She — no, it’s really important because some of your harshest critics are where you learn the most.”

So, if CEOs aren’t looking at complaints perhaps they aren’t learning? Has Lewis stopped learning? No, he’s certainly still listening to his customers. I exclusively interviewed him and Matt Davies taking customer complaints and questions directly to them.

Tesco | Complaining Cow meets Dave Lewis and Matt Davies

Energy for emailing

Greg Jackson, the founder and CEO of Octopus Energy, says he spends 30-60 mins a day on direct customer contact (almost all email, but a bit of social and occasional phone). He says;

“If a CEO says they care about customers, do they mean it if they don’t deal with customers themselves? If a CEO can’t spend 30 mins a day dealing with customers I don’t think they can say Greg Jackson against a wallcustomers are a priority No number of reports, surveys or anything else will tell you more about how you’re doing as a business, and if you’re not there for your customers, how can you ask your team to be? I want to see what customers are saying. If it’s a complaint – what did we get wrong, and why? How can we fix it so it doesn’t happen again? If it’s a service request, why did the come to me? Did we not make it obvious, or have we got a glitch or an issue? If it’s praise or customer ideas I love to see it!”

These are many good reasons for reading, and responding to, customer emails.

A recent tweet from Greg demonstrates the importance he puts on reading correspondence:

King of customer emails

Justin King faceJustin King was CEO of Sainsbury’s from 2004 to 2014. In the three years from when King started, Sainsbury’s announced twelve consecutive quarters of sales growth. Its target of growing sales by £2.5 million was met three months ahead of schedule Despite the huge growth he found time to respond to customers. In 2012 he was responding to customers directly. Even over the Christmas period.

In Sainsbury’s Justin King shows how to care for customers I showed how he responded to me about an order for the next day. I then wrote up the story for the blog and that was years ago and blogs and social media use has only increased. You never know where your service stories will end up and who will read them! Businesses would do well to always keep that in mind.

Ex BT CEO saw true picture

Gavin Patterson faceIt wasn’t a case of King having more time and receiving fewer emails back in 2011. Gavin Patterson was CEO of the BT Group from September 2013 until February 2019. He spent an hour each day responding personally to customer emails. He believes that customer feedback is the single most important category of information coming into the business.

As a CEO keeping an eye on customer correspondence, you get to see a true picture of what your company’s service is really like. Patterson says it is

“An unfiltered view of our business and its impact on our customers’ lives The huge range of demands on my time means that it would be easy to become isolated or insulated from the views of our customers; dealing personally with complaints helps to avoid that happening.”

You will also see patterns emerging, such as the customer service handling of certain issues and how and why they are escalating those issues to the CEO.

“Email me directly”, says CEO

Rarely do you see a company actually providing the email address of a CEO in its complaint process! But it is there at Octopus Energy, one of the newer entrants into the domestic energy market. Actively encouraging customers to email him, Jackson says of the strategy “I’m the ultimate pressure release valve… with many companies people get frustrated because they end up in customer service hell – endless circles of people not solving the issue. As the boss, I can either solve it or definitively say it can’t be solved.” CEOs would be wise to heed his words. Octopus Energy already has a reputation for good customer service and for many customers this is more important than the cost of a product or service.

Dave Lewis recommended even before he met me that I “Keep on complaining as that is the only way we will improve”. Getting those complaints is essential if you want to improve and sometimes you just have to see it for yourself.

Dave Lewis told me that in his first couple of weeks he responded personally to customer emails. He wanted to understand what kind of issues came in and to instruct staff how he required them to respond. Nowadays it is less likely that he will respond personally but Tesco says that where Dave can’t personally respond, he is regularly updated on the contact that comes in, and the entire executive team pays very close attention to customer feedback. It said

“Dave responds personally to customers when he can, as do other members of the executive team. However to ensure that we can get back to customers promptly, we also have a dedicated team of colleagues who respond to emails, letters and calls, and are equipped with the tools and systems needed to properly investigate and resolve complaints.”

Advice for CEOs

If you, as a CEO, are regularly reading correspondence from customers, you can genuinely empathise with your team and that will reap its own rewards as staff feel recognised and valued from this.

Jackson believes senior staff should handle the consequences of their decisions and actions. For example, when Octopus Energy recently put up their prices the Chief Finance Officer sent the email and personally responded to all the replies.

When you are open and accessible, it reflects well on the business, so it’s great for your company’s image and reputation too.

Marcus Williamson is the editor of the consumer information website ceoemail.com He set up the site in 2010 after seeing the consequences of poor customer service. Williamson says

“Customers want to be able to reach out to the CEO. When customers feel that their problem is serious enough, or that so much of their time has been wasted, CEOs can benefit from their customers’ need to be heard.”

Most importantly, what do customers say? Rhiannon recently contacted Jackson and was delighted with how quickly and “more to the point easily”, he resolved the matter for her.

“It’s hard to be intimidated by a CEO who uses his first name only in an email address. He emailed her in the middle of the night. “Positively, constructively, and understood where I was coming from.”

Surely this is the kind of comment is what you want to hear? These customers really feel valued and I’m certain you don’t need me to tell you what valued customers will give you in return!

If you are interested in working with Helen see Services for a variety of innovative customer-focused solutions to your business needs. You can contact her with your own ideas too of course! Services.

 

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The Complaning Cow & Tesco CEOs

 

 

 

 

 

It all started with a little blog post…

On 12 July 2012, Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow, wrote only her second blog post. The post was the first of many about Tesco. It was a post about poor customer service and entitled Tesco – Phillip Clarke is no Sir Terry Leahy.

 

As the blog developed and included more stories of complaints gaining redress and consumer advice, Tesco appeared more and more often. Posts included finding insects in rice and taking Tesco to court in 2013. Helen won the case and shared the experience on her blog which was later shared in national media.

Correspondence with The Complaining Cow and Tesco CEO began…

When Dave Lewis was announced as the new Tesco CEO in 2014, Helen wrote to him at Unilever before his new role had started, sending her congratulations and asking him to take a look at her blog and what she had to say about Tesco! Within a week he had replied, thanking her and suggested they meet when he started.

Liking Dave’s comment in his email “Keep on complaining because that is how we will improve” Helen waited a little while after Dave started to contact him again. In fact, she waited a couple of weeks, making contact during the week when the story broke about the financial issues and suspension of key Tesco personnel. Believing that it would be just what Dave wanted, to meet The Complaining Cow because, well he wouldn’t be that busy would he? And even if he was he might like a little bit of light relief.

Dave Lewis & The Complaining Cow. The first meeting

Tesco Group CEO Dave Lewis Helen Dewdney in store

Whichever it was, within two weeks Helen and Dave were sitting in a café in Tesco discussing a number of issues. She told him her mother’s and son’s complaints! But Helen had also asked on social media for people’s comments and gave this feedback too.

Dave asked the security guard to take a photo of the two of them. He said they weren’t allowed to take photos. Helen cracked up laughing, Dave reluctantly and humbly showed his ID card. Helen wondered if it was very good training or if staff should know what the CEO looked like.

Some of the feedback included a particular case about the way teenagers were treated in a specific Tesco store. Dave ensured that someone looked into the issue and a statement was issued which Helen shared:

book Logo cartoon cow at a laptop of book cover. How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!Dave joked that Tesco had given her material for her best-selling book, How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!. However, Helen informed him that actually Tesco were already recognised in the acknowledgements. “Tesco, because if the service was not so utterly diabolical I wouldn’t have such good endless material for my blog or gone to court, ultimately gaining enough interest in what I do that encouraged me to write the book.”  Dave bought 100 books for his senior management.

Writing up the meeting on her blog, Helen posed the question “Maybe he’s astute, maybe he’s mad or maybe he was plain scared! Who knows, could be all 3.”

Dave invited Helen to meet his senior team.

Criticism of The Complaining Cow meeting Dave Lewis

When someone commented on the blog post what it was like to be a bought woman, Helen replied with her usual direct and fair attitude saying:

Thank you for your comment. I wondered how long it would be before someone accused me of this, it came a little sooner than I thought though given that I complained to them the day I wrote this post. 1) Please see the rest of the site, you will see I am a woman of principle and will not be bought. 2) Please feel free to email Dave Lewis and ask him if he thinks he will be able to silence me when I want to complain, he knew the answer the first time he met me, let alone the second and please forward me the reply I’d love to see it! 3) THE day I put up this subsequent blog post I sent a complaint to Tesco regarding their click and collect service and publicised it on Twitter 4) the cheque Tesco sent me for the books they bought (that is NOT a freebie btw, I have serious costs to cover for crying out loud!) didn’t clear – you may have missed it but I did have fun telling several thousand people on Twitter and Facebook 5) Whoa! Who said I had changed my mind on Tesco? Please re reread the post and all the others. Takes more than a couple of meetings to change my mind. I will always speak my mind and will always be fair and that means if Tesco do bad I will say so but so will I if they do good. It’s just that they don’t do much good at the mo do they?! They might do some more good if they listen to people like us but time will tell, NOT a few freebies trust me (and if you read the rest of the blog, the book and ask the people who follow me on Twitter and like my FB page you will).

Meanwhile back at a Tesco half year earnings webcast…

Dave fedback about The Complaining Cow in his Tesco Plc Half Year 2014/15 Earnings Presentation October 23rd 2014

“I’ll tell you a little story, if I may. I spent three hours in a store on Friday afternoon with a lady who some of you may know. She has a blogger title called the Complaining Cow. She — no, it’s really important because some of your harshest critics are where you learn the most. And she’s written a book and her book was inspired by some service or poor service that she got from Tesco.

So I sat down with her for three hours. She had got her many thousands of people who complained to her about Tesco to give her all the answers. So I sat with her in a store in Hertfordshire and went through all the issues she can see as a Tesco customer. The really interesting thing — she knows a lot about Tesco, and she’s really very, very, very precise — she had no idea; when I told her about farm to fork, when I talked to her about food waste, when I talked to her about the education program and the free meals and the things that we’re doing around our stores, she had no idea; no idea. So in three hours, she walked away with lots of examples about how the brand was doing exactly what she would want it to do but we hadn’t for whatever reason been able to communicate to somebody who is probably one of the most engaged customers that we have.”

Maybe it felt like 3 hours, Helen said it was just short of 2 and a half! She also laughed at being called “precise”. Her mother laughed at her being called “a lady”.

The Complaining Cow meets the Tesco senior executive team over lunch

When Helen met the Tesco senior executive team at the end of November 2014, they discussed numerous issues including customer service, social media, the website, and “click and collect”. Again, whilst publicly feeding back on her meeting with some of the issues raised and some responses, she included some information on a story that had recently hit the headlines.

Tesco and the guide dog

An untrained staff member had told a woman she wasn’t allowed to bring a guide dog into the store. Tesco was reported as having given £5,000 to charity and put training in place and that was it. Helen reported on her blog that she wasn’t going anywhere without addressing this story. She asked – “Why on earth would you need to train someone that guide dogs are OK in stores?” “When the staff didn’t grow up in the UK and they have no knowledge or understanding of guide dogs (or hearing dogs etc.)” was the reply.

She also said that she was also going to “go into one” about how typical of Tesco it was to throw £5k at the problem and run away and why didn’t they buy a dog.  Tesco said it gave £5,000 towards a puppy.

More blog posts and social media

Helen continued to criticise Tesco in social media and her blog throughout 2015. On Facebook she informed her followers that someone on her blog had commented that her blog https://www.thecomplainingcow.co.uk was “like a lab test honeytrap for all the Tesco haters”.  Make of that what you will. She knows one thing for sure and that’s she will always be there, watching, criticising, possibly complimenting but always there.

Tesco adverts

In December 2015 Helen garnered opinions on Tesco adverts and wrote posts about them. She made no secret of her opinion (not positive) on them and told Dave. At some point she feels she must tell him that she wishes that he would stop overusing the word “polarising.” Helen wrote the post Tesco takes flak in the battle of the Christmas adverts

However, many of the criticisms were acknowledged and changes were made and one advert was pulled completely. This was down to various feedback, including Helen’s.

Consumer law change, The Complaining Cow informs Tesco!

Helen wrote to a number of supermarkets about their sites forcing online shopping to have paid-for carrier bags, with their orders, , which is illegal. The Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 prohibit any additional payments which appear as a default option.

I do believe Tesco is breaking the law. The Consumer Protection Regulations 2014 which amend the Consumer Protection…

Posted by The Complaining Cow on Tuesday, 20 October 2015

She posted Dave’s response regarding rectifying the system error:

Now, remember this about Tesco and breach of law? http://ow.ly/TKzMF and having a go at all and sundry on Twitter oh and…

Posted by The Complaining Cow on Friday, 23 October 2015

In 2016 Helen’s mother even got in on the act of complaining about Tesco!

So, has everyone applied for the Tesco home testing positions? She has. Who? The cat’s mother? No, the Cow’s mother….

Posted by The Complaining Cow on Thursday, 22 January 2015

Reciprocal blog post writing

Amongst the Tesco bashing, Helen wrote a post on LinkedIn about Tesco listening to customers being reflected in their latest figures. Tesco wrote a post for Helen’s blog informing people of how to become a Tesco tester

Helen wrote a post for the Tesco blog. The Complaining Cow: Are supermarkets giving us value for our money yet? Helen’s comments were used in press articles. As were her comments in April 2016 for The Mirror; Tesco tells angry Sainsbury’s customers: ‘We’ll take your Brand Match vouchers’. This however was swiftly followed by comments two weeks later for The Telegraph; Tesco customers “gutted” as supermarket scraps popular double Clubcard points scheme and then came the infamous fake farms…

Fake farms

When the story hit the media regarding Tesco labelling their products with farms that didn’t exist, Helen challenged Dave in an email on the issue. Three times in fact. Fake farms – a bad smell that won’t go away. Well he did tell her to keep on complaining as that would be the only way to improve. (She often wonders if he regrets saying that to her.) Her piece criticised the labelling heavily but she also relayed all his main points on the matter. They continue to disagree.

The exclusive Tesco interview

4 images of Helen Dewdney, Matt Davies and Dave Lewis

 

Nearly two years on from when Helen first suggested it, she got her exclusive interview with the CEO in September 2016. Dave does very few interviews and this was the first with the Group CEO, Matt Davies, too. It was the only interview Matt and Dave did together. To our knowledge it was the first time any CEO had been filmed being interviewed by a non-employee or non-traditional journalist.

 

Tesco | Complaining Cow meets Dave Lewis and Matt Davies

Helen really enjoyed working with the Tesco team and history was made. It was shared widely on social media and internally, where Tesco got useful feedback from staff. It continues to get views on a regular basis.

Tesco Chairman causes trouble

Having continually challenged the Tesco UK and Group CEO, Helen turned her criticism to the Chair of the Board. In March 2017 Helen attended the Retail Week conference to run a workshop. Whilst there she attended a seminar where John Allan, chair of the Tesco board, made remarks about white men becoming an endangered species. The full comment was “If you are female and from an ethnic minority background, preferably both you are in an extremely propitious period so go for it frankly. For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think, so you are at an advantage. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”

Not impressed, Helen wrote about this on her blog. Casual sexism is alive and kicking in UK boardrooms.

Interviewing the new Tesco Chief Customer Officer, Alessandra BelliniAlessandra Bellinini CCO Tesco

Two months later, Helen was interviewing the new Chief Customer Officer for her blog post The customer is still the boss. There she shared thoughts and plans from Alessandra Bellini.

Other Tesco food related incidents

 Later in 2017 Helen had a Tesco insect in raspberries! Her blog post talked about naming him Michael. She decided that they didn’t get the joke, that or they were miserable!

Then later in the year at Christmas time, Helen provided advice on people’s consumer rights for some people had bought poor quality Tesco turkeys. Don’t gobble rancid Tesco turkey. Know your rights 

Tesco Christmas in July

Staying with the food theme… In 2018 Helen attended the Tesco Christmas in July event. Journalists and bloggers attended various Christmas in July events ready to write their articles covering the best of what various stores have to offer for release later in the year. Helen meanwhile wrote an amusing blog piece, in July, covering the whole Tesco event.

Xmas party food on tiers baubles hanging in corner

The rest of 2018 and beyond

 With the Tesco 100 year celebrations to come in 2019 there will surely fun and games to be had?! One thing of which we can be sure though, is that Helen will be keeping a close eye on all things Tesco!

In summary

  • The Complaining Cow is Tesco’s harshest critic, with 8k followers on Twitter and Facebook, continually writing about Tesco since 2012, taking them to court and winning in 2013.
  • Tesco Group CEO listened and listened again and again
  • Tesco Group CEO shared story with stakeholders.
  • Harshest critic continues to criticise.
  • Harshest critic shares the feedback from her criticism.
  • Harshest critic demonstrates that one CEO in a supermarket wants to hear complaints and wants to show that he is listening.
  • Tesco take the rough with the smooth.
  • Harshest critic continues to be a critical friend!
  • Harshest critic and company slowly but surely build trust…
  • The largest supermarket in the UK is gradually involving its harshest critic in its work, to improve its customer experience

Links for all the stories can be found at

The Complaining Cow’s history with Tesco

The Complaining Cow logo, complaints, consultancy, speaker, workshops and more

 

If you are interested in working with Helen see Services for a variety of innovative solutions to your business needs. You can contact her with your own ideas too of course!

Download Tesco & The Complaining Cow case study