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Bye bye Dave Lewis – every little helped!

Dave Lewis quits as Tesco Group CEO 30 September

It’s the end of an era.

Dave Lewis is leaving Tesco after six years as CEO. No cloud, no bad trading figures and no flash new job to go to. Pretty unusual! But then Dave was always quite unusual. And not in a weird way!

Six years ago I wrote to Dave just before he started at Tesco. I told him what I thought of the outgoing CEO, Philip Clarke and how I had successfully taken Tesco to court in the previous year. He invited me to meet him and to discuss what consumers thought about Tesco. I liked Dave’s comment in his email “Keep on complaining because that is how we will improve” and waited a while for Dave to settle in before contacting him again. In fact, I waited a couple of weeks, making contact during the week when the story broke about the financial irregularities and suspension of key Tesco personnel. Believing that it would be just what Dave wanted, to meet me because, well he wouldn’t be that busy would he? And even if he was he might like a little bit of light relief. To give him credit he met me the following week. And for nearly three hours too!

Tesco Group CEO Dave Lewis Helen Dewdney in store

I found him to be genuine and personable. Clearly far more interested in what customers, past, present and future thought of Tesco than his predecessor, who in my opinion was greedy and it backfired. Dave wanted to listen to customers and get it right for them and the profits would follow. He was right.

I believe that his answers to the questions below back up what I think about him. For example, his advice on giving positive feedback about good service. He is very much more a people person than one to use social media and Internet, except when he has to (his emails to me were often filled with typos! 😉 )

Over the years I wrote a guest post for Tesco, met the executive team, interviewed the new Chief Customer Officer, disagreed many times on the notorious issue of Fake Farms and adverts (I still maintain that I was right!) and other things, culminating in an exclusive interview with the UK CEO, Matt Davies and Dave Lewis, the only interview that they did together.

Tesco | Complaining Cow meets Dave Lewis and Matt Davies

You can read more about my time working with Tesco in Case study: Tesco and a consumer champion

Here are the answers from Dave Lewis in response to my questions, as part of the interview series “The complaining habits of public figures and those in the consumer world”:

Dave Lewis interview on his complaining habits

1)  Generally, do you complain to a company regarding a faulty item?

If a product is faulty then like anyone else I would want one that isn’t. It’s not that I am complaining as such, but I think it’s fair to speak to the company and seek a replacement. It’s what I would expect of any Tesco customer.

2)   How much does the likely redress have to be before you will complain and why?

I don’t think about it that way…context is important. If I have a bad customer experience because someone made a genuine mistake, I probably wouldn’t complain. We have all had those days. If, on the other hand, I don’t feel valued by a company and I have had a bad customer experience, I will mention it.

3)   How well do you know your legal rights (Consumer Rights Act, different sectors regulations etc.)

I’m no lawyer but I have an understanding. Thankfully, I have never had to refer to them.

4)  If you receive service over and above good do you give feedback? How?

I try to give positive feedback to the individual, in the moment – but of course, there are times when I take good service for granted, as I’m sure many of us are guilty of doing. A thank you goes a long way. I know from speaking to Tesco colleagues that it is always welcome.

5) If you receive poor service how many people do you tell (include your social media followers too!)

I’m not on social media but if I had poor service I would mention it as appropriately as possible in the moment.

6)  If you receive good service how many people do you tell?

Probably not enough – but again I do try to share my appreciation in the moment with the person who gave the great service.

7)  If you don’t really complain or it has to be a significant amount in question before you will, what stops you from complaining?

As I mentioned before, if there is a problem that can be resolved (ie. faulty product), I will try and resolve it. Otherwise, like many people I expect, I don’t want to spend time dwelling on it.

8)  What do you think of using social media to complain?

I would always rather have a conversation with someone, but I know some of our customers find social channels quick and helpful and we have a fantastic social team working at Tesco to help customers with all sorts of questions.

9)  Is customer service/being able to gain redress a factor when deciding where to purchase an item

Not at all. I think it’s fair to expect good service wherever you choose to shop and your rights apply everywhere.

Looking at this through a Tesco lens, customer service contributes to the whole shopping experience. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not always about being able to get a refund but it is about feeling valued and it absolutely has an impact on where people choose to shop. We are constantly talking to our customers and measuring the overall experience in store, which includes questions like are colleagues helpful? Did you have to queue for a long time? I think all these things add up to the overall shopping experience.

10) Do you ever contact a CEO of a company? If so at what point in the complaint process?

No, as I said earlier I try to deal with good and bad service in the moment.

11)  If you have ever used an ADR scheme (ombudsman/mediation/arbitrator) or gone to Small Claims Court tell us about it

No, it’s not something I’ve ever had to do.

About Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis head shot

Dave Lewis joined the Board of Tesco PLC as Group Chief Executive on 1 September 2014.  Over the last six years he has led a successful turnaround of the UK’s leading food retailer.

Before joining Tesco he worked for Unilever for nearly 30 years in a variety of roles across Europe, Asia and the Americas.  His last role at Unilever was President for Personal Care globally.  He has also been a non-executive director of Sky PLC.

Dave will step down as Group Chief Executive of Tesco on 30 September 2020, and will be succeeded by Ken Murphy.

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See more in the The Complaining Cow interview series.


How CEOs can learn more about their business

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

In my exclusive interview with Leon Livermore the former CTSI CEO Greg was discussed as a good example of a CEO for doing just this.

Leon Livermore former CTSI CEO talks about Greg Jackson Octopus Energy CEO

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.”

Screwfix fixed it right when things went wrong

Every company makes mistakes it is how they deal with them that matters. When CEOs get involved in handling a complaint things can go so much more smoothly and you never know who is behind a complaint! It could go one way or the other with PR!

CONSUMER FIGHTBACK: Screwfix fixed things the right way when a shower went wrong

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 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!

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