Calling all CEOs: please read emails from your customers and learn about your own 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:

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!

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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Business public figures interview series

The complaining habits of public figures – Octopus CEO Greg Jackson

A series of interviews by The Complaining Cow

In my series of interviews with people in the consumer world regarding their complaining habits, today is the turn of Octopus Energy CEO Greg Jackson.

Greg Jackson

1) Generally, do you complain to a company regarding a faulty item?
Only where I think they’ll be relatively straightforward in dealing with it.

2) How much does the likely redress have to be before you will complain and why?
For me, It’s less about the amount than the hassle. If I think I’ll get reasonable redress without too much hassle, great! But I simply haven’t got time or mental energy to get into long drawn out issues.

3) How well do you know your legal rights (would be the Consumer Rights Act, different sectors regulations etc. in the UK)
I guess it’s a professional duty for me, so pretty well! 🙂

4) If you receive service over and above good do you give feedback?
Yes. I try to make a point of it. If it’s personal service, by tipping and complimenting and ideally letting a manager know. And I’ll often visit tripadvisor or twitter to give positive feedback.

Recent examples include:

Good Trip Advisor review on a pub

5) If you receive poor service how many people do you tell (include
your social media followers too!)
You know, I used to do social media a lot – but I’ve realised that people are much more likely to complain on Twitter (etc.) than compliment – so I try to redress the balance a bit and consciously don’t tweet complaints in anger any more. I very occasionally use it to try to get something resolved, but have found that companies who are poor at handling complaints offline, by phone or by email tend to be equally bad on twitter etc. But I do tell friends, family and colleagues when I think something was poor. I do try to distinguish between culturally poor, and a poor experience because of an individual, etc. and am far less forgiving of the former.

6) If you receive good services how many people do you tell?
Not enough!

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?
Mental energy – Moving on is usually less stressful.

8) What do you think of using social media to complain?
I’ve realised that people are much more likely to complain on twitter (etc) than compliment – so I try to redress the balance a bit and consciously don’t tweet complaints in anger any more. I very occasionally use it to try to get something resolved, but have found that companies who are poor at handling complaints offline, by phone or by email tend to be equally bad on twitter etc.

Social media is effective at complaining against organisations who care about their image – but then so, generally, is every other form of complaint. But I’ve tried complaining against crap organisations on Twitter – like the High Street electrical retailer who took my 90 year old gran for a ride with utterly pointless aftercare insurance – and then didn’t pay out on it and treated her terribly, but nothing was effective – complaints procedure, Twitter, email the CEO. That was infuriating. But the more I pushed the more infuriated I got, with no progress – so I’ll simply never use them again.

9) Is customer service/being able to gain redress a factor when
deciding where to purchase an item
Yes… because I don’t have bandwidth to deal with crap redress, so I just purchase from places I’m confident that things will go smoothly, and if not that complaints will be handled well. I’ll never use a majopr online hotel booking site for this reason, but I’ll pay a little more to use one which handles issues better.

10) Do you ever contact a CEO of a company? If so at what point in the complaint process?
Yes… I tend to do it quite early because as a CEO myself, I want to see how they handle it.

11) If you have ever used an ADR scheme (ombudsman/mediation/arbitrator) or gone to the Small Claims Court tell us about it
Not really.  I just don’t use businesses where this is likely to be an issue.

Read about the interviewing habits of other public figures in the series of interviews by The Complaining Cow

Greg is also featured in my blog post Why CEOs should have a presence on social media.

About Greg Jackson

Greg is an experienced entrepreneur and passionate advocate of technology-driven innovation, particularly in legacy industries where customers are underserved. He’s founded a number of successful businesses and served as Director of innovative businesses, including Zopa, the world’s first peer to peer lender, which has now lent several billion pounds fairly and responsibly whilst generating excellent interest rates for lenders.

As a technology entrepreneur, Greg built and sold ecommerce company C360, built HomeServe’s innovation business and is an angel investor in a wide range of tech startups.

He founded Octopus Energy in 2015. Octopus Energy uses technology to be highly efficient – empowering customers with a full digital experience, and then using the same systems to provide the highest standards of support to its customers by phone, email and chat. This technology allows Octopus to challenge normal energy models, challenging ‘tease and squeeze’ practices by offering good value to new and loyal customers, and maximising price transparency.

book Logo cartoon cow at a laptop of book cover. How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!


And if you need help with complaining effectively and making sure you are never fobbed off. GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!




Greg Jackson headshot talks about complaining habits