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.”

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.

 

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

 

Download Tesco & The Complaining Cow case study.

9 supermarkets scrutinised – costs of packaged v loose items

Supermarkets use of plastic charging more for items not covered in plastic

More and more consumers are getting concerned about the use of plastics.

Whether it is cups in take away coffee shops, plastic straws or vegetable packaging, the concern and scrutiny over the apparent needless use of plastic is growing. With this in mind, I decided, with the help of some fellow bloggers, to undertake some research into supermarket use of plastics. The findings were more surprising than you would think. The research was also picked up by the Daily Mail Supermarkets accused of punishing shoppers who want to use less plastic as they charge more for fruit and veg that is sold loose and not in trays or wrappers.

Fruit and vegetables in and out of plastic

I wrote a shopping list, which for this section was:

6 tomatoes loose
6 tomatoes in packaging
500g cherry tomatoes loose
500g cherry tomatoes in box
seedless grapes 500g loose
seedless grapes 500g in box
250g mushrooms loose
250g mushrooms in box
3 peppers loose
3 peppers in plastic wrap
A cauliflower
A cauliflower in plastic wrap
6 gala apples loose
pack of gala apples
6 pink lady apples
bag of pink lady apples
Pack of avocados
2 avocados
4 baking potatoes
bag of baking potatoes

We then bought the items at nine different supermarkets and retail outlets.

We found that biggest discrepancy in prices was with peppers. Here are the prices of 3 peppers bought loose and 3 peppers in plastic wrap.

Shop3 peppers loose3 peppers in plastic
Tesco£1.65£0.95
M & S£1.50£1.50
Sainsbury’s£1.65£1.00
Aldi£1.59£0.92
Lidl£1.47£0.95
Morrisons£1.80£0.97
Waitrose£1.45£1.50
Co-op£1.95£0.95
Asda£1.65£0.95

Red and green pepper 60p bags of peppers £1.17In Marks and Spencer, peppers are the same price whether in plastic or not and actually 5p cheaper when bought loose in Waitrose. All the other supermarkets charge more for loose peppers, the worst culprit is the Co-Op where peppers are 51% cheaper in plastic.

Whilst we may expect to pay more for convenience, Emma Maslin from The Money Whisperer blog is frustrated that not only is most fruit and veg sold packaged, she also ends up having to buy more than she needs. “Co-op is my local convenience store and the place I tend to go for my mid-week top up shops when I need a few bits or have run out of something unexpectedly. If I want to pop in if I’m missing a pepper for a meal, or a piece of fruit for a lunchbox at the end of the week, I find it disappointing that most fruit and veg is sold packaged and not loose.”

Marks and Spencer and Waitrose led the way again with Gala apples. It was cheaper to buy them loose than in a packet. At the other end of the scale Tesco charges 24% to buy them loose than in a bag. Close on Tesco heels is Asda selling them at 23% more and Morrisons at 19%.

Shop6 gala apples looseBag of 6 gala apples
Tesco£2.10£1.60
M & S£1.85£2.25
Sainsbury’s£1.80£1.50
Aldi£1.38£1.29
Morrisons£1.86£1.50
Waitrose£1.86£2.00
Asda£1.75£1.35

The science regarding putting plastic on fruit and veg

Ethylene is released by fruits and vegetables which stimulates ripening and spoilage of produce nearby. This starts a chain reaction and can contribute to food waste. So if you have a rotting item of fruit stored with other fruit it will speed up their rotting. Most of us know that bananas of course will speed up the ripening/over ripening of fruit hence the banana holders! So supermarkets say that they need to package to prolong life. More work needs to be done to determine the food waste due to people buying more than they need and the damaging effects of plastics in the environment.

Consistency with pricing fruit and veg in plastic

With this in mind it is hard to understand the lack of consistency in loose and packaging prices within and across supermarkets. Why can one supermarket make loose apples cheaper than packaged but not another supermarket?

Here is the situation with the humble baking potato, whether it comes loose or bagged:

ShopBaking potatoes loose per kiloBaking potatoes bag per kilo
Tesco£1.10£1.43
M & S£2.00£1.85
Sainsbury’s£1.00£1.10
Lidl£0.49£0.72
Morrisons£0.81£1.00
Waitrose£1.08£0.84

Despite Tesco and Morrisons both charging more for plasticated peppers and apples than for loose, they both charge less (Tesco 30%, Morrisons 23%) for loose baking potatoes than for bagged ones! Lidl charge a whopping 47% less for loose potatoes compared with the bagged ones.

Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are the opposite! They both charge more for loose potatoes than bagged!

This becomes all the more confusing when checking supermarkets for overall prices.

SupermarketItems available looseItems available packagedItems cheaper looseItems cheaper packaged Same price
Tesco710340
M & S68330
Sainsbury’s710232
Aldi510220
Lidl39120
Morrisons710340
Waitrose610610
Co-op38110
Asda49120
Total488422222

Lidl, Aldi and Asda offered the fewest loose alternatives compared to packaged items.

Oddly many supermarkets offer grapes “loose” when in fact they still come in a bag as opposed to a box. None of the bloggers were able to understand why a cauliflower needs to come in open plastic either! I don’t think they are alone!cauliflower in plasticgrapes "loose" in plastic and grapes packaged

Michelle, who blogs as Utterlyscrummy and shopped at Asda, was disappointed with the lack of loose fruit, and especially vegetables, there. Eileen at YourMoneySorted researched Lidl and added “I am a huge fan of Lidl, because they offer really great value for money. However, doing this has really emphasised to me how few options there are to buy loose food, thereby making it more difficult to choose more environmentally friendly options.”

The money bloggers armed with their lists also found difficulty comparing like with like in some cases.

Faith at Much More  With Less said “Principles are expensive! It’s frustrating when some packs are labelled with cost per item, like per apple, rather than per kilo, making it more difficult to compare prices. I was surprised how much food was cheaper wrapped in plastic packaging than when sold loose.”

Deli counters and plastic

The money bloggers looked at the deli counters where available and compared the prices of counter products with fridge prices and the types of packaging used. At the counter fish, meat and cheeses are displayed without packaging. Is there then a need to add plastic?

The shopping list for this section was:

Tuna 220g – steak fridge and counter
Prawns 200g – coldwater fridge and freezer
Cod fillets 250g – fridge and counter
Mature cheddar – 500g fridge and counter
Stilton – 200g fridge and counter
Ham cooked – 125g fridge and counter
Sausages – 454g 8 sausages fridge and counter

Here are the results of the mystery shopping for those items:

SupermarketItems available at counterItems packaged in fridgeItems cheaper from counterItems cheaper from fridgeSame price
Tesco77511
Sainsbury’s66140
Morrisons57230
Waitrose67321
Total242711102

The products tended, in general, to be cheaper from the deli counter. However, is this less packaging and do the supermarkets do as much as they can to reduce the packaging further? The money bloggers asked staff at the counters if they could bring and use their own packaging. The answers were a little bemusing:

Tesco said they wouldn’t allow it.

Sainsbury’s said that if someone wants to use their own containers they can do so. But to avoid cross contamination they would have to weigh the items on plastic wrap, and it would then be thrown away. That would use the same amount of plastic as if someone hadn’t brought their own container.

Morrisons said it would be fine to bring in boxes. The counter staff would weigh food on their scales, then provide a sticker with the relevant info and hand over food to put in my boxes. It wasn’t clear if they would use plastic here or the trays.

Waitrose said they wouldn’t allow it.

Cross contamination was cited as a reason for not allowing customers to use their own containers or having to use plastic. But it wasn’t clear why different boxes couldn’t be put on one piece of paper on the scales.

Pricing of items with and without plastic overall 

Bizarrely the research also threw up an unexpected issue for Jamie from ThriftyMummaThriftyBubba, who shopped at Aldi. “As a family we regularly shop at Aldi and like the low prices without compromising quality. Unfortunately, the Aldi staff in the 3 separate stores I visited were unable to give me the price per kilo of individual items. They were also reluctant to let me weigh an individual item on the till which would have allowed me to work out the price per kilo myself. They also had no idea if Aldi HQ would have this information. So, who knows if it truly is better value for money or not because I couldn’t compare price by weight in store!”

Waitrose came out best for prices, which were cheaper for buying loose than packaged. The other supermarkets were as bad as each other and the statistics on prices were mainly hindered by lack of availability of certain products.

All the supermarkets sold more packaged items than loose items.

Emma Bradley from MumsSavvySavings who shopped at Sainsbury’s was shocked at how much cheaper the packaged items were. Emma Drew from EmmaDrew has started to make a conscious effort to cut back on my plastic use, but found that sticking to a grocery budget meant that it isn’t always possible. “I am surprised at how much cheaper pre-packaged foods, with extra plastic, are than the alternatives. I would love to see supermarkets using less plastic, and making what plastic they do use recyclable.

Supermarkets compared for packaging and pricing

So, which supermarket is better at encouraging consumers to buy loose rather than in packaging, where the item was available to buy both loose and packaged? Catherine from The Money Panel feels Waitrose still has a long way to go despite leading in the price of loose compared to packaged. It is still selling many more packaged fruit and vegetables than loose. “As a family we always shop at Waitrose because we love the quality of the food. I do get very frustrated at the amount of packaging I recycle within minutes of unpacking our order. It’s a huge waste.”

The Complaining Cow and Tesco CEOsIt’s not just the fact that consumers buy the packaged items because they are frequently cheaper. It is also wasting food. This is a common criticism from customers who live on their own. Regulars on this blog will know that I have quite a History with Tesco. In September 2016 I interviewed The UK CEO Matt Davies and Group CEO Dave Lewis. I asked about this wasting of food for people living on their own. Last year I interviewed the then new Chief Customer Officer and questioned her on this issue too. She agreed with me and mentioned some of what they were doing. But seems they have a long way to go!

Ruth from RuthmakesMoney, who looked at Marks and Spencer, says “As I’m usually cooking just for myself, I find it hugely frustrating that it’s so often much cheaper and easier to buy a pack of items like peppers rather than buying them individually. It sometimes feels like waste is inevitable. I’d love to see supermarkets offering more items in smaller quantities, whilst cutting down on unnecessary packaging.”

Co-Op packaged and loose tomatoes "supermarkets under the spotlight packaged items cheaper than loose"

Supermarkets comments on plastic packaging

All the supermarkets were asked to comment on our findings:

Morrisons said “It’s not an easy issue as the plastic on fruit and veg also has the function of preserving it and avoiding food waste. We’re working through it” and  referred me to their statement on packaging.

Marks and Spencer said “On what M&S is doing on packaging and waste, we have a number of commitments and initiatives under way in these areas. (More details on their site).

Aldi commented “Aldi’s model is based on simplicity and efficiency, which creates operational cost savings which are passed on to customers in the form of low prices. Aldi does not have scales in its stores and loose fruit and veg is priced per item. Customers can purchase some of Aldi’s best-selling fruit and veg lines (by volume) in loose form including bananas, potatoes and peppers. Earlier this year Aldi announced a comprehensive plan to reduce plastic, including a commitment that all packaging on its own-label products will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022”

Sainsbury’s said “We’re focused on offering our customers choice, quality and value. We will offer fruit and veg without packaging where we can, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality and shelf life of the product. We’re also committed to ensuring our packaging is as recyclable as it can be and are one of few retailers to invest in recycling facilities at many of our supermarkets. In addition, we’re a member of the UK Plastics Pact and have committed to meeting collective targets by 2025.” (More details on their website).

Our colleagues also allow customers to use their own containers. As our colleagues explained in store, before we transfer the product to a customer’s container, we use a small amount of plastic to weigh and transfer the items for safety reasons.”

Tesco gave this press release.

Further comment on supermarkets and packaging obtained by The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail used this research in its article Supermarkets accused of punishing shoppers and asked the supermarkets for comment. Many of them said that the research wasn’t comparing like with like because some products were bigger than others! This is twaddle. Items were compared by weight! The reason I asked the bloggers to weigh everything was so that it WAS a fair comparison. (Rolling eyes emoticon!)

Lidl, get this, apparently said that they sell red peppers loose and the packaged ones were different colours! The price of a red pepper? 59p Pack of three coloured peppers? 95p So they are actually saying that a yellow or green pepper would be half the price of a red one?! They were all the same price in every other supermarket! Clutching at straws? And I don’t suppose they are environmentally friendly ones either!

 The most bizarre packaging of all?

Paper bag with carrots, parsnips and broccoli and the plastic bags that were added

 

This week I had my Tesco order delivered. In my order were parsnips, cauliflower, carrots and onions. Tesco uses brown recyclable bags for fruit and veg. For no apparent reason, they were all put into separate plastic bags inside the brown paper bag. I cannot fathom why? Any suggestions?

So what can be done about supermarket packaging?

In January of this year, Theresa May committed to the UK eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042. This target, more than a generation away, has been widely criticised by environmental groups as “lacking urgency”. UK supermarkets still pay less for collecting and recycling their plastic waste than in any other European country! Tax payers pick up 90% of the costs.

Most of the supermarkets have signed up to a voluntary pact, whose promises include removing “problematic or unnecessary” single-use plastic by 2025, making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, with 70% effectively recycled or composted and all plastic packaging to include 30% average recycled content. None of this is enforceable.

In March of this year the world’s first “plastic-free” aisle opened in the Netherlands. Launched by the Dutch chain Ekoplaza in Amsterdam, the aisle will offer over 700 products with no plastic packaging. UK consumers and campaigners are calling for UK supermarkets here to do the same, but no supermarket has agreed to do this yet. It appears to be consumer pressure that gets thing moving in the industry. It is therefore up to us, as consumers, to keep up that pressure and get the change that’s so clearly needed.

If you want to contact a CEO to tell them what you think of their policies you can find their contact detail on ceoemail.com.

How do you shop? Is the use of plastics important to you?

Bring about change with sweets