“The power balance between the customer or citizen and the business really needs to be redressed”

Following our ‘What does it mean to be honest and fair with customers’ panel on November 7th, we wanted to share the key themes that emerged during the event.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive, Citizens Advice “The power balance between the customer or citizen and the business really needs to be redressed”

During a wide-ranging discussion, it was clear that both panellist and participants alike felt fairness and honesty with customers is a choice a business can, and should, make. A key part of this is whose interests and needs decision-makers take into account, and with what priority and level of commitment.

The debate highlighted that when business structures and goals focus on short-term revenue targets it often results in decisions at odds with the customer, citizen or public good. In some sectors, particularly where choice is limited (by provider availability, such as with utilities), or where a monopoly exists (such as with transport options and digital services), opacity and customer dissatisfaction are common.

While different groups can hold businesses to account – investors, regulators, customer groups, and the media – the leadership decisions taken within a business are of the greatest consequence when it comes to the degree of honesty and fairness experienced by a customer or supplier. It is here that leaders can make powerful choices to either exploit or redress the asymmetries of power between business and customers.

It became clear, in discussion, that honesty is a relative term, with the deployment of honest practice ranging from: ‘not overtly or intentionally ‘dishonest’ to The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth. In between these poles are many temptations and demonstrations of integrity being flexible. Businesses are networks of people – humans, who choose to flex their principles, or don’t. What was apparent is that not lying’ is no longer an acceptable baseline. The omission of information has consistently resulted in the huge asymmetry of power with customers and this has to be addressed.

As panelist Greg Jackson, CEO, Octopus Energy said “The key is disclosing everything that is pertinent to the customer making an informed decision, not just what suits you as a company/helps guide the customer to make a decision you might prefer. The temptation to brush other things aside or omit things does not make business sense either – it just creates landmines in your future relationship.”

Three clear strategies for maintaining or testing honesty and fairness, and redressing some of the asymmetry of power in customer/business relationships emerged from the discussion:

Engaging with customers and actively encouraging communication

Alison Robb, a member of the Nationwide Building Society Exco team, leading People & Culture Community “Talking to people you do business with and the people who work for you – this is how you check you are adhering to your values. In terms of communications, a good test is do your staff understand it and how do they explain it to customers. If there is a difference between how it is written and how it is explained perhaps it can be simplified to make it as accessible as possible.”

Ensuring customers are able to access a business without barriers was a common theme of honest and fair business practice – not only when seeking redress, but consistently across all interactions.

A few simple question to help your business adopt this with your customers:

  • Question: Is this decision based on an assumption about your customers? Test: Have you spoken to the people involved/affected by the decision you need to make?
  • Question: Are you open to empowering customers and fixing their problems? Test: Would you be happy for your customers to have your CEO’s real email address?
  • Question: Can you simplify your communications? Test: Do your staff use the same language as your written communications when they speak with each other about a product or to a customer?

Being open to experimentation

Greg Jackson, CEO, Octopus Energy “Technology enables businesses to experiment – and try out ‘fairer communications’ or other ideas, measure the impact on the business and then roll it out for all more quickly. Gauging customers reactions is a key test of how fair something is and how transparent.”

In the past, a common push back against radical changes to customer service practice has been the potential impact on the business and profit margins. Recognising that many business leaders are still measured against short-term performance targets, such as quarterly earnings, the panel and participants discussed how new technology can empower an experimental approach.

Where can your business start?

  • A-B testing allows marketing and customer service departments to quickly test iterations of communications and gauge customer response, often in less than 24 hours

Enabling customers to become responsible

Jon Alexander, Co-founder, New Citizenship Project ‘The theory of change that informed consumers buying different stuff will drive business practice, the idea of consumption as a vote, is dangerously restrictive of agency’

Respecting the agency of customers as people is key to honest and fair relationships, but agency is impacted by quality and availability of information to empower individuals to make choices.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive, Citizens Advice ‘Consumer are asked to take on a lot of responsibility for driving change but have been given none of the tools to solve this‘

The goal of activating ‘more conscious consumerism’ does not play to human instincts to collaborate – the data shows that when we identify as a person, a householder, a neighbour, we act more in group interest and have greater trust in the collective, than if we are approached and described as a ‘consumer’. The language matters. Our discussion explored what role businesses could play if they aspired to be the arbitrators that help customers make informed decisions.

How can your business think about customer or social agency?

  • Thinking about the social contribution your company aims to make or your purpose – how does your customer contribute to this and do you make that contribution clear to them?
  • What choices do you expect your customers to make – is information they need to make those decisions available and clearly signposted.

Fairness is a huge topic, and in recognition of this Blueprint has partnered with the RSA for the third ‘Principles of Purpose’ event to explore this in more detail. We plan to produce a report and hold an event on 5th March 2019. If you’re interested in attending future Blueprint events, please sign up to our mailing list.

Thanks to our panelists Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice, Alison Robb, Nationwide, Greg Jackson, Octopus Energy, and Jon Alexander, New Citizenship Project. Thanks also to our chair Andrew Hill and hosts Howard Kennedy.

In case you missed it, here is Blueprint’s perspective on what it means to be honest and fair with customers