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Keep in tune with your customers

Big businesses strike a bum note with simon beales when they put him on hold with robbie williams

I'm in a bad mood - a very bad mood. I'm on hold to a man in India who seems incapable of taking my credit card details correctly, let alone helping me with my problem. I've spent at least three hours on the phone to Blackberry and Orange trying to sort out what should be a minor software difficulty.

As if keeping me waiting for an age during a particularly busy time is not bad enough, some bright spark thinks that subjecting me to a crackly Robbie Williams track will brighten my mood.

Neither company seems able to help, or is prepared to offer me any form of compensation for the inconvenience they have caused me. And, of course, as a loyal customer I am tied into a contract so I can't even walk away in disgust. Given the names of both firms you would hope they would wish to build a fruitful relationship. Instead, I'm the one who feels like a lemon.

All of which gets me thinking. Why is it that these companies spend a fortune on trying to attract new customers, yet they seem to care so little about looking after their existing customers? So much of their time and money is targeted at new shoppers rather than loyal, profitable customers such as myself.

I once read that a happy customer will tell an average of five people about their experience, but an unhappy customer will tell at least nine people. Surely if one of these high-flying marketing bods was to make a positive virtue of looking after their customers - rather than filling the pockets of adland's latest whizz-kid agency - they would see real benefits.

It's a topical issue for me, because I'm planning a small marketing campaign for the store. After years of talking about it we've finally committed to changing the name from Simultane to Sarah Arnett. For a couple of seasons now we have only sold our own label (but we sell other brands' fragrances and accessories) and it's a bit confusing to have the two different brands.

The difficulty is that I have to tell this new story to our existing customers and I've got very little budget to do it with. What's more, I'd like to attract some of our old customers back and even some of those who have negative feelings towards us (although hopefully not as negative as my feelings towards Orange).

Any business is bound to annoy a percentage of its customers. It might be a faulty product, a price issue, a problem with a return - any number of things.

My instinct tells me there are a few ex-customers in Brighton who haven't been in for a while, and I'd like to get them to take another look. I know, for example, that we have a reputation for being expensive. Brighton, despite the perception, is not a wealthy town. One of my tasks is to tell a positive message about what we do - unique and exclusive designs, beautiful fabrics, made in the UK - which will convince someone to spend a little more on something.

I also want to use email and the internet as much as possible. So I'm using our database, but will also promote a special offer to databases of companies with similar customer profiles, such as Mercedes Benz and Bang & Olufsen. This will sit alongside a more traditional PR and press campaign, plus a launch event and in-store information.

I might even think about an SMS text alert to a targeted audience. Let's just hope the customers aren't having the mobile problems I'm having.

Oh well, back to that awful music. Let's just hope it's not Robbie again.

- Simon Beales is managing director of Brighton independent designer womenswear store and wholesale label, Sarah Arnett.

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