Why the time to worry in business is when your research says you’re doing everything right

With all of the worrying news on the UK retail scene (Comet, Jessops, now HMV) it makes me wonder to what extent management of these companies genuinely listen to what the great unwashed actually think. I fully understand the energy needed to turn around a business – I’ve lived through a few – but that’s no reason to ignore the writing on the wall.

I also believe the word of mouth soundbites travel faster than germs on the tube.

A true story over the Christmas period at a drinks party. The hostess came round with a plate of nibbles and a lady guest said “I won’t thank you now that I’ve seen where they have come from.” Within sight from the reception room was the kitchen with empty canapé boxes from Asda. Clearly our lady guest thought Asda was beneath her! I wonder how many other guests had second thoughts from assuming our vocal friend had insider information?

Having had a frustrating time with BT since New Year a friend told me to press the Yes button when asked if I would take part in research after the call. On my next call I did as instructed and two things happened; first the call was answered within 30 seconds (previous experience had been anything between five and 20 minutes) and, second, the first person I spoke to resolved my query without putting me on hold or transferring me to a different department. At first I just thought coincidence, until the next time and exactly the same thing happened.

So my guess is the head of BT call centres gets his/her feedback from people who have been fast tracked via the research button. They are bound to be positive overall as the service is good to excellent when the Yes button is pressed whereas if the No button is pressed the caller is put in to the ‘couldn’t give a toss’ queue. But this isn’t clever in the long term because the management are out of touch with what most people think/experience and who then pass this on to anyone willing to listen.

Over the years pitching for new business, a fast way of getting some intel on the prospective client is doing some voxpops on the street. It is a sure-fire way of getting some killer answers in normal language from normal people. We tend to over-think and over-complicate the information we get hold of, with people interpreting along the way. It can become like the WW1 joke about communication when the regiment under pressure sends a message: “Send reinforcements we are going to advance” and by the time it gets to HQ it has become “Send three and sixpence we are going to a dance.” My guess is this happens a lot in companies, big and not so big.

When Simons Palmer pitched for PlayStation we brought in a group of teenage boys to play different games consoles as the client team walked past on the way to the presentation room. Inevitably the client team stopped and asked the boys all kinds of questions before we began our pitch. Also Sony brought in its own teenage boy to the pitch and they asked him what he thought about our proposals. All this makes sense to me even though it is very unsettling, loose canons and all that. It would be like bringing in a bevy of grannies from Golders Green for a Honda pitch.

My more serious point is how does top management keep their fingers on the pulse of customers on a regular basis? At GGT we won the Morrison’s account and Sir Ken was on the case day in day out. He was a grocer and viewed his customers as his ‘research’. We developed a campaign with the line ‘More reasons to shop at Morrison’s’; which ran for a very long time but was dropped around the time Sir Ken retired. This reflected Sir Ken’s approach to grocery retailing which worked very well. He was a ‘hand’s on’ owner/founder.

One of the great turnaround stories is IBM when Lou Gerstner (left) arrived as CEO. He inherited a business in freefall with most commentators forecasting IBM’s imminent demise. His shift of focus was from a hardware manufacturer to a solutions provider. To make this work he needed to change the internal culture. One vital action was insisting the top management visited a customer every month to hear what was on their minds. This shift in positioning plus the change in behaviour/culture transformed the business. (Read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance).

With a recent client, no names I’m afraid, in the process of a turnaround programme, we realised that all of their research was confined to users only. So we asked the obvious question ‘why no research with non-users?’ Given non-users were/are a much larger group it seemed sensible to ask them why they hadn’t tried the product. We were eventually given sign-off on a large scale quant research exercise and most of the answers we were looking for emerged from the work. A bit like the BT example, their feedback only came from people predisposed to them and they had failed to understand why so many people rejected them. Addressing the reasons why people had chosen not to try the product had an immediate effect on business performance.

Voltaire said “Common sense is not so common” (Dictionnaire Philosophique 1794) which I’m going to misinterpret for my own argument! What he does mean is common sense is a personal view, a perception. In the wrong hands that can be dangerous but in a trained mind it can be useful. On every project I’ve worked on I have always been asked to give the client my early thoughts before they are coloured by more time with the company concerned. The reason is that first impressions are often the reality.

Further, on every project I begin I look for quick and dirty ways of getting feedback from people not involved with the company concerned. Recently a CEO told me his company scored 25 per cent spontaneous awareness, which I found very surprising. So I sent out an email to 100 people not connected to the company and the answer was only two per cent spontaneous awareness. One of us has the wrong, pretty basic, information. However it now looks as though my dodgy research is more accurate as their research was amongst users; that makes it look pretty weak to me.

My final comment is addressed to Marc Bolland, CEO of Marks & Spencer. Have a look at your Christmas TV work and then walk round your store. They are not the same. The TV ads show a place I find appealing, which isn’t true with your stores. So either make your stores like your advertising or make your advertising more in sync with your stores before the business becomes a runaway train. I know it isn’t as simple as that but it would be a good place to start.

The current risk for M&S is that people are attracted by the TV work, visit a store and are disappointed. Then they walk out and describe the experience to their friends and work colleagues.

You May Also Like

About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.


  1. A great read and so very true.

  2. I always enjoy Paul’s articles.
    And I agree with that last point about M&S but only to an extent. The ad might not be in sync with the stores but it is in sync with M&S online shopping which is excellent.
    Unlike the stores with the endless subrands scattered about, i dont have to trek to every corner of the shop to find, say, jeans – i can just search for jeans and there they all are.
    I already know the stuff will be of decent quality because we already get that about M&S so no real concerns or risk there.
    One click shopping, seriously ONE click, and the stuff is at my door 48 hours later.
    That’s an experience Marc will not mind me sharing with anyone.