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Published April 26th 2016

Industry Opinion: Scale Shouldn’t Be a Barrier to Listening, and Acting, Properly

What can established retail brands learn from ankle-nipping start-ups? Chris Owen discusses, from personal experience, what they should be taking note of.

This might be the worst kept secret in Christendom, but I have a thing about customer service and brands treating us with respect when we deal with them.

This extends to dealings over social platforms, where the need for personality is almost more pronounced because of the non-face-to-face aspect of the engagement.

What’s increasingly prevalent about this bugbear, however, is that more and more often the brands which treat their customers best are on the small size rather than the large.

The start-up…

Take last week as an example.

On the one hand you have a delivery of Nespresso-machine compatible capsules from the folk at Pact Coffee which, on arriving, turned out not to neatly fit our own machine and instead clunked their way through delivering a shot of murky brown goo.


I dropped the team a line and they responded with a heartfelt apology and an immediate credit refund on my account.

They didn’t ask for the capsules to be sent back first before crediting my account, but they did ask what Nespresso machine we have at home, so they can continue to refine the design of their own pods and avoid incompatibility in the future.

It’s a simple thing, but listening to feedback and taking it as support to your own innovation should be an obvious tactic.

If something doesn’t work it might not always be the consumer’s fault.

This extends to their social feeds which always reply and chip in when you mention them in comments or someone suggests them as a good source of coffee.

Great stuff. A lot can be learned from this.

…Versus the established

On the other hand to Pact, we have the (somehow profit making) British high street book and stationery shop WHSmith.


Now, to be clear, I in no way envy whoever has to handle their social accounts as this must be a Herculean task.

“Hi @WHSmith, why are your carpets so dirty?”

“Hey @WHSmith, any chance of getting your lighting to function properly?”

“Hello @WHSmith, what do you actually sell?”

However, you do expect a modicum of care when they respond to complaints.

This weekend I popping into a central London store to get some water, a chocolate bar, and – don’t laugh – some football stickers.

Aside from almost breaking the water bottle on the counter when the salesperson slammed it down after scanning it, I was then asked “Why are you buying these,? What are they for?” when I asked for the football stickers behind the counter.

I mumbled, “they’re for my nephew.”


What I really wanted to say was: “I’m basically a seven year old at heart. Collecting football stickers is something I can vaguely still get away with at 37, and I can always claim they’re for a small nephew if someone like you for some reason has the temerity to ask me why I’m buying them when quite frankly it’s none of your – or anyone else’s (unless they’re collecting and play swapsies) – business.”

But that was too long a reply and there was a line growing behind me.

So I tweeted WHSmith and suggested the staff don’t smash the goods their customers are trying to buy (I didn’t have space to fit in the sticker gripe), and got a ‘thank you, sorry’ in reply.

Fair enough I guess, but there was no character, no personality to it.

I appreciate that the larger the company, the higher the social traffic they must have to deal with, but that shouldn’t be the barrier to proper handling of enquiries, complaints, and thank yous.

Character and personality shouldn’t be the sole domain of the nippy little start-up.

In fact, there’s a case for the bigger businesses learning from such agile outfits, and adopting some of the best practice they’re demonstrating.


Chris is a regular contributor to the Brandwatch Blog. Find out more about M&C Saatchi by clicking here.

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