UK: MAY I ASK WHAT IT'S ABOUT? - A direct line to the CEO may improve customer relations.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A direct line to the CEO may improve customer relations.

'Would you please put me through to the managing director.' How many thousands of irate customers have tried that one, only to be passed from pillar to post and fobbed off with excuses? If they could have picked up the phone and got straight through to the chief executive, might they have felt a little better about the company - perhaps that it deserved to keep their custom after all? And would that make it worth the CEO's while to break off from running the business in order to speak to a customer with a problem?

Motor service company Kwik-Fit obviously thinks so. Last year it spent £20 million on advertising the face and phone number of chairman-cum-chief executive Tom Farmer, inviting customers to contact him if dissatisfied with the company's service. Pret A Manger, the sandwich chain with an annual turnover of £35 million, puts CEO Julian Metcalfe's phone number and a similar invitation on every paper bag. 'To be successful, it's important to be accountable to the customer for your product - whether it's sandwiches or shoes,' says Metcalfe.

By contrast, Marks & Spencer, also in the sandwich business, redirects any comments on the quality of the chicken tikka sarnie well before they reach chairman Sir Richard Greenbury. 'Any customer who complains is referred to one of our specialists who can sort out the problem,' says an M&S spokesperson.

'If there was a major issue it would go direct to Sir Richard's PA, who would probably ensure that he followed it through with a personal letter of explanation.'

Callers can get straight through to Alan Jones, managing director of TNT Express UK, with no preliminary questions asked. 'We do a high proportion of our business on the phone, so it's important that we handle calls properly,' says Jones. 'It's very irritating for customers to have to explain to several people who you are and what you want.' He estimates that only three or four calls per day reach him directly from customers or suppliers. 'Any drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits of a policy which has become our unique selling point.'

Pat Howes, chief executive of Securicor Distribution Division - which also depends heavily on the telephone - doubts the wisdom of publicising a complaints hotline to the head of the business.

'In all businesses you end up getting time-wasters,' he argues. Nevertheless it's good PR, Howes concedes, for customers to feel that the chief executive is accessible. Anyone is free to speak to him on the phone, he claims, 'though in reality a complaint would have to be very serious to get through to me'. Indeed a degree of seclusion seems assured, since the switchboard says that it is 'not permitted to reveal the chief executive's first name'.

Metcalfe, at Pret A Manger, estimates that phone calls generated by his paper bag campaign take up 15 minutes of his day. But in any successful business, presumably, the time might come when the organisation has grown so big (like M&S), and the chief executive so busy, that he or she just can't afford to be accessible. Not so, says Farmer: 'It will never get to a stage when I won't take a call from a customer.' But even Farmer warns against overdoing it. 'It's ridiculous to advertise your mobile and home number as well as the office line,' he says. 'Chief executives have a job to do, and as long as there is a smooth procedure - so that customers don't feel they're being fobbed off - most people will accept that you can't be available all the time.'.

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