For all the importance of smart strategy, sound finance and engaged employees, a business won't survive for long if it doesn’t satisfy its customers' needs. That’s why many companies throw millions each year into focus groups, soporific online surveys and social media polls to tap into what customers have to say.
Sally Bailey, former CEO of White Stuff, prefers a more personal approach to customer feedback. During her nine year spell at the high street fashion brand, which saw turnover grow from £13m to £113m, she created a personal customer panel of 20 loyal brand enthusiasts, whom she regularly consulted over important decisions.
"I had their personal phone numbers and email address, and they had mine. If I had a problem that I needed a different perspective on, I could just call them," says Bailey. "It was a relationship built on loyalty rather than payment or reward. We asked people on Facebook, and we’d offer them lunch or some free clothes. But they genuinely wanted to help the business to do well because they wanted to buy more nice things there."
She first introduced the concept during a three year stint as brand director of a pre-Philip Green Miss Selfridge. "As a boss you know an awful lot about the ethos and mechanics of the business, but you’re not a day-to-day customer. Having a deeper, more personal relationship with some customers is really helpful to know how how they're feeling or how to make it easier for them to shop with you."
Bailey recalls a particular conundrum around the stocking of a marijuana cookbook as an example of the panel's value. Though White Stuff’s gift team pushed the item as a popular Christmas novelty, there were a few customer complaints, so she consulted the panel.
"They told me ‘Sally, you’re a family brand and this isn’t funny for some people whose families are affected by addiction’. So in the end I took it off sale."
But the insight extended far beyond decisions over frivolous pot-inspired publications. Bailey says she often consulted the panel over expansion plans. White Stuff built its reputation in boutique, independent high street locations, but started to open branches in shopping centres after the panel said that this would make it easier for younger parents to shop there.
Bailey was never tied to the decisions of the customer panel, and took great care to ask the right questions. "I would never show the customer panel a skirt and ask whether they think we should stock it, just for their opinions on it."
"It complimented other typical feedback methods, but it gave an extra insight into how we could make the lives of our customers easier, and that’s the same whether you’re selling clothing, equipment or insurance," says Bailey.
"If you can fulfill that need and customers happily share more information about themselves, it leads to an exchange of ideas and opinions. People generally like having their opinion asked of them, even if you don't take it."
Bailey left White Stuff in 2013. Among other ventures, she is now the chair of Pilotlight, a charity that connects business leaders to charities in need of strategic support.
Image credit: Filip_Krstic/gettyimages