Mary Portas: The Real Voice of the Customer?

As a foreigner but a passionate professional in Voice of the Customer, I came across Mary Portas only a short while ago. The other day I watched her programme for first time; interestingly focusing on phone retailers, an industry sector that Fizzback has had plenty of experience in over the past 4 years and where we now service mobile telecoms clients that cater for approximately 75% of the UK market.

Mary Portas has a good point: most companies need to put more focus on the customer and be better listeners. However, I couldn’t help but to notice a few drawbacks to her approach and methods. I’m a stickler for details – given time I could produce a fuller list of observations – but in the interests of time, here are my main reflections.

1) Mary Portas is a HIPO. What’s a HIPO? A HIPO is the Highest Influence People Opinion; Mary was actually able to convince the Fonehouse to go down a particular path because of her prominent voice. Yet none of her recommendations were based on customer opinions; only on HER opinion. Because she is a HIPO (in the politest sense), her strongly formed opinions have the power to influence – but should never take credence over legitimate customer opinion.

2) Mary Portas is a mystery shopper. Within this simplest of terms, there are two fundamental problems:

a) She is not a real shopper
b) She is not a mystery

This is the classic problem with the mystery shopping approach; retailers develop a skill to identify them a mile away and after a few regular visits they can almost call them by their first name.
Hence, her observations are not necessarily based on real customer / employee behaviour, and her opinions are not representative of the whole complex & dynamic customer base. This is why companies like Fizzback exist: to understand the customer population & to listen to the voice of the customer - who don’t have a TV programme to broadcast their thoughts.

3) Mary Portas is too negative: When Portas goes into a store, she stresses employee behaviour she wants to change, but gives no recognition to employees on what they do well. At Fizzback, we help clients identify employee best practices to lead by example and develop a service culture. Employees love recognition and the outcome is motivation – its benefits are immensely valuable.

4) Mary Portas’ “facts” are unfounded: As I was watching her programme I was surprised to hear that many “facts” quoted had no context, lacked a source and / or didn’t provide enough detail to be taken seriously. Her programme mentioned that phone houses exhibit the second worst reputation after car dealers with consumers; a bold statement indeed. Conversely, at Fizzback we work with three of the biggest phone retailers in the UK market; and we can testify that their likelihood to recommend scores are not only higher than other industry sectors, but have also have increased by 17% over the past 2 years. The sector isn't ignoring the customer as Portas’ likes to suggests. Besides insight from Fizzback clients, recently published figures outlining industry benchmarks around likelihood to recommend place insurance and financial services considerably below mobile retailers and operators as a common source of consumer grievances.

So Mary criticised phone retailers for not listening to their customers but supports her assertions with hypocrisy. Who has she listened to? In her programme, Portas conducts pre and post “Mary” customer satisfaction surveys - but no details around sample quantity and quality were given. As I said at the beginning, I do believe she has a valid point, but is guilty of many of the things she bases her own criticisms upon. Maybe, if she is “really listening”, she will get back to me on this blog. 

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