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Consumers, you have a friend in business

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Yesterday (30.9.10) I chaired the launch of the Consumer Forum, a new group of high-growth SMEs that have come together around the theme of customer excellence.

Founded by Lovefilm CEO Simon Calver, the group of entrepreneurial business leaders believes that businesses are too often cast as “anti-consumer”. In Calver’s words, many businesses put their customers at the very centre of what they do. To be lumped together with large, faceless, inaccessible corporates is unfair and inappropriate.

Calver and fellow inaugural Consumer Forum members – companies such as GoApe!, Vertex, Ella’s Kitchen, King of Shaves, Photobox and ASuitThatFits – all accept that they are not perfect. Calver admitted that just last weekend he was emailing a customer directly who had had a poor experience with a DVD delivered to his home. However, the Forum believes that it can be an active and constructive group in showing that business can be accessible, sympathetic, responsive and authentic when it comes to the customer experience.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for Camden and himself a former SME business owner (he had a headhunting firm) welcomed the launch of the Consumer Forum. While recognising that new business-focused policies were likely to be delayed (along with everything else) until after the October 20 announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review, he reassured the SME audience by suggesting that the Coalition government would be minded towards a policy framework that accepted responsible corporate behaviour rather than a “know your rights” agenda.

Many of the founding Consumer Forum members are former winners of Real Business’s Growing Business Awards; indeed, two were former winners of our Customer Excellence Award. Much of the inaugural debate focused around whether companies should adopt a “total transparency” attitude towards customer feedback – GoAPe!, for example, publishes all customer comments, totally unadulterated, on its website. Another hot topic was whether, as they grow, the accessibility of SMEs (and their owners) really can be scaled. Will King, founder of King of Shaves, surprised the audience by saying that his multi-million pound business had one person dedicated to customer care – and she also does some other, part-time admin roles.

Mark Chapman, co-founder of Photobox, the online photographic business that has made the jump to mid-sized firm, said that: “there’s no escape when you’re an ecommerce business”. Customer reaction is swift, utterly open and sometimes merciless. 

Paul Lindley, founder of children’s food business Ella’s Kitchen, provoked much discussion with his request that investment in customer research receive the same sort of tax reliefs as investments in plant and technology.

This is clearly an influential group of businesses, sharing common values around openness and authenticity of customer interaction. It will be interesting to see how it develops and whether the undoubted strengths of the firms represented can be shared with some of our, ahem, less customer-centric larger and public organisations. Time will tell….

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