Losing the spark

Losing the Spark – Paul Timms, The MCSA Group Operations Director – May 2013

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Driving in my car the other day, I caught a programme involving Martin Lewis, the ‘money saving expert’ tearing into the CEO of the fledgling energy company Spark over a variety of challenging issues. These can be summarised under two headings poor customer service and dodgy business practices. It seems the CEO’s decision to go on the programme was ‘sparked’ (excuse the pun) by a rather uncomplimentary feature on BBC’s watchdog programme. This was his chance to fight back. Unfortunately Mr Lewis kept him on the ropes with a series of bludgeoning body blows. From the safety of my car seat I could feel myself flinch.

At the heart of the matter is the issue which we as consumer and business professional wrestle with on a daily basis. To what extent are we prepared to give up certain elements of a proposition, in return for a discount on the price? Unless, we believe the supplier is charging an unnecessarily high margin and can give us the same proposition for a lower price; that is what we must accept is the consequence of a lower price. So, for example, we can enjoy the Iron Man 3 DVD for £5 less if we wait until Christmas, or we can have 25 quid off a pair of Levi jeans at TK Maxx if we don’t mind having last year’s cut. We know the score.

However, while DVDs and Jeans may not exercise the buying brain too much, Energy and Telecoms come with an altogether different level of intensity. These are big, daily consumables where getting the best possible tariff can leave hundreds of pounds in our pockets. The problem is that if we have an issue, we still expect it to be managed appropriately. We want to speak to someone (a human being) who is a) empathetic and b) can solve our problem. And we don’t like to feel we are having the wool pulled over our eyes.  We are not prepared to compromise on basic standards and if we feel we are being made to, the frustration meter climbs rapidly.

Could I imagine myself ever going into the ring with Mr Lewis? The question intrigues me. On deeper thought, the idea makes me feel comfortable that our business is still holding true to the same high quality principles that Roger, founder and Chairman, instilled in his company 34 years ago. He decided from the outset ‘where’ his company would play in the market and it wasn’t in the cheapest price takes all corner. Over the years, we have seen the emergence of a number of lower cost ‘man in a van’ type competitors. They are based from home, operate without the support of regional offices, are keen, enthusiastic and well trained; at least they are once they’ve burnt their fingers on the customer’s kit a few times. They also can get you all the spare parts…so long as you don’t mind waiting a week or so.

In contrast we remain committed to experienced, suited and booted ‘engineers’, based in regional offices. Many of these have been with us from the outset and guess what – they really know their customers. They also know each other and never underestimate the value of knowledge sharing. If they themselves cannot perform a fix, they will know who else in the team can. Their daily operations are driven less by client SLAs and more by pride in their own professional standards. In the words of one customer:” We need them to be there when we call them….and they always are.”

This model cannot be the cheapest. It’s not where we want to be. Equally, it doesn’t mean we are not always striving to offer better value. But we do know where the line is and our clients would not thank us for crossing it.

In the enterprise IT support space, the value of saving a few pounds has been brought into sharp focus during the recession, raising the question; do we turn our back on a model that delivers for the sake of appeasing the procurement professionals or do we hold true to the values that deliver customer testimonials that fill me with pride?

Listening to Martin Lewis wiping the floor with his guest, I stop flinching and smile.  If putting your business into the ring with a customer consumer champion is a test, then I am happy we would pass. Then again, our ethos should ensure that we don’t have to step into the ring in the first place.