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“Charge me the same, and give me great customer service. What’s so hard about that?”

I’m standing in a warehouse, listening to a member of the public say that every brand – every brand, regardless of product, service, size, revenue, profit margin, or set of values – should offer the same level of customer service as John Lewis. That’s John ‘Famous For Customer Service’ Lewis. That’s John ‘We Charge More Than The Competition And So We Can Probably Afford To Let You Return Something After The 28 Day Refund Limit Every Now And Then’ Lewis. I, with a remit to lob grenades, throw rocks, and generally just be a bit antagonistic during our discussion, point out that if everyone offered the same level of service then everything else would cost more too – that John Lewis’ commitment to customer service is both the cause and the result of its premium position in the market. So how about that, member-of-the-public? How about everything costing more so you don’t need to keep on top of your refunds?

“Nah, don’t agree with you – charge me the same, and give me great customer service. What’s so hard about that?”

The other members of the public are nodding. The clients in the room are nodding. My god, we’ve cracked it, I’m thinking. Here, on the afternoon of Act Don’t Act, we’ve hit upon, through the straightforward rhetoric of this average bloke, the Holy Grail of commerce. The alchemical process that will unlock growth. A license to print money. I blink in stunned disbelief. This will get us on the front page of the FT:

C Space Uncovers Foolproof Recipe For Success – Offer A John Lewis Level Of Service Without Raising Prices.

OK, so I’m scoffing so hard my head has nearly rolled off my shoulders, but when I think about it later… actually, what is so hard about that? So much of what we spoke about at Act Don’t Act was about uncertainty, but the consumers were pretty certain about what they wanted from you, the brands.

A good product at a good price.

Have values, say what they are, and stick to them.

Do what you say you’re going to do.

We all know the stuff that sounds simple is often the hardest to do. It’s easy to start picking apart the above. What does ‘good’ mean? What kind of values do people care about? How do we do what we say we’re going to do when customers don’t do what they say they’re going to do? And we get it – there are no easy answers. But spending the day exploring what’s on consumers’ minds showed both how important brands could be to helping people navigate the next few years; and how actually little time people spend thinking about brands. This is hopefully both pleasing and freeing. You can have a positive impact, but you aren’t top of mind all the time. It’s easy to think in our offices, agency or client-side, that people are thinking about brands all the time, scrutinising your every move unforgivingly, eagle-eyed for any lapse so they can crucify you on social media. That everyone is like this, all the time. That the only way to win is to not lose. I don’t feel Act Don’t Act bore that out.

I think it definitely shone a light on some of the things brands care about that consumers don’t, and want you to stop. Stop talking about trust, for one. Don’t take something that’s about the relationships between people and try to make it about people and brands. Same with ‘loyalty’. Same with ‘community’. Don’t try to insert yourself, either emotionally or through the data you hold, into people’s lives. Just… calm down a bit. Social media, loyalty data, tracking, Christmas adverts… it’s all got a bit much. It’s like going out on one date and then planning the wedding – any right-thinking person will run a mile. Brands like to think this is empathy, but it feels more like unearned emotion. Empathy is understanding their feelings and acting accordingly, and sometimes that might mean just doing your job and then getting the hell out of the way.

Brands have to find that balance, between what consumers want, what they think they want, what they say they want, and what feels right both from a brand perspective and (yes, we’re going there) a moral one. When to step in, and when to stay away.  If Act Don’t Act reminds you a little of ‘to be or not to be’ then go straight to the head of the class. Just as Hamlet struggled with the existential question of whether to exist at all, of whether to act on all he knew or do nothing, brands too must struggle. This isn’t pack testing. It’s heavy stuff, with possibly no right answer. Very few remember what Hamlet’s answer was, or even if he had one (spoiler alert – MacDuff kicks his head in at the end and everyone gets off the island). But the question he poses is one of the most widely quoted in the English language. So we shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question because the answers may be difficult – asking the question alone is reason enough. How can you make a positive difference in your customers’ lives? How can you show them empathy? Act? Or Don’t Act?

What’s so hard about that?

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