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the rioja revelation; a seasonal tale

Les Floggit left the sales conference platform on a personal high and to seemingly rapturous applause. They would all repair to the bar now no doubt to enjoy the remaining hours of their two day, three night break in Malaga far from the cold of pre-Christmas Britain. A five o’clock check in tomorrow would see them all hung-over no doubt, but for now the moment of triumph was his as he headed for his hotel room.

Showered and changed and with a room service meal inside him Les poured another glass of wine and reflected back on his conference closing speech. Oh, how he had roused them, telling of the synergies and strategic direction to come, the excellence of their customer service, the wonders of their products and of their triumphs in the two years since he had replaced the tired plodder who had preceded him.  He took a long drink of his Rioja and settled into the armchair, closing his eyes to try and recapture the adulation of his audience. Yes, Grabbitt & Screwem were going places!

He awoke with a start and opening his eyes found he was not alone; sat on the end of the bed facing him was a woman. She sat calmly in a smart business suit regarding him. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but he met so many people after all. “Who are you?” he asked, shivering slightly, for the temperature in the room seemed to have fallen sharply, “What do you want?”

“You don’t remember me then?” She said, rising from the bed and moving towards him, “How quickly you forget, for I was once your customer”.

Thank goodness for that, thought Les, for although he had little time for matters of the flesh, work being his only wife, he had had his odd moments on the road.

“I’m here to try and save you Les, because you are losing too many customers”

“No I’m not” snapped Les, “Well, maybe some, but only ones whose profiles don’t fit our strategic plans and we don’t need their sort of business; it doesn’t fit our preferred client demographic”.

“But why Les, why are they dumping you and going elsewhere? Let me show you something” and she waved he hand towards the large flat screen TV where a picture emerged of a family sat around a dining table. They all wore Christmas hats and had Christmas crackers on the table. Decorations around the room also confirmed the season of goodwill, but the mood at the table was sombre and the family ate sausage, egg and chips with little enthusiasm.

“What’s that got to do with me?” Asked Les as the picture faded. “They aren’t my customers; I don’t do B2C”.

“No Les, they were my customers, and loyal ones, but not anymore. My refrigeration system went down and I lost my entire stock of turkeys too late for us or our customers to do anything about it in time for Christmas day twelve months ago. We lost so much business that we almost went under two months later and were bought out.”

“Well retail’s tough you know, and”

“Yes, I do know” she snapped back, interrupting him, “but we went under because you let us down. You didn’t follow through on our service call because you had diverted resource to a new client, but you didn’t tell us; you let us think that your man was on his way”.

“I remember you now” said Les, “You had been giving us a hard time”.

“So why didn’t you listen to us Les? You didn’t want to hear bad news did you?” She waved her hand at the TV and a new picture appeared showing Les with one of his team at the office. They were sat at a computer and the graphics being displayed looked poor. Les watched his companion make a change and the graphic improved substantially.  Words were exchanged are the graph worsened just a little. The TV Les slapped his partner on the back and the screen went blank again.

“You know what you did there Les? You fiddled the figure, so how would you like me to “wave my hand at the big screen downstairs in the ballroom? Only this time with sound? You need to take notice of what your customers tell you Les, preferably while they are still customers, but even when they leave you you should know why. Yes, I may be dead, but consider me your ghost of customers past. Like all good ghosts I will leave you with the time honoured saying; heed my words!” And she was gone.

Les looked around his room and then picked up the Rioja bottle and read the label; 13.5%. Maybe another glass he thought, poured one, took a long drink again and topped up the glass.

“You think that you can drink your way out if this?” Asked a voice. Leaning up against the wardrobe were two men, one in a suit, the other in overalls. The man in the suit spoke again; “Let me introduce us. This is the ghost of employees past and I am the ghost of customers present. My friend here was the engineer who should have serviced your previous guest’s refrigeration plant.” “Yes” said the engineer, “I should have done the call at Greenland Foods, but we had just got that contract at Foots. I wanted to go to Greenland, but you told my boss that I had to stay at Foots just in case.”

Les looked at him; “You don’t understand; Foots was important”.

“So was Greenland” replied the engineer, “that would have been a good contract if you had listened to them, but you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t listen to us either, and any of us could have told you what needed doing. I couldn’t stand it, so I left”

Les stood and faced them. “Greenland wasn’t making us any money. I’m sorry that they went under, but it wasn’t my fault. They kept wanting to change the contract and we were well shot of them. “What’s your problem then?” he said to the other man, “you’re Thingy from Whatsit & Haddock. You can’t moan; you give us decent feedback”.

The Ghost of Customers present spoke: “Yes, I’m Ron Thingy from W&H. You are not a fool Les, but why act like one? You lost Greenland because you didn’t listen and you’re losing us too for the same reason. Yes we want to change, but we want to change because our business is changing and we need different things now. We are happy to pay the right price, but we’re not happy with what we get now.”

“Then why do you give us good feedback?” Asked Les.

Ron snapped his fingers and the TV came back to life, this time with the on-line customer feedback Les had devised. “Look at it” said Ron, snapping his fingers to page through the survey. “It is pretty much impossible to give anything other than good feedback to those questions. We could just not give you feedback, but then that wouldn’t matter for you would it? You don’t count the customers who don’t fill in the survey to make your figures look better and  just don’t want to hear what we say if it isn’t what you want to hear”.

“But” said Les, “we’ve just re tendered for your work”.

“You have” replied Ron, “but look what happened. You didn’t read our specification and just proposed to carry on what you do now which isn’t what we wanted. Then you turn up at the presentation and spend 20 of your 30 minutes delivering a sales pitch that we had expressly told you not to do. And as for answering our questions all you gave us was a string of management speak that was meaningless. When are you going to start listening?”

Ron looked up to respond, but he was alone again. He drained his glass and went to refill it, but the bottle was empty. He went to the mini bar and found some Scotch. Looking through the papers in his briefcase he found a note from the HR director mentioning how the payroll had been reduced due to several well paid and longer serving people having left or been fired. He had seen this as a good thing as lower overheads gave him scope to bid lower, but he began to wonder. So much that he held true was being challenged here and for the first time since his schooldays he began to doubt himself. He lay down on the bed and slipped from consciousness.

He dreamt that he was in a group of people. It seemed to be some sort of brainstorming session and some of the faces he thought that he knew, but as much as he tried to join in, he couldn’t, somehow he seemed to be invisible to the group; he could see and hear them, but they were ignoring him. He could only watch and listen as they talked about processes and how they could work together for mutual benefit. It began to fascinate him, and he began to get frustrated because he had ideas. He could see the answers, but no-one would listen.

A voice alongside him spoke and suddenly he was awake again and in his hotel room. A man sat on the end of his bed. The man repeated himself; “Hard isn’t, when no-one will listen to you?”

Les shook his head. “I may have behaved like an idiot, but that doesn’t make me one. I can see what all this is about, but how do I change? I’m going to look just as stupid if I start telling people to ignore what I’ve been doing, what I’ve told them, and all of what I’ve just presented. To say that it was all cobblers and I’ve changed my mind is career suicide.”

The stranger shook his head sadly; “Les, you are going to be out of a job soon anyway if you carry on as you are, but if you change the results will come. There is no shame in admitting to a mistake, especially when you can show that you have a better way.”

Les asked; “So what was that dream all about?”

“That was a customer forum that you had commissioned. It is next month, and the first session is a mixture of your customers and some of your company’s front line people talking about what they can do better for mutual gain.” The stranger explained. “It shows what is possible, but you could not contribute because you have no yet signed up for what it possible. You see I am the ghost of customers yet to come. I cannot predict the future, but I can show you.” He pointed at the TV and there appeared a well-known business correspondent who was talking about the remarkable growth of Grabbitt & Screwem, citing their customer focus as key to this success. On the screen behind the reporter appeared an image of a smiling Les, to whom the reporter gave credit for the change around.

“How do I start?” Asked Les, but he was once more on his own. A voice from his past came back to him, where one of his mentors had told him that it was lonely at the top, especially when it came to important decisions. There was something else too, something along the lines of big decisions being easy to make, but hard to do. He couldn’t quite remember the exact words, but maybe that was because he hadn’t listed well enough.

Oh well, he thought, I know what I have to do. He sat down at the desk in his room, all thought of sleep now banished, and began to make lists of how he would do it. His plans always had snappy names and he wondered what to call this one. As he thought his gaze wandered around the room and settled on the empty wine bottle. He smiled at picked up his pen, writing at the top of the page The Rioja Revelation. He had always believed that the New Year would be a good one. Now he knew why it would be.

With grateful thanks to Charles Dickens.

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