Editor’s blog: The dangers of getting tough

Two examples in the last week of nice, cuddly companies turning a bit harder as they struggle to cut costs and increase revenue. M&S has placed a 35-day deadline on its legendary no-quibbles return policy, and British Airways is going to start charging for the privilege of choosing a seat number.

Of the two, I think that British Airways is on far dodgier ground. Being able to pick your seat and avoid a nasty Ryanair-style scrum-down as you race across the tarmac and sprint up the gangplank is one of the civilised things about using what used to be the world’s favourite airline, as opposed to the vulgar low-costies. It was part of the service. And, although there’s a war on, customers still like being looked after rather than treated like cattle. People will still pay for something that makes their life easier or more pleasant. Price isn’t everything.

BA knows it will earn them some desperately needed extra revenue, because no family with kids travelling from Heathrow to Sidney wants the parents in 22B and 68C with the youth in 41D and 65E. So that’s another 160 on the bill. But it leaves a bitter taste.

As for M&S – well, they can never do anything without causing an uproar. That’s both the upside and the downside of being Middle England’s beloved retailer. Earlier this year – and I’ve no doubt to Sir Stuart Rose’s mild amusement – they got involved in ‘bra wars’ when they tried to add 2 to the price of extra large garments. They played that one very nicely by admitting they’d ‘boobed’ (groan) and backed down. All very nice publicity that emphasized how caring, fair and thoughtful they are. (Seems to me that if your bra requires nine yards more fabric than the next woman’s then of course it should cost more. But what do I know?)

Anyway, the 35-day return deadline has caused much consternation. The Bucks Free Press quotes a distraught Shirley Read, aged 53, who tried to return a floral dress but was told no dice because she was too late. ‘I was so upset,’ she lamented. ‘I don’t want someone else to go through what I had to go through.’ Well, try a few days in Darfur or Helmand, Shirley. I mean, come on. M&S’s problem is that some people think it’s so nice that it’s a charity or a branch of the social services – which it clearly isn’t. But that sense is why a lot of folk still go there rather than Primark or Tesco.

The lesson is that you have much more to lose if you’re a nice company that turns slightly tough, as opposed to a tough company that suddenly does something nice. If you are nice, you need to tread very carefully when altering what you deliver to your customers – people miss something much more that they once enjoyed than something that was never there in the first place. In technical terms, BA needs to be very careful before trying to convert all its Pareto losses into hard cash. When a Ryanair stewardess actually smiled at my rampaging two year old barrelling down the aisle this summer I was little short of amazed. I’d expected an on-the-spot fine for misbehaviour.

In today’s bulletin:

Boost for Government, as Q2 ‘growth’ better than expected?
Why is it always working women to blame?
Jessops survives – just – as HSBC takes pity on it
Editor’s blog: The dangers of getting tough
Public sector cuts competition – who’s won the bubbly?

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    The story with BA gets even better … they have mailed all Executive Customers regarding the change in seating policy however hidden in the multitude of fine print on their site is that they will now charge for sporting equipment from 7th October (http://www.britishairways.com/travel/bagsport/public/en_gb) Here comes the slippery slide to budget airline.

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    I have to agree with your sentiments here. It’s about premium brand values and it astonishes me that the powers that be at BA either haven’t consulted their marketing team, or ignored their advice. Or worse, the marketing guys don’t have a concept of what it means to be a premium brand. I’d rather not entertain that thought…
    Essentially, a lot of loyalty to BA will come from the fact that it is a cut above the rest and doesn’t resort to tacky, Ryan air measures to make a fast buck. As soon as they diminish the quality of their brand the only custom they’ll get will relate to directly to cost. Do they really want to start playing such a fickle game, where only the cheapest survive? I really hope not.

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    Having just returned from the Far East via Korea with Asiana Airlines – beware BA.!! They could run training courses for cabin staff at BA in how to treat customers – they even look smart too! As an airline – no tacky add-ons – just good service. Even the spoken English is entertaining! Mind you, with the Ed’s experience of a smiling and patient Ryanair staff member all MUST be changing – or maybe check your credit card statement for the fine!