Dear Charlie…

Dear Charlie…

‘John Lewis is looking to “reinvent” its high street stores and significantly improve the customer experience following a “challenging year” that saw profit decline by 22%.’ Charlie Mayfield, ChairMarketing Week, 8 March 2018.

I must have spent half my life recommending John Lewis to people – but things might change. It seems that more than a few problems have arisen following the launch of a new centralised system to handle customer orders. Why? You’ve got it – to cut costs.

However, during the decision process, something (rather significant) appears to have been overlooked. Call me ridiculous, but I don’t think people choose to buy from John Lewis because they are looking for a bargain? “Never knowingly undersold” it may be, but this store isn’t known for being cheap. What the company is renowned for is providing quality and service.

My sister bought a house last year, which had unfortunately been kitted out from roof to foundations by a keen DIY enthusiast. Hence, all things needed to be replaced. New kitchen, new appliances, new bathrooms, new wardrobes, new bedroom furniture, a fully fitted office, new tiling, new carpets – the list goes on. And, guess where all of this is coming from.

My sister buys a great deal from John Lewis because, in her words, “You know their products will be good quality and you are guaranteed to receive a good service”.


Things haven’t gone quite as planned. I can relay this first-hand as I’ve been on the receiving end of each and every drama. My sister’s stress levels have been (justifiably) high – and pretty much all of this stress has arisen from the new centralised system.

In the old days, a few short months ago, when you bought something from John Lewis that needed to be ordered, made-to-measure, fitted, delivered, it was dealt with ‘in-house’. Namely, by a team at the store where you made the purchase. That makes sense. The sales staff, who spent time with the customer, getting to know them and their needs, making sure everything is just so, offering a personal service, would always be at hand to aid the process to a smooth, satisfactory completion.

Not any more folks. You can say goodbye to that. Now the process has been assigned to a remote team of call centre operators who’ve had nothing to do with the sale or the order, and frankly don’t know you from Adam.

I hope my sister won’t mind me telling you she spent about £27,000 on her new kitchen. It wasn’t the most expensive, but seems quite a lot to me. The service she received at the store in Reading was exemplary (I can vouch for this because I went with her). Equally good was the attitude of the kitchen designer, who “really took care”. But as soon as it reached the control of the new centralised system everything went to pot.

Example. Plan for kitchen delivery and fitting: Day 1 – fitter booked. Day 2 – appliances delivered. Day 3 – kitchen units delivered. Are we seeing a flaw here? My sister did. She rang them and hung on for ages (like you do with BT) before getting through to the call-centre to point out the schoolboy error. All noted, all to be corrected. Aha! – not so. The fitter turns up on Day 1 with nothing to fit (plus he knows he needs three days to do it). It wasn’t his fault. He was as helpful as he could be and kindly juggled his diary to squeeze in two x 12-hour days to get the job done (once he had something to fit).

Aside from the bedroom and study units, which were supplied and fitted through Reading’s ‘in-house’ team (just before the department was made redundant) problems escalated, efficiency went out of the window, and the call centre staff clearly couldn’t cope (one blamed the difficulties on the fact it was a such big order). And probably heading in total for the £100,000 mark, one might agree, it was a (very nice) big order.

With stress levels escalating, my sister confided in the Waitrose deliveryman (more John Lewis custom). “Write to Charlie”, he said. So she did. A “Dear Charlie…” email was sent that day at 11pm, a reply was received at 8.26am the following morning and a Director of Relations phoned before 10.30am. This is more like it. Thank you, Mr Mayfield. And the remaining transactions have been overseen by said Director to correct errors, delays and confusion caused by the centralised office.

Very good – plus demonstrating an attempt to fulfil the pledge to improve customer service. But there’s a key lesson to learn here. As in all cases of customer dissatisfaction, mopping up the mess can be expensive, and it will not take away the overall experience, which is what prompts people to spend money and recommend the business to others. Many people will see these John Lewis products – the house is full of them. And most will ask about her buying experience. That’s when the damage starts to take root.

So, “Dear Charlie… Please will you have a rethink about this strategy and how it may work in the customer’s interests. To ensure plans for change do not compromise the quality of personal service John Lewis has long been renowned for. You have a fabulous, well-respected business and we’d hate to see its decline”.

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