I got trapped in a cheese counter in Hong Kong once. I was due to give a speech the

following day, and thought I should get out of the hotel to have a wander and get a

sense of what was happening in the (pre-Covid) city. After 3.2 minutes in the

humidity, I reframed my adventure to checking out retail, in the blissful confines of

uber air-conditioned luxury mall, Times Square. I tend to adopt a method acting type

approach to retail research, but even as optimistic as I am, I knew that fashion would

be a folly (there must be some Germanic or Dutch heritage, combined with a

perpetual urge to prepare for a potential call to hibernate), so I headed to a shoe

store. My limp, frizzy hair and I were quickly relegated to handbag shopping, after

the assistant very politely laughed when she thought I was joking when I asked for

my shoe size. On entering each designer handbag store, I was graciously greeted and

offered a glass of water and a tray on which to sit my own bag, so that my hands

were free to roam. Upon leaving each store, the assistant who’d served me

(discreetly and impeccably) gave me a suitably weighted personalised business card,

thereby further professionalising their role and creating an opportunity for some

semblance of business relationship. It was slick and it worked well for all parties. I

was struck by how democratic the exchange was and that the option of having an

ongoing relationship with the brand was predicated on my choosing to contact them

(as against them bombarding my inbox with generic emails).

As we know, any self-respecting learning tour should include FMCG, so I walked

around a carefully curated and cleverly considered supermarket, City’Super. Whilst I

should have lingered longer with the exotic fruit and vegetables or even the

generous display of seafood and meat, my eyes were drawn to the cheeses. We

know what happened as I reached for my number while waiting in the very genteel

queue. When it became apparent that the dangly thing on my sleeve had

inextricably become caught at the top of the cabinetry, with my arm raised in a

perpetual reach for cheese (if ever you’ve wondered about the existence of the dark

arts / divine retribution / karma, here lies unequivocal proof), up to five members of

staff patiently tried to remove my sleeve trim without damaging it or me. When we

were liberated after a good twenty minutes, when one glass cabinet had to be fully

dismantled, the store manager approached me and apologised profusely and

sincerely for the inconvenience, as if the counter had attacked me. He accompanied

me to the cashiers, I’d like to think as the final act of ultimate service, but in

hindsight it may have been to ensure that I didn’t come to a prickly end with a sea


Service of any kind is rightfully celebrated if it exceeds expectations. Customer

service has become the favoured buzz topic in the last few years. Phrases like:

“customer centricity”, “customer experience” and “putting the customer at the

centre of everything we do” have been authoritatively touted and are as overused as

“unprecedented” during the pandemic. This of course begs the question of all of the

customer facing industries where this new focus is most keen – why the heck haven’t you had your customers in the front, back, side and centre of absolutely everything

you EVER do? The focus on efficiencies and a strong bottom line has meant

squeezing businesses until there’s nowt left but formulaic systems, leaving both staff

and customers bereft. Who are we and how would our businesses survive without

engaged, respected, understood and celebrate customers? As it ever were.

While good service in essence is an act of informed selflessness, respect and

kindness to strangers, it has to be nuanced. It has to evolve as rapidly as your

customers and their desires and need states evolve. It needs to be resonant in the

market or demographic in which you’re playing. This entails getting your tone right

at every single touch-point on your customer’s journey. In the most literal sense, you

get carried away by that beautifully welcoming trill, “bonjour madame / monsieur!”

when you walk into a French patisserie, which transports you to a place where

calorific deficit doesn’t exist. The efficiently effusive “irasshaimase!” yelled by the

chefs who welcome you as you enter a Japanese restaurant give a sense of

proficiency and the slightest hint that this isn’t the kind of establishment where you

linger. The hushed greeting, and carefully curated artwork and interior design when

you enter a professional services reception, give an air of discreet and informed

authority. The sausage sizzle at the hardware store of a weekend sets an authentic

tone and promises a “real” experience. When we launched NET-A-PORTER, I felt VIP

sounded too run of the mill for our most loyal clients, so I named them EIP’s –

EXTREMELY important people. That appropriately elevated the tone for both the

customer and the team. A few years ago, the Cotton On loyalty card read: I’m kind

of a big deal. It was a perfect evocation of the energy of the brand. The tone of the

invisible person at the call centre or on Live Chat determines the outcome as much if

not more than their message. Consistent and compelling studies confirm that people

are prepared to pay more for products if they know they’re going to experience

good service.

Of course, nuanced tonality has to exist in both the physical and the digital realms of

your business. Absolutely every touch point on your customer journey has to

consistently sing of the essence of your brand purpose. It’s easy to fall into the trap

of having a nicely designed but homogenous digital platform. Technology doesn’t

need to feel cold and formulaic – you can capture your brand essence by the

language you use, your imagery, the colours and the pace at which you’d like your

customer to experience your brand. It takes imagination to help shape and

distinguish your brand experience in crowded and competitive markets.

Service is my thing. I love it, I’ve given it, and I hope that I will receive it. Whether I’m

filling my tank with petrol, buying (appropriate amounts of) toilet paper, flying

across continents or lying back in a dentist’s chair, I have the full expectation that I

should at least encounter sincere civility at one end of the service continuum, and a

warm, attentive, informed and nuanced exchange and experience at the other. And

it’s not because I’m particularly precious or obnoxiously demanding, but because

time and money are precious commodities and that by choosing to spend both with

any business, that should be honoured with an experience that exceeds


Now more than ever, we need to create an authentic connectedness with our

customers. We need to understand and respect contemporary need states and fears

and ensure that our customers can experience exceptional service levels, via the

channel of their choosing. And like us, after the amplified ambiguity of this year,

people are re-evaluating what moves and drives them. It’s beholden on us to create

a community with our customers by giving them a service experience that makes

them feel uniquely valued and part of something incredible.

And if you’re wondering about whether I ended up buying the brie after Cheese-gate

– I did. I felt it would have been rude not to. No shame.