Last week I had the good fortune to spend a proper stretch of time with one of the more fascinating and brilliant minds in the fashion and retail business. Millard “Mickey” Drexler has been a close acquaintance for nearly two decades and it’s always an education to spend a couple of hours with him.
As we chatted at my office about the general state of retail I found myself immersed in the most sensible conversation about the art of designing, manufacturing, service and marketing I’d had in a long time. In scatter-shot fashion the discussion darted from service (be responsive, listen to customers and make sure your staff know the product) to social media (do a good job in the first place and you don’t have to worry about managing digital conversations; the jury’s out on whether all those “likes” and fans really translate into sales) to industrial design (it’s important to be able to touch things; to connect with something).
After Mickey talked about real estate, expanding internationally and interviewed my colleagues about their favourite neighbourhoods in London, I started thinking about how I’d like to make him the dean of the Fast Lane Business School. You might recall my plans earlier this year for a special summer school devoted to hospitality and service. Quite a few readers thought I was serious and wondered where they might enrol.
Rather than just doing something seasonal I’ve been thinking that it might make more sense to set up a permanent school devoted to teaching the most basic courses in management, consumer relations and staff development.
Mickey would, of course, have a post. Branding wizard Wally Olins would be a regular lecturer. New York mayor Mike Bloomberg would come in and talk common sense in the refectory at lunchtime. And the Japanese entrepreneur Kazuo Inamori would offer moral guidance.
To kick off the term, everyone would have to attend a session called “Look Up and Listen: Yes, I’m Talking To You With the Headphones!” Designed to remind people about the basics of social interaction, I would co-host this special two-hour class with Kylie Minogue, who told me last week, when she popped into Monocle HQ for lunch, how she felt one of the great shifts in live performance was the blanket use of smartphones by fans and how they sapped some of the energy from the “liveness”. “If you’re busy looking at a screen and trying to snap a picture or record something, there’s a certain part of you that’s not ‘in the moment’ of the performance,” she explained. I suggested that the office place was not dissimilar – it is increasingly becoming a place where many employees are no longer “in the work moment” as they are plugged into their headphones and removed from the traditional buzz of an open working environment.
The second mandatory course, “An Uncomfortable, Unspeakable Inconvenient Truth”, would be dedicated to blowing up all of those things that have gone so terribly wrong in the past two decades thanks to ninnies in high-viz jackets, consultants who look at spreadsheets rather than the broader picture, and dreadful people charged with finding efficiencies. Rather than taking place in a classroom, this course would be taught in any number of grocery stores with automated self-service check-outs. In an instant, bright sparks in the class would recognise that customers would prefer to stand in line and wait for a regular person to scan items and take the cash rather than doing the whole thing themselves. I witnessed this at a local branch of Sainsbury’s at the weekend – 20 people queuing for two “live” check out people and no one interested in the woman barking at them to try one of the self-service units.
The third, and perhaps the most important, course, “Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are: Quit Hiding Behind Your Freaking Homepage”, would teach would-be managers and entrepreneurs why it’s important to be in contact with their customers in a rapid, personal way rather than blasting them through impersonal social media channels or making it near impossible to find a human voice to talk to. The class would start with a sea of desks, a few computers and telephones (both mobile and fixed lines) and tutors would ask students to track down customer service numbers via directory enquiry numbers and “contact us” links on homepages.
High marks would be given to those who managed to speak to anyone with authority to correct various complaints or mishaps without having to email details, go through a gnarled, tangly phone-tree or wait for a call back. The top prize, however, would go to the crafty student who could penetrate one of those brands that likes to come across all smiley (Singapore Airlines comes to mind) but does an exquisite job of keeping senior management far from the loyal customer. Summa cum laude to the person who gets the VP of an airline product company on the phone.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule