Headland in conversation with Lord Browne and Lord O’Donnell

Former BP Chief Executive and former Cabinet Secretary appeared in conversation with Headland Director Mike Sergeant to discuss ‘Connecting in the Customer Age’

In a time of rapid social and technological change, customers are empowered as never before.

How should businesses connect with society in this age of disruption?

How should governments design policies that engage taxpayers and reflect the way we actually behave and act as human beings?

To discuss these questions, two of the leading figures in British public life – Lord John Browne and Lord Gus O’Donnell – joined Headland’s Mike Sergeant for an exclusive event at the Royal Institution.

A key theme to emerge was the absolute importance of authenticity and openness in communication. Here‘s what the Lords had to say in their own words.

Reflecting on the findings of his recent book “Connect”, Lord Browne was very clear:

“The traditional ways that corporations communicate with people have to stop…It’s just not the way normal people would talk to each other.”

But it’s not just a case of obtuse language being mildly annoying. In an age when information is more accessible than ever, Browne said disingenuous communication quickly undermines trust:

“Anything that is slightly off-centre or not quite true will be found out very quickly.”

And to avoid any doubt, he was also clear that authentic engagement drives value:

“The market value at risk of a company if it breaches its trust with the public is 30% on average…The levels of engagement achieved by a company are directly related to its profitability.”

Both Lords agreed that meaningful engagement with customers is vital. However, they also acknowledged that understanding stakeholder feedback can be difficult in practice. Lord O’Donnell made the point that:

“Prices give you an enormous amount of feedback and information which you don’t get if everything is free at the point of delivery…In government, this makes trying to get customer engagement all the more important. We don’t have the traditional tool of customers voting with their feet since quite often they don’t have a somewhere else to go.”

Clearly corporations have the advantage of being able to respond to price signals. But the former Cabinet Secretary implied that having clearer data still only gets you so far:

“The private sector is collecting a lot of data, but they are really not yet that good at knowing how to use it.”

He made the point that marketing teams can be among the worst offenders:

“Marketing people have often worked on the basis of what people say – for example in surveys or focus groups -as opposed to data about what people really do.”

In a straw poll of the audience at the end of the discussion, an overwhelming majority voted that business was better than government at connecting in the customer age.

This result might be qualified by the fact that the audience consisted mainly of private sector marketers and communicators from national and multinational firms based in London.

In fact, even Lord Browne - one of the City’s biggest hitters - had earlier argued that:

“Corporate leadership is poor at engaging…They don’t understand what it takes to include everybody.”

This point aptly brought the discussion full circle, back to the question of authenticity. The former BP CEO continued:

“The most credible thing is not being lectured to, but being shown examples.”

And there’s one particular example of where action does not match up with rhetoric in either the public or private sectors: diversity. Lord O’Donnell was scathing:

“The private sector is so pathetic about employing women.”

At the same time adding that:

“The diversity of MPs is certainly not reflective of the public…I think there are some real issues in ensuring that our governing bodies look like the kind of people that might understand my problems.”

But according to Lord Browne, this is where external advice can add the most value for companies. In his words:

“Nobody is universally experienced.”

So what conclusion might we draw about ‘connecting in the customer age’?

The combined experience of two of the most eminent figures in British public life suggests that we should begin, paradoxically, not by thinking about communications.

Browne and O’Donnell believe it’s vital to consider our own backgrounds.

It’s by being on honest about who we are, and what we are not, that people and business can be authentic and tell their stories most effectively.