Friday 8 February 2008

Let's discriminate

In the late 1980s I worked in the Human Resources Department of a large public sector organisation in the UK. At that time the British public sector was going through one of it’s regular competitions to see who could be the most politically correct. At the time the newspapers were full of stories of schools banning nursery rhymes like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because it was deemed to be racist and councils saying they no longer had manhole covers because that was sexist language. In fact almost all of these stories turned out to be completely false, made up by the disgraceful elements of the British tabloid media to sell more newspapers but it was a sign of the times.

Organisations like mine, when they advertised vacancies, would struggle to find reasons why they wouldn’t discriminate against you. Every vacancy advertisement stated that you would not be disadvantaged because of your sex, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability status or shoe size. Each week the list seemed to get longer and longer.

Now of course this is all perfectly good. We shouldn’t disadvantage people because of these things. However my objection was to the complexity of it. My idea to my HR Director was to turn things upside down, back to front and inside out and he liked it. For a couple of weeks all our advertisements stated that we WOULD discriminate. We came out of the closet as a discriminatory employer. Instead of being negative we listed all the reasons we would discriminate. There was only one. Talent. We only wanted to hire talented people. The rest really didn’t matter to us.

Well it didn’t last, there were complaints and we had to cancel the idea and go back to explaining that we wouldn’t discriminate against you if you had big ears, cross eyes or a strange haircut.

The general point was taken though. Discrimination is not inherently a bad thing. It just depends HOW you discriminate. Obviously people who discriminate against people because they are a particular colour, gender or status are scumbags. However we all discriminate in a variety of perfectly acceptable ways every time we shop. Every time we choose one store, one brand or one cute salesperson we are discriminating and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Smart suppliers are aware of this. Competition brings out the best in stores, restaurants and even media outlets. Persuading your customers, listeners or viewers that they should discriminate in your favour is a key component in any company’s business. I can think of two ways to do this.

The first is to be better than your competitors. Deliver a better service or product. Make your pizza the best in town, your steak the juiciest or your fresh bread the most delicious. Make your insurance policy the cheapest or with the best payout. Make your car the safest, the most economical and the sexiest.

This is the conventional approach that you see almost everywhere. Everyone understands this. If companies don’t then they tend not to last very long.

The other approach is to be different. Do something qualitatively different. Not just better but utterly different. I think that companies like Virgin Atlantic fit into this category. Yes, they are just another airline but they do things with a level of humour, friendliness and warmth that very few other airlines can match. Apple make computers that are just different to the everyday ones most of us are forced to use. Primi Piatti does more than just pizza and pasta. It does them so well that I think they are in a completely different category to the other pizzas you can get.

Being different can be scary though. So often you see companies losing that special something so they can be more obviously comparable to their competitors. We’re seeing that at the moment with our private radio stations. There was a time when GabzFM and YaronaFM were obviously, noticeably, tangibly different. They each focussed on a different community. GabzFM focussed much more on conversations, discussions and had a unique morning drive-time element but where has that gone now? Where is their difference? The thing that made them special?

Sometimes it easier to see the companies that are different. Last year we wrote to all stores that sell products on credit explaining to them that they were ignoring the law. They seemed to have overlooked the law that requires them to clearly state the total credit cost in any advertisement that offers something on credit. Only Ellerines responded properly, promising that they would change by February this year. However in the Advertiser last week was an advertisement from Beares doing exactly this. The full credit price shown clearly. OK, it’s not in “characters of similar size” but it is there so I’m not going to complain. Good for Beares and I’m looking forward to seeing Ellerines doing the same as well.

Such a shame about the others though. The ones who have completely ignored our letter and don’t seem to care that they are breaking the law. Wouldn’t it be terrible if we started discriminating against them?

This week’s stars!

  • Alice at Standard Chartered Bank Industrial Branch for great follow up. Apparently she heard a customer’s problem, phoned back 3 times to check on progress and assist the customer.
  • Tau at First National Bank Corporate Banking for amazing service.
  • Emelyn at Facilities Management Group for being a super star.
Phatsimo from G4 Security for helping a customer at an ATM when the power went down. The customer offered him a tip afterwards but he refused saying he was just doing his job!

No comments: