Seven Phones 4u directors took to the stage at Celtic Manor in south Wales last Monday (8 September), and one by one they spelled out reasons to be cheerful despite perceived wisdom that independent mobile retail is in a mess.
It was the annual rallying cry in front of 800 senior staff from 450 stores, as well as network and manufacturing partners.
The purpose, as ever, was to fire up the troops with good news about the last 12 months and reinforce the big messages about the Christmas run-in.
Trading conditions were acknowledged as tough, but Phones 4u trumpeted itself for outperforming the market and enjoying the biggest gains in market share.
The critical theme for Phones 4u over the last year has been a focus on customer service, with the new, softer feel even evident at the conference. Attendees described the atmosphere as ‘the new grown-up Phones 4u’; less macho and brash of previous years.
Over the past 18 months, the retailer’s senior management has attempted to move the culture beyond the hard sales and ‘results at any cost’ maxim that ran from the top to the shop floor in the past.
Tom Shorten, operations chief, said: ‘We’re becoming more rounded. If you think what the company used to be like, it’s a big contrast and a big change to make. It’s far less “the boys at it” now.’
In the background to these changes is Ofcom’s investigation into mis-selling at Phones 4u, which first emerged in May this year. The retailer knows it has to move fast to demonstrate that it has cut out the sharp practices that has given it a bad reputation in the past.
Shorten becomes bhangra-dancing sensation
It was, by any stretch, beyond his job description. Tom Shorten stepped up and filled the role of a dancing Punjabi cleaner.
The Phones 4u operations director was, for one night, one half of Britain’s Got Talent and YouTube phenomenon, Signature.
‘I found out at 9.30pm he wasn’t coming, and it was supposed to start at 10.10pm,’ said Shorten. He found a workman’s coat, a broom, but no turban, and joined the Michael Jackson-style dancer in what has been described as ‘a worryingly good performance’ by observers. ‘He was doing some incredible Bhangra moves,’ one colleague said.
Phones 4u’s annual conference was in full swing at that stage. Vodafone splashed out on a beach party hosted by Vernon Kay, after the presentations earlier in the day.
Store managers, head office staff and representatives from networks and manufacturers were in attendance. They had just seen seven singers across Phones 4u’s retail salesforce put on a special production after weeks of rehearsals.
One senior trading partner said: ‘Forget diversifying into mobile broadband, I think Tim [Whiting, CEO] could make more than a few quid in taking on Simon Cowell.’
The overhaul of the commission scheme for staff to place greater emphasis on service has resulted in three words that are now at the forefront of everyone’s minds: ‘net promoter score’. The score is based on feedback from customers about their experience in store.
Shorten said: ‘Moving to NPS has been a major shift for us. It has really changed how we operate and even think.’
Phones 4u also underlined its new Skills4Service NVQ programme and a new dedicated hour each day where all salespeople will put sales aside to focus on their product knowledge.
A new training and induction facility will open in the early part of 2009 at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham to replace the Yarnfield site near the company’s HQ in Stoke.
Store staff are also talking to each other now through an internal blog called ‘Let’s Talk’.
Shorten said: ‘It gives every employee a voice and to share information. Some of the best ideas come from the store guys.’
New store format for 4u
The company reflected on its 35 new stores over the past year, but said the next job for the year ahead was to modernise the existing stores, rather than carry out a big store expansion programme.
It acknowledged that the store format is beginning to look old and tired and, more importantly, not best suited to the direction it is going with more products.
The upcoming arrival of broadband and TV services from Sky and Virgin, as well as its recent laptop and broadband offers, has required a new approach.
The retailer’s current format involves a third of its floor space dedicated to ‘browsing areas’ of dummy handsets and the rest of the store full of seats and screens geared to transactions.
Shorten said: ‘We know we have to take the demonstration process closer to the customer and that may mean we have to eat into the transaction space. We have conceptual ideas at the moment. We are always going to have an assisted sale, but we just want to create a better environment for customers.’
Elsewhere, Phones 4u reflected on overhauling its systems and the acquisition of Dial-A-Phone that has given it more firepower in terms of volumes of connections.