In the Caudwell era, Phones 4u sales staff fell into two camps: the aspiring entrepreneurs holding out for an invitation to appear on The Apprentice, and the reluctant sales staff who hated the hard sell. One of the main areas to define those who stayed and those who didn’t was ‘street fighting’. Those that stayed were naturals at accosting members of the public and converting them into sales, and those who weren’t comfortable with such tactics moved on.
Phones 4u has changed since the real hard-sell era of a few years ago, but it has been too little and too slow. Street fighting is an awful term that the company should’ve been ashamed of and keen to distance itself from. The reality is that a host of other sharp practices have lingered on at Phones 4u over the years, with head office appearing to turn a blind eye.
Reluctance to shed the hard sell appears largely due to two factors. The market has slowed from the relentless growth, making it difficult to give up on a proven approach. Secondly, the hard-selling style is so deeply woven into the fabric of the organisation that it is difficult to evolve with anything other than a root-and-branch overhaul.
The recent Ofcom investigation on mis-selling at Phones 4u has returned the spotlight on 4u’s reputation. It is all too easy to dismiss the complaints as scapegoating or blaming it on a few bad eggs. The truth is that a culture doesn’t emerge from the bottom up, but trickles down from higher up the chain. The pressure to meet sales targets throughout the business has not diminished since Caudwell exited, and with that pressure, middle managers through to store staff have responded with tried-and-trusted tactics that are, like it or not, still part of the Phones 4u culture.