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Heritage

Early SOCAP

Selma Baum founded SOCAP UK

Digging in the dusty archive vaults, one file stood out because, stapled to the front cover, was the business card of Selma Baum, Director of Customer Relations for Saks Fifth Avenue, New York City, USA. The documented history of the first months of SOCAP UK had been unearthed!

Selma first wrote on 28 April 1984 (a typed letter, imagine – ah dear long gone days!) introducing herself as the chair of the SOCAP Task Force on forming new SOCAP groups abroad and how about the UK? Apparently, some months previously at a New York SOCAP US conference, she had ambushed Colin Adamson at a pre-dawn breakfast meeting and, taking advantage of his arriving late and confused, had extracted an undertaking that he would found SOCAP UK.

Chapter or National Organisation?

The first thoughts were to set up a London chapter which would have the same relationship to SOCAP US National Office as, say, the New York City chapter. However this idea was subsequently dropped in favour of a national UK SOCAP. There was even an outline of a business plan – 100 UK members at £150 = £12500 pa - enough for a secretary and 3 mailings.

The rationale for SOCAP UK was set out in a paragraph in January 1985 headed 'Why bother?' and it is worth repeating it since parts at least will resonate for SOCAPiE members today.

The First Rationale

"There is one simple thought behind starting up this association of professionals. Every company that has customers must have some sort of system of dealing with the complaints and queries of those customers. Companies are very committed to improvement but all too often their customer relations staff function in a limbo. They are often very cut off from other bits of the companies and frankly not that popular when they do turn up with the latest complaint. Outside that company, there is no medium for the exchange of experience; no sounding board to compare approaches and methods; no research or methodology available to demonstrate in a factual way the connection between what they do and the success of the company….. SOCAP UK will change all this and give those who deal with customers a new confidence in the importance of their job and new skills with which to do it".

Ring any bells?

Money and Friends

SOCAP US gave us $600 - very welcome at the time. We agreed to lower the sub from £150 to £75 to avoid scaring people off. We banked early subscription cheques from M&S and the Market Research Society on 3rd March 1986.

Money mattered of course, but the heartwarming part of these recollections was the amount of support and interest amongst colleagues for this idea. We formed an early steering committee with representatives from Sainsburys and American Express and of course the newly privatised British Telecom represented by Jan Walsh. Additional help came from the world of consumer affairs with John Hosker (former Deputy Director of the National Consumer Council and Director of the Market Research Society) and Marie Jennings then as now a campaigner for consumer information and representation within companies. Jack Craig from Boots came on board very early as well. He knew what we were about as he had served a spell at Boots Canada.

Support from Consumers' Association

Further support came from Consumers' Association (CA), the publishers of Which? Magazine who gave us the mailing list they held to communicate with manufacturers and suppliers of the goods they tested for the magazine. Rosemary McRobert, the Deputy Director, was happy for CA to play a role while taking care to avoid being seen as favouring any supplier simply because they were members of SOCAP. There is even a helpful note on the file from Jenny Fieldgrass at CA telling us "do bear in mind that we can down-load those addresses onto floppy disks and give you the floppy disks to load into your own system –thus saving you re-keying time." Imagine that – the sophistication of it all! However, we did not have the "IBM equipment" necessary at the time.

Legal Beagle Vets Constitution

Bill Thomas ex-CA and, for a long time, the Legal Beagle of the Jimmy Young show, vetted our constitution.

So, on to the first conference on 26th June 1986 – only 20 months since Selma's letter. The marketing was done, the venue booked and the speakers agreed.

The First Conference

A glittering array of speakers in a new glitzy venue – Jan Walsh hosted the meeting in the new BT building in Newgate Street with its soaring atrium with trees in it – a great novelty in those days. A reception was booked for 50 that evening in the original Financial Times office. The room cost £50 and the nuts and crisps £25 with a bottle of house plonk at £3.15 and a decent Beaujolais £5.57. Staff costs were £57. (Economists are offered the chance of seizing upon this data to show the relative rates of inflation of the costs of wine and people – wine down; people up. After enough wine of course, people down as well).

The speakers included Tom Farmer, the head of Kwik-Fit already renowned for their customer delight slant. Tom told us he had adopted this approach because he wanted his mother not to give him a hard time about being in the motor trade – a haunt of rogues and layabouts in Ma Farmer's eyes apparently. Michael Montague, Chairman of Valor Gas and the National Consumer Council, represented the consumer establishment in the UK. Nancy Noeske, President Elect of SOCAP US, represented the other side of the Atlantic and gave us a hint about how large power utilities could actually pay some attention to their customers. Ours of course were still state-owned monopolies at that time.

Brave Men

And backing them up were some very brave UK-based people ready to talk about their companies' service in public. They were managers of customer-facing departments in the Volkswagen Group, the Woolwich Building Society and British Airways. We salute them for their contribution – it was the first time in the UK these topics were aired in front of an audience of people working for other companies by practitioners. IIR went on to make a fortune from this but doing it for the first time – dirty linen in public etc etc – must have been scary. Herr Manfred Albrecht from VAG was particularly honest and forthcoming, such was the stunning frankness of his public remarks about the shortcomings of his company, early termination of contract seemed inevitable!

Lessons? Changes?

What lessons, if any, does this look at the past tell us? What has changed and what is still the same?

• A strong working relationship with SOCAP US (and the file shows we were already thinking about Europe) • A profession that needs to communicate with fellow practitioners and is always seeking ways to highlight the value of their contribution • Professionals that have stories of interest to share with peers across sectors, markets and countries • The need to improve reputation – how far has the motor industry come? • The importance of alliances with others such as consumer organisations • The need to meet and tuck into the nuts and wine and otherwise have a good time with interesting people.

Contributed by Colin Adamson, 16 January 2007

SOCAP in the United States - Pioneers and Leaders

"Many years ago people in the United States travelled to the new frontiers. In the 1700s the frontiers were the Appalachian Mountains: in the 1970s the SOCAP pioneers opened up the little known byway that was consumer affairs in business.

I've been asked to focus this short trip down memory lane on SOCAP USA, which is why I've taken the theme Pioneers because in those early days the first SOCAP members blazed the trail that defined consumer affairs for the foreseeable future.

What is a pioneer?

"A pioneer is someone who is willing and committed to go into unknown territory without a manual or a map - to take part in a course of action that leads the way for others to follow"

Leadership

The key to a successful wagon train was the captain or wagon master. The captain made strategic decisions that affected the whole caravan. SOCAP's captain was its Board of Directors, led over the years by an impressive array of Presidents whose names are etched in the frontier townships of SOCAP's history…………….Roger Nunley (Coca Cola) Nancy Noesky (Wisconsin electric) Meredith Fernstrom (American Express) Russ Schmuhl (Kodak) to name but a few. SOCAP's Board was made up of the gurus who were close to the corporate nucleus within their own companies, who had earned the respect of their peers for their unique experience and who could inspire leaders of the future. If the art of genius is knowing what to copy from whom and when, I am indebted to many of my fellow Board members for some (but not all!) of the leading edge programmes I introduced into BT at the early stages of my career in consumer affairs.

The Networks

The scouts or trail guides knew the routes for the destination of the wagon trains. They knew where to cross rivers, how to get through dangerous mountain passes, and how far the caravan should travel each day. They also helped the captain take care of the members of the wagon train.

SOCAP's great strength lies in its network - its scouts. Someone somewhere will have travelled the route on which you are embarking and, more importantly, will share their experiences - warts and all - with you. That spirit is alive and well today. Tom Asher, of Levi Straus, SOCAP's current Chairman wrote in his 2007 welcome address:

"SOCAP ultimately represents diverse personalities making an effort in many different ways to connect and help each other and their companies to be successful"

This network of relationships has been both my salvation and inspiration over the years and I cherish the enduring friendships that these pioneers of change have given me. If one past President (who shall be nameless) is reading this - I still dissolve into uncontrollable laughter when I remember the bath, the shoe and the champagne. (Don't ask……but please may I have the negatives!) And who can remember which SOCAP President wrestled a crocodile?

How far did they travel?

On many days the Pioneers' caravan would travel ten to fifteen miles. On rainy and muddy days they might only travel one. Consumer affairs professionals have encountered many a muddied path along the way. For example unenlightened companies that saw consumer affairs as a drain on the bottom line and viewed complaints as an unfortunate necessity that kept tetchy consumers at bay. Worst of all some consumer affairs professionals were way down the corporate pecking order and only came into their own when a disaster occurred. To a large extent SOCAP changed all that, developing a support and learning network that elevated the positioning of consumer affairs professionals within their companies. Bright , sunshiny days came along like those in 1979 when the trail blazing survey undertaken by TARP and USOCA (Technical Assistance Research Programme and White House Office of Consumer Affairs) that helped to turn negative perception of complaint handling on its head .

Software programmes were developed to analyse complaints and effect root cause analysis, marketing departments used the insights and trends from consumer research to plan new products and refine existing ones. And the consumer affairs wagon train forged ahead with the Bell telephone companies' consumer advisory panels that helped the companies to anticipate consumer concerns, avoid corporate /consumer battles and deliver goods and services of the future

The Board took an interest; privacy policies and other strategic issues were driven by the consumer affairs department, their information prized as a strategic management tool.

The caravan had reached its destination.

What Next?

The pioneers set up their communities in the prairies, growing their townships organically and embracing the prosperity that came with advances in transport.

SOCAP International has come a long way since those early pioneering days – but there is much still to accomplish.

Certainly it is an established, respected, financially stable organization but where is it going and is it truly international? "What's in a name?" you might ask. But it seems to me that if SOCAP aspires to true international status it needs to be more than a US organisation with independent international affiliates, and work towards the formation of a more inclusive international entity.

The 21st century has brought a very different set of societal norms and issues than those with which the early pioneers of the consumer affairs profession encountered. Who could have foreseen the explosion of technology that revolutionized the consumer affairs landscape?

But has SOCAP concentrated too much on the application of technology rather than on its enabling functions. Has it colluded in the de-personalisation of transactions by focusing so much on call centre functionality, product innovation and marketing? Has it lost sight of the "consumer" in consumer affairs?

This movement away from interpersonal to electronic contact spawns all sorts of social and trust issues which ultimately impact on a company's reputation and consumer confidence. And of course consumers themselves will use the technology to find creative ways to document what they see as corporate misbehaviour or neglect using the Internet as the medium to force greater transparency or to take vigilante action.

So maybe it's time to get back to basics and drive SOCAP's strategy by asking:

  • what are the key concerns of the consumers within SOCAP's member companies (consumer issues)
  • what are the key concerns of SOCAP members (the consumer affairs function)
  • What are the trends in consumer affairs now and in the future?
  • Which organisational structure will move SOCAP International forward and help it to meet these challenges?

And finally

SOCAP US was a key factor in the development of my early career in consumer affairs. Its learning networks were invaluable and it gave me access to a raft of academics, practitioners and consumer representatives across the United States that, at the time, were ahead of the UK game.

I travelled the length and breadth of the United States to attend SOCAP's conferences and Board meetings gaining a love of the country and its people in the process. And I made friends. Warm, precious friendships that endure to this day.

Thank you SOCAP.

Jan Walsh

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