/ Money, Shopping

What would you ask business if you had the chance?

Deputy director-general of the CBI, Katja Hall, wants your views to put to a panel of company CEOs at the Great Business Debate. How do you think businesses could build consumer trust?

As deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), I spend a lot of my time talking to business people and speaking up for business. Our mission as an organisation is to create the conditions in the UK where businesses can compete and prosper for the benefit of all of us.

Consumers play a key role in all of this: every business is its customers. By voting with their wallets, customers help keep businesses on their toes, encouraging them to innovate and strive to offer better choice and value in order to keep their customers and attract more.

Business hasn’t always got things right

Business in the UK has a great story to tell about the difference it makes overall – from leading the economic recovery, to the jobs it creates and the great British brands we’re all proud of.

But negative stories about business continue to hit the headlines at a time when public expectations are rising. Companies have not always responded quickly enough to address the concerns many people have.

Business cannot reach its full potential when it doesn’t have the confidence of its employees, local communities and importantly – consumers.

The Great Business Debate

Business men and women need to do more to engage with the ongoing conversation about the role and contribution of business. They need to talk about the great many things their companies do, but also address difficult issues – like whether consumers are getting a fair deal. That’s why the CBI has launched The Great Business Debate – to encourage business to do just that.

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be joining Richard Lloyd from Which? and CEOs from major companies to debate what more business can do to build consumer trust. A debate driven by questions from a live audience and you.

That’s where we need your help – we want you to suggest questions for our panel in the comments below. So what matters to you? Do companies really care? Is making profit at odds with serving customers? How real is competition? Would more regulation benefit customers?

What questions would you put to our panel about consumer trust in business? We’ll use as many as we can.

This is a guest post by Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI. All opinions are Katja’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


What would I ask businesses? It much depends on the nature of the business, but here are some general suggestions:

– Will your company be honest in its marketing, and not make misleading claims?

– Will you promise not to take advantage of having my contact details and other information for marketing purposes, even marketing within your company?

– Will you publish an email address (not a web form) that can be found from the ‘Contact us’ link on the website?

– If your business involves regular payments, will your company allow me cancel a contract if I am unhappy about a forthcoming price rise?

– If your company is a retail business, can I be sure that your company will respect consumers’ rights, such as the Sale of Goods Act?

– Will your company monitor the operation of customer services and monitor complaints made directly and published on websites and social media?

– If you are a manufacturing company, will you act responsibly with regard to safety (e.g. prompt recalls), ethical issues (e.g.avoiding exploitation of children and poor working conditions), environmental issues (e.g. avoiding sale of products that are not durable) and safety (of users and all involved in production, distribution and sale)?

These are just a few points that come to mind.


As Wavechange says it very much depends on the business. So most of this is aimed at those stores that call themselves Supermarkets. When in fact there’s very little that’s Super about the practices they employ.

Companies are very quick to tell us consumers things they want us to know, so will companies that manufacture and sell “shrinking” goods be equally as quick to point out when you’ve made a product smaller. We don’t need to hear your excuses as to why you’ve done it, as quite frankly we don’t believe you. We just need to know you’ve done it.

Unit prices:
The consumer protection against unfair trading practices 2008 has a very unfair clause in it that lets shops not display a unit price for goods on promotion. Can shops making use of this get out of jail free, sign up to a scheme whereby they will display a unit price on all goods.

Can shops displaying unit prices please try harder to use the same units for all products in the same range. And FYI Jaffa cakes are NOT sold by weight so you can NOT use per /100g as the unit, as its not valid, Tesco I’ve told you about that many many times. please get it right.

Made up examples pack of sausages sold per 100g, pack of 10 sausages sold per kilo. And yes I know its a simple sum yo convert BUT we shouldn’t need to. It’s even simpler to get it right in the first place and the fact you don’t speaks volumes.

Can shops selling perishables sign up to a code to stop selling multibuys. if you want to do a buy one get one free then just do 50% etc. It will help cut food waste. and allow people only wanting 1 or 2 of a product to buy what they need and not what you’re trying to shift.

Can you stop changing store layouts, we all know its to get us to walk passed more things so we’ll hopefully end up buying more but its a pain trying to find things. Just ask an online packer in Sainsburys whose system says the product is one place when its been moved and no one has updated the system. He is then moaned at for having his picking rate drop as he’s had to roll the store looking for things and when he’s raised it with management they tell him to update the system, which takes him more time and reduces his picking rate further. So please just STOP IT.

As you can see I have very little trust in supermarkets.


UK businesses of course put shareholders first, so maximising profit is one key aim. That is their primary objective. They also minimise tax by avoidance, put initial barriers in the way of consumer rights, profiteer from consumer apathy and ignorance….These are all legitimate (but some are immoral) in a private enterprise society. The key to a sustainable business is whether they cause damage to customer relations and thus are detrimental to the business. So far it seems not, and government appears unwilling to engage in any effective action. This may also be down to the cunning of auditors, incompetence or corruption within government and civil service circles, or simply the way of the world. It is an international problem, not a UK one.

The quandrary is how this culture can be changed. Business is the lifeblood of most countries’ economies and their members are far too clever, wealthy and powerful for regulators to control. So if we do accept that we will not change business ethos by regulation, perhaps only disenchanted consumers can change it by not doing business with them We need a far more powerful consumer lobby to mobilise consumers into action. How on earth can this be done – or, indeed, are most people simply prepared to live with business as it is and fight their own personal battles?

So my question to the CBI is, as you represent such businesses, what have you done to improve their practices and. indeed, do you want to do anything? Rebuilding trust does not mean pacifying words but effective action from these businesses. Personally I don’t see it happening – it is simply the way the world works. Consumers are the key – vote with your feet, push for more powerful consumer representation and take action; but it will need organisation to make for an effective voice to be noticed.

falkenna says:
16 February 2015

I, and I believe many others, agree with malcolm r, and I would add my voice to his. Except that, I remember when building a long-term future by serving customers was considered sound business practice, rather than riding roughshod over customers for short-term highest profits. (Or at least it was in the US, where I lived 30 years ago.) Therefore I don’t see current practices as inevitable, just shortsighted.

Thus I suppose a question could be, What would have to change for businesses to reverse the overarching trend – presumably the only way known to younger CEOs – to value profits to the near-exclusion of customers?


I will second what Wavechange, william and malcom r have said. Only positive action, no words, can restore trust in business.

Business is there to provide a good service as well as make money, not just bamboozle consumers poorer and poorer. The poorer we are, the tighter the purse strings, the more economy stagnates, the less money business makes. Everyone loses except the super rich.

Business could use publicity to advertise its positive actions, eg as per some of the examples above, “I’m a Utility Company and I have a proper email address my customers can use to contact me”, “I’m a Supermarket and I actively discourage wastage of food by doing this, this and this.” And keep the prices reasonably down. More people win, fewer people lose. And surely business still comes out with a tidy profit?

But how do we tackle greed?


I have watched a number of TV programmes where chief executives go under cover and discover how their business actually operates on the ground. They usually have a shock. They are appalled at staff working conditions, pay & conditions of service, contracts of employment, and the vehicles, equipment and premises provided. Very rarely do they seem to look at what the customer is getting. Do they care? Is the bottom line all that matters? – If sales are up, everything’s alright.

Bosses are consumers too; they must have similar concerns to those of us who use Which? Conversation to flag up deficiencies in products and services. Or perhaps not . . . maybe they are so well insulated by wealth and status that their company’s actual trading behaviour is below their radar.

So my questions would be :

:: Will companies demonstrate that they are trustworthy by listening to customers conscientiously, in a timely fashion, and with appropriate reactions?

:: Will they stop trying to buy our trust or loyalty through devious offers and rewards and go back to honest and ethically justifiable pricing, marketing, packaging, merchandising, and discounting.

:: Will they invest in product quality and durability, worthwhile warranties, professional sales performance, and technical support?

:: Will they sign up to the massive cultural shift that is required to give us faith in UK businesses and will they submit themselves to rigorous external scrutiny and engage with consumer bodies in a responsible manner?

Katja mentions “the great British brands we’re all proud of”; we have a perception that a large proportion of those have been outsourced to the orient or sold to foreign owners while continuing to trade under their old names. Perhaps the CBI does not represent those firms. But trust is a projection of recognising someone’s face [no one knows how this works better than the Chinese of course] and Bristish business needs to wash its face, and its hands, and come clean in the market place. Luckily the CBI has some members – not enough – who set a good example.

I would also like to identify some issues around compamies’ relationships with their suppliers that undermine our confidence. It all comes out on the internet these days so there is no point in subterfuge and exploitation. We have heard too many stories of firms who treat their suppliers like dirt on their shoes with destructive prices, unfair payment terms, unreasonable product placement demands, and threats of delisting. A lot of the UK population work for these suppliers, or have family and friends who do; it’s an insult to the ultimate customer to treat these mid-size companies and smaller enterprises with such disdain because if they fail then the whole country will fail.

Many of these “great British brands we’re all proud of” were built up by good men and women who had principles, a moral compass, a set of ethical values, and an overarching desire to serve us well; and it served them well – they prospered and got rich from which great benefaction flowed. I’d like to see a return to those values.

I am glad the CBI is holding this debate and hope it will be both ongoing and fruitful. But sadly for the CBI, every day [and today is no exception] one of its members disgraces the world of business with revelations that must make the CBI despair – yet we hear no words of condemnation or expulsion [for obvious reasons]. The change in attitude has to go right through to the heart of the business community and I hope the CBI will take this on board as well.

It would be nice to have some feedback from Katja, and even CBI members, as this Conversation rolls along.


I do not see any of the comments so far as being unreasonable. We often hear claims that consumers were treated better in the past but in some ways there have been positive changes. For example, we often have the opportunity to return products providing that we comply with the T&Cs.

There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with many aspects of how many businesses are operating. I have found it interesting to compare how I have been treated as a consumer with how I was treated when I was a business customer, buying goods via my university. In most respects, anything related to sales and technical support was superb. The only recurring problem was the very high cost of repairs and servicing. Spare parts were often very expensive but that is understandable for specialist products.

Sometimes I would love to be treated as a business customer rather than as a member of the public.


Business customers usually are more professional in their dealings and often generate repeat business so are on more equal terms with the supplier. Individuals are often one-offs, or their business on its own is not important to a supplier.


Thanks Malcolm. You have more experience of this than I have.

I generally had a great experience acting as a business customer/user even over a single item. The only time I get anything like the same standard of service as an ordinary consumer is when dealing with very small companies where I’m on first name terms with those involved.

Andrew says:
9 February 2015

I’d like to know why businesses are not being more vocal about bad practices in their sector of the economy.

Whenever you hear about tax evasion, product misselling or terrible customer service it’s always politicians or consumer groups doing to hard work. Businesses either ignore it, or copy the bad practices.

As a result, business as a whole gets a shady reputation and we get situations where the culture of business gets more and more toxic because people realise that you only succeed if you keep your head down and go with the tide.


“Whistleblowers” – a term that sounds a bit derogatory – should be encouraged in all sectors to report, in confidence, bad practice to appropriate authorities. We probably need to establish these independent bodies that can be impartial but with teeth. Then we might begin to clean up the worst of the unsavoury shenanagins that go on.

The revelations about HSBC helping wealthy customers to evade (not just avoid) tax on Swiss deposits have been helped by a “whistleblower”; pity HMRC don’t seem to have taken much notice. Maybe if we encourage an open acceptable culture of whistleblowing, the potential perpetrators of misdemeanours might think twice.


I would be happier with something like ‘inside reporter’, though whatever term we use, it will be synonymous with ‘whistleblower’.

I am fairly comfortable with this where there is a clear public benefit of uncovering a serious problem, as in the case where the Guardian published secret filming of problems in chicken processing companies. If it is an employee trying to get other employees into trouble, that is another matter.

The risk of being exposed is an obvious deterrent, so I agree that encouraging reporting could help avoid serious cases.


I think that there is quite a distinction between inside or undercover reporter compared to a whistleblower. It takes courage to be a whistleblower as there are both morale and teamwork restraints to be overcome. An undercover report is after the story and has no ongoing relationship with other workers.

Currently I have concerns over an organisation where I know that the Directors are behaving badly however I do not wish to damage the reputation of the organisation. It is not easy to decide if the organisation would be best served by the harsh light of publicity to clear the infection or to walk away, or continue to make pleas to get the Directors to heal the situation.