/ 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?

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

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.

Profile photo of william
Member

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.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

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.

Member
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?

Profile photo of Sophie Gilbert
Member

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?

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

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.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

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.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

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.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

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.

Member
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.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

“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.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

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.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

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.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

Interesting comments from Francis today on whistleblowers in the NHS, and the bullying and threatening tactics used to deter them. Independent bodies are needed that can accumulate information and treat it in confidence to put a stop to that. If people who commit misdemeanours, are grossly negligent , incompetent or whatever know they may be held to account then perhaps they will think twice about their behaviour.

We also need to take sanctions against such people. It is staggering the people directly involved in the Rotherham child abuse have been given similar positions of authority in other public authorities. What sort of message does that send?

The same sort of culture pervades some businesses.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

With the dirt being dished on the Daily Telegraph regarding its HSBC coverage and HSBC’s threat to withdraw its advertising one has to wonder how the CBI can square the circle. That the main owners of our newspapers are tax exiles if not a foreign corporation controlled by Murdoch one has to be thankful that any news reaches us.

P.S. This weeks Private Eye has quite a lot on the Rotherham scandal and the people of interest. Also the plight of whistleblowers including the one abandoned by the BBC and left tp fight alone.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

The CBI and trust in business. Its an interesting concept but would the British public do better to have less trust about British business and its practices?

The CBI is the major lobbying group for British business and claims to represent firms employing millions of workers. However it itself appears to be not as transparent as one might wish in how it operates and the claims it makes.

” There is a great deal of uncertainty over who the CBI represents. In January, the Telegraph reported that the CBI had 24,000 members in Scotland, employing 630,000 people. (3)
On April 23rd, the Scotsman reported the CBI’s claim of 24,000 members in Scotland, yet said this amounted to 500,000 employees.

This is vastly different from available public information, which can only identify fewer than 100 members based in Scotland.
CBI Scotland council member Anthony Rush admitted that he did not know whether CBI Scotland had any more than 100 members. (4)

A previous investigation found that the CBI has only 1,800 member companies in the UK as a whole. (5) The majority of CBI members were trade associations. ”

A little vagueness over membership numbers but then there is also political action and if you read below you may think a lack of honesty. This kind of behaviour where Council and executive act without due process or exceed their powers is not uncommon in charities and non-profit companies.

” The CBI Director General John Cridland, live on STV’s Scotland Tonight programme on 25th March, claimed he had a mandate from members and the CBI Scotland Council. There is significant evidence to suggest otherwise.

Terry Murden, the Business Editor for the Scotland on Sunday, said:

“Twice [Cridland] refused to say either yes or no, his evasiveness giving the impression that there had been no consultation. His answers deserve closer scrutiny.” (1)

Tony Banks, Chairman of Balhousie Care Group, Chairman of Business for Scotland and previous a CBI member, was not made aware of any consultation.

He has called for the CBI to produce evidence of consultation, such as board minutes or a motion supported at board level.

The CBI in London claim that there were “soundings” of membership through an unidentified process. No evidence has been produced to this effect. Clearly the 20 resignations or complaints in Scotland suggests that members were not consulted on the policy and campaigning activity or informed of a pending registration.

On Wednesday 23rd April, Terry Murden reported that his sources in the CBI confirmed there had been no council vote on the decision to register or even a discussion. (2)”

I thought I would take those snippets from the website for
businessforscotland.co.uk/business-for-scotland-challenges-the-cbi-to-come-clean/
to illustrate that perhaps the greates thing the public would like is for a real degree of honesty and if someone is lying then they do not occupy any important position in an organisation.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

In its annual report, the CBI describes itself as “the UK’s leading business organisation
and speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses of all sizes and sectors which together employ around 7 million people, about one third of the private sector workforce”. Its income from members subscriptions is just under £20m, so about £100 each, but I expect the subscription is graded by company size.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

The figures you quote are the total if you include all the trade bodies that are affiliated to the CBI. Or as Wikipedia says:

“The Confederation of British Industry is a UK business organisation, which in total speaks for 190,000 businesses,[1] made up of around 1500 direct and 188500 indirect members. There are 140 trade associations within the confederation who, alongside those direct members of the CBI, employ 7 million people, about one third of the UK private sector-employed workforce. The National Farmers Union with its 55,000 members is the largest component of the 188,500 indirect members the CBI claims to speak for.”

The fuss last year was really that the CBI became a political body without reference to its members and needed to register to spend up to £150,000 on a campaign. Whatever the rights and wrongs of devolution a non-political entity should abide by its constitution and if it wishes to change follow the correct procedures.

An example of “trust” being thrown away for expediency which is what business is about.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

So it might be argued that, in respect of its membership composition, the CBI’s annual report is not telling the whole truth. It apears that it only has around 1640 organisations in paid-up membership. It is a good idea for trade associations to be members of the CBI because it assists them to further their interests in combination with others with similar concerns or objectives, but I question whether this particular kind of pyramid building might be designed to exaggerate the CBI’s mandate – many companies are members of trade associations for specific commercial reasons and to facilitate collective bargaining; to say that all the individual employees of these trade association members are represented by the CBI is akin to how the Labour Party used to regard all the members of its affiliated trade unions as being of one voice under the ‘block vote’ – a practice always criticised by right-wing elements of the body politic.

It was courageous of the CBI to embark on this issue of trust in our businesses. It is at the root of the relationship between people – whether as customers, employees, suppliers, investors or commentators and external parties – and commercial organisations, and at the moment the foundations of that relationship are not exactly rock-solid and certainly require some strengthening. It is probably the case that only the CBI has the leadership and authority to pursue that effectively.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

I see from an old Friends of the Earth research document “Hidden Voices” that the biggest group of direct members then was lawyers and consultants. ” The largest single group is consultants
and then lawyers. In total, more than 500 CBI members (well over a quarter) can be classified as business services or consultancies.” page 14

Remarkably then and perhaps even now members were not allowed to know members of the various committees. The report did receive some information from an honest businessmen of two committees memberships.

Insidentally that fuss in Scotland over the CBI and campaigning:
” the Scottish Independence Referendum Act makes clear that this application should be signed by an organisation’s secretary or someone who acts in a similar capacity. Mr Cridland revealed last week the decision to register had been made at an “operational compliance level” and had not been approved by the CBI board.
The CBI took legal advice and on Friday announced it was seeking to have its application declared void. Mr Cridland said the commission’s decision to do so removed any doubts about the political impartiality of the CBI.”

I am beginning to think it is the CBI’s reputation that is being salvaged by mixing with Which?

Member
David C says:
10 February 2015

What is the CBI’s position on government subsidising staff wages for large corporations. A good thing or a bad thing?

In free market terms is it right that shareholders directly benefit from Government subsidies for companies paying low wages to staff when Government has to “top up” what the staff earn? Or does this undermine free market economics

Should the government simply stop “topping up” low wages with Tax Credits and let the market take care of the effects?

Profile photo of william
Member

Maybe the government should publish the names of companies and what %age of their staff need benefit top ups because they’re not being paid enough. Naming and shaming seems the best way to get companies to do the “right” thing.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

I support David’s approach if it is clear that tax credits are subsidising low pay rather than low incomes [i.e. due to part-time working].

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

Nice idea William.

Use of adverse publicity to let people avoid companies with dubious pay or work practices would be quite a weapon for consumers to deploy.

Profile photo of william
Member

Which leads me to some other questions “Why do some companies need to be named and shamed before they do the right thing?”. “What is the culture of senior management that they use working practices that run that close to the edge of decency?”

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

william, many companies are such anonymous bodies that the naming and shaming are pretty meaningless. How many companies are named and shames and carry on just as before? HSBC seems a current example.

The culture I suspect is partly money, partly to be seen by your seniors to be a clever operator, partly to outdo your peers. partly to make your job secure. These are people like many of the rest of us who seem to have a Jeckyl and Hyde syndrome – very nice family people in their spare time but caught up in a corporate culture when they get to their desks. Perhaps as an extreme example, like killing and mistreating people in a war, something they would never contemplate in private life. Just obeying orders and not the guts to follow your conscience?

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

I think perhaps the idea logically should include the Directors and the Senior Executives. If you think how much exposure J Lo gets or a Kardashian why can we not elevate businessmen to a similar notoriety – sorry I meant fame.

Just around Christmas the French authorities fined several well-known multinationals* about Euro1.2bn for stitching up consumers by fixing prices for various household goods and cosmetics.

Previously in an EU case major firms* colluded on clothes washing liquids. You may all remember the smaller more concentrated liquids being brought in – but despite them being cheaper the major soap firms colluded to prevent any price war and to maintain market share. Even to the extent that the market leader would signal price rises.

Generally firms get charged but I note in Australia they have also charged cartel guilty executives which seems a splendid idea.

The notion of trust I think may work with small firms with a local presence but when you talk of multinationals the concept seems ludicrous.

* Unilever , P &G, Haeckler, L’Oreal , Colgate-Palmolive and more

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Member

We’ve had some questions/comments on Twitter:

Naomi Milward: Will they listen to customer concerns &provide an apology when they’ve made errors?

Tony Malone: Why do you feel you are worth 100’s of times more salary than the staff you employ?

Lee Beaumont: If a company has fantastic social media support then that’s what makes me trust them.

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

I was listening to a parliamentary select committee yesterday quizzing energy comparison site CEOs – USwitch, GoCompare, etc. One or two MPs were sayng quite aggessively – “and will you apologise”. Well, whilst I’m not quite sure what they had to apologise for, because the topic was getting commission for undertaking the switching process for the customer, if they get it wrong I don’t want an apology, I want a statement of action taken to correct matters.

We hear far to many apolgies and “lessons will be learnt” – easy get outs – and not enough positive plans for correcting matters that can be monitored.

Profile photo of Beryl
Member

Most of my sentiments have already been well and truly aired but to add one or two more:

What can the CBI do to alter the negative ‘Rip of Britain’ image to something more positive?

When will consumers receive fairer prices and more transparency in the service industries?

Why do CEO’s receive huge payoffs for failing their own company?

Why do companies insist on promoting loyalty vouchers and points when consumers would prefer reduced and fairer prices? There is no such thing as loyalty in British business anymore than there is a free lunch. ‘Loyalty’ only stifles competition and deters consumers from shopping elsewhere to find a better deal?

Why is the Sale of Goods and Services Act not honoured or not understood by sales staff and why cant management take on more responsibility for consumer complaints?

Why do CEO’s remain so detached in their corridors of power from their employees on whom they rely?

And last but not least, what can British Business do to put the Great back into Britain?

Profile photo of malcolm r
Member

Beryl, we are becoming still more a nation of shopkeepers than ever. A recent birthday gift was a stainless steel cafetiere from a Sheffield firm (the home of stainless steel) proudly declaring it as “carefully made.in…….China”. A M&S thermal vest made in……China. However a Krups electric milk frother was made in….Germany. If they can do it, why can’t we?
I believe two sectors are keystones of an economy
– manufacturing, keeping our people in employment and profits in the UK, and
– research and development that through our industry and universities provide the innovations for our manufacturers in the future.

What does British Industry need for this to happen?

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

What Britain needs is industry, which like the Germans, is not in hock to the City of London which sell off our firms to foreign companies.

The German model is family dominated medium sized firms working together with banks who have an interest in the companies. In the UK new firms most of the time have to raise cash from the City who extract as much as they can during a fund-raising.

If you like the Germans appreciate the value of production whilst in the UK it is the manipulation and generation of money that makes their world go around.

I am by nature a conservative and have read widely on City corruption – even before the fixing of LIBOR ; and the German economic miracle. I have sat in meetings trying to arrange an equitable raising of cash for a small company in the City so I am not being fanciful in my analysis.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I would not be surprised if the milk frother was assembled in Germany from components made in China. The reason why so many products sold in Europe are made in China and other countries is largely down to cost. M&S carried on making clothing in the UK longer than other high street retailers. The last thing I bought was a coat made in China. I suspect that we would have to get rid of the minimum wage and stop worrying about health and safety if we wanted to compete with the far east. Fabulous salaries for directors would have to go too.

I believe that the higher education sector has a lot to contribute. We tend to think of home students paying £9k per annum towards the cost of their education as a lot of money but international students pay much higher tuition fees (EU students count as home students). Taught masters courses can be quite lucrative. Like all students, overseas students spend a considerable amount of money during the time at university. Universities make use of many local contractors and suppliers. During the long vacation, empty student accommodation and teaching facilities is often used for conferences and meetings, not only international research meetings but companies doing their own staff development or attending in-service training arranged with the universities. The impact of universities on the local economy is most obvious when they are outside city centres. A considerable amount of science research is funded by UK and overseas companies, and both parties benefit in different ways.

I see universities as our hidden economy and whereas manufacturing in the UK has declined, universities have grown.

Profile photo of John Ward
Member

A large number of the top UK companies work very closely with universities on research and development projects, on supporting relevant educational programmes and degree courses to develop the next generations of industrial, commercial and managerial talent, and on endowing new buildings, facilities & equipment, and teaching & learning resources. Some very large companies, however, make no mention of any such initiatives or activities in their annual reports; they are happy to recruit graduates and I think there is an opportunity there for the CBI to exhort its major members to get into a two-way relationship with one or more of our higher education establishments for their mutual benefit: it will enhance the company’s competence and access to advanced skills, and it will enhance the university’s reputation as a respected and academically-significant institution. As Wavechange says, there will be many other spin-offs, including vital international ones on which both parties can capitalise. Perhaps in the past companies have been wary of ‘knowledge’ and universities have had an aversion to ‘trade’. This ismay no longer be the case but more could be done.

Historically, many of the UK’s ‘red brick’ universities sprang out of technical institutes or single-trade colleges relevant to the industries and manufactures of their locality, and the founders and benefactors of those establishments were often the leading industrialists and business people of their day. The structure of business has changed out of all recognition but there could surely be a return to some of those alliances that would reinforce the relevance of higher education to the prosperity of business and the value of business support to the academic reach of the universities.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

One of the examples of the cooperation between universities and industry, mentioned by John, is government funded via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. BBSRC CASE Studentships support graduates studying for a PhD, working on research projects of benefit to their industrial sponsor and their academic supervisor. In addition to the normal research council grant, the student will receive a contribution from their industrial sponsor and the opportunity to spend some time working in industry, the experience depending very much according to the nature of the joint research project. Typically, the research student and academic supervisor would sign a confidentiality agreement with the company.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I suppose it is inevitable that we have collectively given business a vote of no confidence but it’s human nature to concentrate on the negatives.

I don’t want to continue to berate business but one final request is for some feedback to our comments posted on this page. Please.

Profile photo of Katja Hall
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I’ve been really interested to read through these comments so far – there’s some great points here and I’m looking forward to putting some of these questions to our panel.

I think feedback is a great idea and I’d like to come back to you after the event on the 25th to let you know what our panellists had to say and to reflect on the points raised. We will be tweeting throughout the event on the day @bizdebate, if you’re interested in following the discussion live.

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Katja,
What companies will be represented at the debate?

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AJ – Richard Lloyd and I will be joined on the panel by representatives from E.ON and the Guardian Media Group. We’re expecting lots of other companies from a wide range of industries in the audience who will take part in the debate.

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Thanks for keeping in touch Katja. I wish all guest contributors would do the same.

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Given the HSBC scandal and HMRC’s supine position and resultant public disgust it seems that the CBI has perhaps chosen a bad time to engender trust in business.

Unfortunately by coming to secret deals with the devious and not publishing names the HMRC has cast the shadow of suspicion across a vast array of people, including business leaders. Perhaps the CBI could come out and ask for names of the guilty to be published. Massive amount of kudos for the CBI.

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As has been said publicly, there is nothing illegal about having a Swiss bank account and nothing illegal about avoiding tax (have you got an ISA?). What is illegal is not declaring income that is taxable, or constructing schemes that hide your income or assets from tax – tax evasion.

Those who are found to have evaded tax should all be made to repay it to HMRC (us) with significant penalty payments as a civil matter initially – quicker and cheaper than going to court – and they should be named. HSBC members who have connived in constructing tax evasion schemes should be criminally prosecuted, along with those who gained significantly from such schemes. No fines though (these are just business expenses), there need to be custodial sentences and/or bans from practising banking or being the director of a company. This maybe would act as a deterrent to future misdemeanours.

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There was an interesting discussion about individuals’ attitudes to tax avoidance earlier this week – You and Yours, Radio 4, available on iPlayer.

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The discussion was held on 25th February. When will we get feedback on the points discussed?

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I watched part of the select committee on HSBC vs HMRC . HSBC had no effective remorse – blamed it all on Swiss secrecy laws so the only people held responsible were the Swiss managers – not the board members that oversaw them Seems a strange business as regards accountability.

As for HMRC, it would appear they had a reasonable response to the questions asked. Briefly the data given to them by the French came with the restriction (by Treaty) that they could only use it for tax purposes and not disclose it to any other authority. Without that it seems difficult to get the corroborating evidence necessary for more than a few prosecutions as the data was incomplete. It seems HMRC did examine all the data before referring 3 to CPS, of which CPS pursued one, successfully. The French have now relaxed the terms of disclosure and HMRC can now share with other bodies to see if further evidence exists to support evasion, fraud or other criminality. £130 M of tax, interest and fines has so far been recovered.

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Jane M says:
14 February 2015

If the major supermarkets are concerned about the expansion of the so-called discount stores such as Aldi and Lidl, they only have to look at their own practices. They are continuing to sell products at 2 for 1 etc. My husband and I cannot eat multiple packs of fresh produce in a week which cannot be frozen. While the major shops continue with theses unfair practices, I shall continue to shop at the discount shops where the fresh produce is fresher than at the other stores and is delivered daily. The big stores still haven’t seen the light!

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A. Stephenson says:
14 February 2015

Well here’s my opinion. First of all, the CBI itself should be honest. The truth of the matter is that the CBI does not represent ‘business’ – it represents BIG business. BIG business, for example, wishes Britain to remain in the EU. Small business, which is very much the larger proportion of British business as a whole, wishes to come out of the EU. That’s the main difference – there could be others.

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David says:
14 February 2015

What I would really like to see stopped are so called sales that really are not sales at all, especially in furniture stores. It is obvious that 1 £999.99 settee in a so called sale was not originally £2,000.00.

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I want to ask why businesses are so interested in getting new business and so disinterested in retaining repeat business. So often insurance renewal is more costly than opening a new account. But that takes a lot of time re-entering all the same data again. Having played this game for too many years I found another insurer where the renewal price was less than the previous year (and less than the company I had been given the run-round 2 years back). I have transferred all of my insurance to this business.

I should also ask why businesses only ever ask my views (by a real person) when I’m phoning to cancel an account. If they want to keep my account why not have a chat with me from time to time. The likelihood of my being interested in discussing their service when i’m so irritated that i am cancelling the account is remote.

Why do business request that i engage with them in an on-line survey and then present questions which are so bland and non specific as to be worthless.

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Many interesting comments. Perhaps we should not trust any businesses! We should all apply “Caveat emptor”. We should focus on improving education particularly in educating our children in the ways of the consumer world and the value of money and how to manage it. Which? should continue its work of educating us in what is “best buy”. In the end businesses will loose if they are not honest in their dealings with consumers.
I would like to see serious breaches of consumer law be laid squarely in directors laps. They should be personally fined as well as the company. That way shareholders and directors get hit.
To get back to the original question, businesses should just try being honest and upfront with consumers, not out to con them. This applies to product quality and marketing techniques. It also applies to their dealings with suppliers. Suppliers need to be tougher with big businesses and make sure that they write into their contracts “payment in 30 days or pay interest.” If all suppliers did this as is the norm in Germany then fewer small businesses would go bankrupt.

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Back in the 70s/80s we were sold the idea of capitalism as good for consumers as competition brought down prices. While this is true to some extent, our version of capitalism seems to have developed into one of charging as much as possible for a product, tying-in consumers, encouraging “upgrades” and failing to take responsibility for problems arising. I am aware this applies particularly to the technology sector and mostly companies based outside the UK but many others follow suit.
• The EU has tackled issues like roaming charges because competition wasn’t effective.
• Utility companies have been shamed into reducing prices.
• Supermarkets use their power to treat their suppliers with disdain changing prices and contractual agreements when the supplier already has commitments.
• Price increases are always passed on quickly but reductions are slow to be applied. Similar for interest rates, though conversely for savings.
• A product that should have a lifespan of 10-20 years is given a 1- or 2-year guarantee and may have built-in obsolescence. Companies do not seem to believe in their products beyond a year or two.
• Insurance companies and banks offer better deals to attract new customers but will not automatically offer those lower prices to their existing, “loyal” customers. Consumers have to do the time-consuming work of comparing deals on products (that I suspect are often intentionally made dissimilar to deter comparisons) and changing companies as we can no longer trust the ones we have used for years.
• I rarely have the option not to have my details passed on to other companies (the default is usually in the company’s favour) and we are obliged to accept terms and conditions detailed in copious small print (which we don’t read) before we can proceed with and online purchase.
• We are annoyed with junk mail and marketing phone calls despite TPS.
• Companies take our money instantly but a refund can take up to 28 days.
• Although we can open a bank account online in minutes, we have to write and post a letter to close it down.
• We (and perhaps more particularly parents) have to accept the marketing pressures pushed their way.
• There is little sense of responsibility from the finance sector following 2007 to the small “businessman” overcharging for shoddy work.
It all gives a sense of unfairness and everything being in favour of the business and against the customer. I have no problem with companies making a reasonable profit but if a company is making excessive profits then surely they are ripping-off their customers. Perhaps we need a definition of “reasonable profit” so we can see how companies fare on the scale.
A lot of contributors so far have put forward good (in my humble view) comments and questions. John Ward made a very good point regarding “good men and women who had principles, a moral compass, a set of ethical values, and an overarching desire to serve us well” but it seems that once a company has reached a certain size it really is all about maximising profit, knocking out competition and, regretfully, using its power to beat down everyone else, including its customers.
My question is this: when will fairness for those who don’t have the power/influence/money (for litigation), and particularly for consumers/customers, be brought into the purview of businesses?
My concern is this: the CBI doesn’t seem to be a likely organisation to turn things away from the many businesses they represent (in so many sectors) towards the consumer. From their website: “The CBI is the UK’s premier business lobbying organisation, providing a voice for employers at a national and international level”.
I welcome, and look forward to, Katja’s offer to feedback following the event on the 25th.
Caveat emptor.

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There are good aspects of capitalism, such as competition between companies, which can result in improved services and lower prices for consumers. Unfortunately we now seem to have a considerable amount of corporate greed and exploitation of existing customers.

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I agree entirely with both of your sentences, wavechange. My posting should not be read as anti-capitalist by any means. We are, effectively, being asked what is wrong from a consumer perspective.

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Wavechange – Input cartels into your favourite search engine and see how many have been prosecuted this century in Europe. The most recent being in France just before Christmas involving a whole host of well-known multi-nationals dealing in household goods and cosmetics.
Cartels can be incredibly difficult to prove so I would guess more goes on than ever reaches the courts.

Until such time as the Directors of companies face prison terms the defence to everything will be is it is our duty to run the company in the interests of shareholders. That the interest coincides with the Executives pay increases is understood.

The increase in worker safety with the change in the law may very well indicate the benefits of removing Director protection and concentrating their minds:

” A catastrophic accident caused by a toppling crane not only resulted in the tragic and avoidable death of a worker but also criminal liability and a fine of £80,000.00 for a Director of the employer (now in liquidation), evidencing that, when it comes to major breaches of Health and Safety, it’s not possible to hide behind the “corporate veil”.
The accident in 2007 happened when the deceased, Richard Thornton was crushed under a 50-tonne crane because the crane was too far away from the steel column it was lifting. The prosecution of the company and director was on the grounds that :-
the work had not been planned and carried out safely
the crane had not been properly maintained – it’s alarm was not fit for purpose and, crucially, override switches were also faulty. Had such switch been working it would have prevented the lift in the first place due to the overload.”

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Dieseltaylor – I looked up cartels when I posted about the historic Phoebus cartel concerning light bulbs. Some large companies have been fined. As you say, cartels can be difficult to prove and we may see only the tip of the iceberg. I now dislike the term ‘reputable company’ and would prefer to use ‘well known company’ because you would be hard pressed to find any large company that has not come in for considerable criticism. I suspect that the consumer would be better served if we had fewer very large companies.

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As I understand it there is a subtle difference between a cartel and tacit collusion in that a cartel is a formal agreement between companies to price fix and tacit collusion is an informal agreement when a market leader will fix a price and the others (usually a select few large operators) follow suit when it is more difficult to prove any wrongdoing but nevertheless can stifle competition.

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Rob Cumberland says:
15 February 2015

I’m astonished that business needs to ask how to re-establish trust. Is it not clear that mis-selling is wrong? That weasel small print and bad terms of sale are a problem? That failure to deliver and poor quality goods and services are what lost trust in the first place?

Where’s the secret? Do consumers really have to have to describe obvious ethical practices for business leaders here? Isn’t this the whole problem? We’re all human, we’re all consumers. Surely business leaders know as well as anybody else how to behave with integrity. Why don’t they do it?

We know profit and competition are not a problem. Many businesses make money and compete without s******g customers. Sadly regulation to safeguard consumers will always be necessary and has been since the first miller added chalk to his flour.

So my question is simply this: what does business expect to gain by acting as though they don’t understand the problem?

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Falkenna says:
5 March 2015

This sums it up beautifully, Rob. I hope that there is a real intention here to improve things, but it is a little hard to believe and appears a bit Polyanna.

While consumer rights have in the past been viewed as something of a liberal/left cause, over the years I have found Which? to be very much within a consumerist framework of “Buy more, buy better, have fun with expensive toys, we just want things a bit clearer and safer”. In other words, to me the magazine and many of its subscribers would appear to be proper conservatives, if not Conservatives. This is not the place for a value judgment on this; I only mention it here to say I am a bit shocked at the strength of anti-big business feeling expressed in this forum, and suggest to Katja that it indicates very serious problems indeed, which should be viewed as a wake-up call.

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Robert C says:
16 February 2015

Purchasing goods and services is very wide ranging, from a music download to a physical item in a local shop. I suppose 2 things spring to mind:

a) is it clear what I will be getting – clearly described/labelled and fit for purpose ? (so a DVD player that fails after 13 months and costs more to repair than buying a new one is NOT. If it was labelled “will need to be replaced in under 2 years” who would buy it ? ) If they want to sell me an expensive extended warranty, I will take note of the warning !

b) most of us would not want to export jobs unless essential – so of course oranges are grown in warmer countries, but why are call centres overseas? It is particularly important when things go wrong – our first reaction is we want it fixed. Explaining to someone in a busy call centre while all they do is read a script (again) is no help. I want to talk to someone who understands, listens, and then takes action based on their understanding. Also I want some consistency – if I call back I want them to know the history. Good customer service call centres, would help rebuild confidence when things go wrong. (after all, is the company expecting a lot of problems ? If they are dealing with a lot of problems, they should solve the cause not export us all to press 1 for this and 2 for that )

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We live in a very uncertain world and as more of our industries are bought by foreigners and moved abroad, we seem to be very reliant on the rest of the world for too many things.

So my questions would be:

What are businesses doing to source and promote British products?

If our country was cut off from the rest of the world tomorrow, what are businesses doing to ensure we can be self-reliant.

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I’m also suspicious of a company that has outsourced (aboard) many of the jobs undertaken by its workers but yet still has all its expensive directors.

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Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this thread – it’s great to have had so many responses. As promised, I’m following up now that we’ve held our joint CBI/Which? event. There is so much here and we took as much as we could back to discussion, making sure that the key themes were raised. Some of my key reflections:

The theme of transparency came through in many of your comments and ran throughout our debate. For example William said, “Companies are very quick to tell us consumers things they want us to know. But, for example, would companies that manufacture and sell “shrinking” goods be equally as quick to point out when a product is made smaller? We just need to know you’ve done it.” At the event, we had a really interesting discussion around transparency on the panel and what we really mean by that. For me it’s not just providing the right information, but calling on the business community to be more open and up for constructive challenge and discussion about what it does and how it does it. Big or small and regardless of sector – we all need to be getting this stuff right.

Another big theme was consumer power – many of you raised this in your comments, for example malcolm r commented, “Consumers are the key – vote with your feet, push for more powerful consumer representation and take action”. I agree that the choices consumers make are a big driving force behind competition and the benefits it can bring for customers. I think we have to do more to make sure we’re genuinely empowering people to vote with their wallets.

Finally, one of my favourite questions was about the role of the CBI in all of this. For example, Beryl asked, “What can the CBI do to alter the negative ‘Rip off Britain’ image to something more positive?”. Like the event last week, I think a big part of our role is bringing people together to have the difficult conversations. That’s why we’ve launched The Great Business Debate.

To find out more about what we discussed, you can hear our Can Consumers Trust Business podcast with the panellists, hosted by television business journalist Steph McGovern, here: http://www.greatbusinessdebate.co.uk/audio/podcastcan-consumers-trust-business/ (and look out for the best-of-the-debate podcast on http://www.greatbusinessdebate.co.uk later this week)