The M&S problem and why bosses still aren’t listening

Last night I went down to parliament for the launch of a Christmas single, led by MP Siobhain McDonagh, protesting against the consequences of the national living wage on workers who have seen other perks such as double pay or even free lunches scrapped, while executive salaries remain stubbornly high.

At the forefront of McDonagh’s fury sits the temple of self-righteousness, better known as Marks & Spencer.

Now, M&S may be the main culprit for cutting pay for their most loyal staff (except lifer and chief executive Steve Rowe) but they are certainly not alone.

Where the similarities stop though is the metaphorical screaming that can be heard from M&S’s glass clad Paddington basin offices, is louder and higher than all its rivals over how “unfair” everyone’s being to them.

How dare anyone question M&S’s impeccable credentials?! How could you possibly compare the incomparable?!

These quelle-horror moments are usually followed by the press office’s epitaph “I don’t think that’s a story”, which never goes down well with a journalist.

(Clue: just because you sell classy food, doesn’t mean it makes your employment practices automatically classy too).

McDonagh started her campaign against pay cuts when a constituent who worked for B&Q first approached her explaining he was having his overtime payments stopped to cover the cost of the rise in the “National Living Wage”.

Her target was initially B&Q, but as the weeks and months wore on, it became clear that M&S was the biggest culprit, primarily because management seemed unwilling to countenance the idea that they could ever be in the wrong.

McDonagh tried, unsuccessfully, to meet with chief executive Steve Rowe (who by all accounts is a decent man and told me recently to call him out over any “bullshit”) to discuss it.

But Rowe’s advisors insisted that their retail director Sacha Berendji would be sufficient, sending him along to two meetings, despite McDonagh asking for Rowe.

At the most recent meeting, M&S were said to be “furious” at press coverage (I’d written) questioning why staff at the 30 stores expected to close have yet to be told whether they will lose their jobs.

McDonagh’s campaign saw a petition signed by more than 100,000 people handed to M&S over pay

M&S claimed their decision to keep staff in the dark for nearly two months is “normal practice”. For the record, it’s not and the retail chief executives and communications heads at rival firms, such as Tesco, Morrisons and Homebase, who have made job cuts in the past have behaved differently, by informing staff immediately.

It seems M&S are either incompetent because they made a decision to announce store closures before identifying which stores will shut. Or they’re deceitful by keeping their staff in the dark. Either way, it’s not a good look.

All M&S need to do is get Rowe to meet with McDonagh, in private, and let her get her points across. Workers just want to be heard, yet M&S are stuck doing their best impression of a furious toddler with fingers in their ears.

Otherwise, what’s to stop her turning up at the next annual general meeting to make her points in public, surrounded by cameras and the UK press?

But M&S has form when it comes to angering politicians.

Siobhain McDonagh MP (right) wants to meet M&S boss Steve Rowe (left)

Last year Paula Sherriff MP wanted to get to the bottom of why prices for goods in some retailers’ hospital stores were more expensive than on the high street. WH Smith was the main culprit and the initial focus of her anger, although M&S was also attacked by her for charging more for flowers and cards — a hospital staple.

But the response from the two companies couldn’t have been more different.

WH Smith sent their chief executive Steve Clarke, who was by all accounts lovely, thoughtful and listened to her suggestions — eventually agreeing to reduce some prices.

M&S sent its retail director (despite Sherriff asking for then boss Marc Bolland) and were said to be unhelpful and made excuses as to why they couldn’t do anything.

Another example was on Tuesday night when Channel 4 News did a report on lack of specialist toilets for the disabled.

Tesco and M&S were both highlighted for not installing these expensive toilets, but the difference in the report was, Tesco agreed to build one in the store highlighted in the report. M&S refused.

M&S chairman Robert Swannell is leaving next year

The list goes on — M&S continue holding their annual general meetings at Wembley Stadium, despite many of the shareholders attending constantly complaining to me that the meeting isn’t in more convenient central London.

M&S hold their results presentations in the presence of both journalists and investment bank analysts. No other retailer holds their results meetings in this way, despite journalists and analysts telling me the format doesn’t work due to the extreme difference in types of questions.

The list goes on and while some of these may be trifling issues only designed to appease MPs and the media, it speaks to a bigger problem M&S has faced for years — they don’t listen to their customers enough.

My point is, M&S seem stuck in a dangerous echo chamber, where the thoughts and concerns of others are either waived away or defended to the hilt, without any sense of perspective or humility.

This week M&S’s chairman resigned. I tweeted that the new chairman must end the company’s self righteousness and stop the engrained belief that it is M&S’s God given right to be on the high street.

Because, as Woolworths, BHS and Littlewoods, among others. would point out — nothing is guaranteed, however hard you might believe it.