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The birth of corporate humility

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Allegations of big bad corporate behaviour continue to make the headlines in industries as diverse as baking and construction.

This is to be expected. After all, bad news is good news. However, another development involving some very big companies has gone largely unnoticed – the birth of corporate humility, says Zoe Molapisi, CEO of the By Design Communications Group.
Cynics may regard this as improbable, even unprecedented. Yet it’s happening before their eyes, and long-term results can only be positive for consumers and many supplier businesses.
The key (under-reported) indicator is the growth of customer forum business at the corporate events end of the marketing and communication industry.
In the good old days (pre-September 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapse and the onset of the global financial crisis), the hot spots in this niche were conferences, product launches and upscale corporate events.
Since then, stringent expense management has prevailed. These days, no event gets the corporate thumbs-up unless it holds strategic value.
Yet this no-frills, outcomes-based environment has incubated the rapid growth of the customer forum, a long-established format but one undergoing a remarkable resurgence.
A typical forum brings together executives (some extremely senior) from the host company and customers from various demographics. Sometimes the parameters change to secure the involvement of another type of stakeholder – suppliers to the major corporate.
General interaction with a group of customers may take place, but big business and its customers really get down to cases when one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball contact is made.
Corporate hosts request honest feedback and an unvarnished appraisal of products and services – and, boy, do they get it. The interchange can be surprisingly intense; surprising because South Africans tend to be uncomplaining.
Ours is the market consumerism forgot. Check out Germany and the USA, markets where strong consumer groups have been active for more than 35 years. Customers are strident over there and nearly silent over here.
Open, overt consumerism hardly got off the ground in South Africa. However, in the less public environment of the customer forum, a type of face-to-face consumerism is beginning to stir.
A few executives might be affronted by the straight-talking. The vast majority gulp, take a deep breath and make a big effort to absorb information that comes unfiltered from the customer. Consumers are always thanked for their time and input.
The typical exercise is characterised by a total absence of arrogance. There is no attempt to talk down to the audience; no attempt to frame questions designed to secure "good", "better" or "best" approval ratings. The overall impression is that a sincere – even humble – effort is being made to get close to customers, their needs and expectations.
It’s as if some business consultancy guru has told various large South African companies that the future belongs to the good listeners and they are going to listen good and proper. As an events and communication professional, Molapisi finds the trend extremely good for business.
More importantly, it appears to be good for the development of insightful strategies at these companies. And, of course, it could be very good indeed for South African consumers.