You need to mind your language, TalkTalk

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“We’re not planning on trying to con them with lots of extra marketing.” This rather unhelpful quote came from a surprising source last week in Dido Harding, chief executive of TalkTalk, who was referring to her customers. I say surprising because Harding is a former occupant of several heavyweight marketing and commercial roles at brands that include Thomas Cook, Tesco, Woolworths and Sainsbury’s.

Irresponsible? Maybe, if it came from someone without Harding’s impressive customer and marketing pedigree. Frustrating? Certainly. Especially as the telecoms brand is actually planning to beef up its above-the-line marketing activity in Q4, adding to its ongoing sponsorship of The X Factor.

Harding was being questioned by journalists on a conference call after delivering a mixed bag of interim results. Sales were down 4.8% year on year while pre-tax profits were up after a year of exceptional and acquisition-related items and a tough period of restructuring. Harding has had the job of managing the TalkTalk brand following its 2010 spin-off from Carphone Warehouse. Severe customer service problems that derive from the earlier acquisition of the UK Tiscali business have not helped. By the time she came to even mention marketing in the way she did, Harding’s hackles had already been raised when asked about the 70,000 customers who have dumped the brand in the first half of the year.

But seeing a CEO associating the idea of additional marketing spend with the notion of ’conning’ customers was massively disheartening. Especially from someone who knows full well the sustained value boost it can provide.

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A phone call to TalkTalk’s communications director Mark Schmid confirmed that the quote, published in The Financial Times, was accurately reported but explained that Harding’s words had been “off the cuff” and not meant how they came out of her mouth. Harding was, said Schmid, trying to emphasise that the product had got better, that customers were broadly happier, that complaint numbers were down and that the improved customer experience would soon speak for itself.

Seems to me, though, that if the service has improved then the last thing you want to do is let it speak for itself. When it comes to utilities and services like TV, broadband and so on, customers rarely consider their provider brands when things are working as expected. They only notice when service is rubbish. Convincing consumers of progress made is a long-term task. Getting people talking positively and acknowledging your effort requires some form of impetus – a trigger or a talking point. A thoughtful, honest and well-executed marketing campaign is exactly what TalkTalk needs if, as Harding says, things are improving. Not to con anyone but simply to get them feeling better about your brand.

As for Harding, it sounds like she made an honest, if disappointing slip of the tongue. Now is the time to be talking up marketing’s value. There are far too many c-suite powerbrokers keen to peddle myopic views of our worth. Let’s not help them out.

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