Kate Hardcastle speaks to Business Leader about her entrepreneurial journey

Kate Hardcastle

Kate Hardcastle MBE

Kate Hardcastle MBE, also known as ‘The Customer Whisperer’, recently spoke to Business Leader about her life in business, the future of retail in the UK, and about the importance of putting the customer first.

When did you first realise you wanted to a life in business?

Business has always been in my life, but so has charity. And from my parents and grandparents I was living in the reality of what responsible business looked like and why there was a need. My grandparents were all in retail, and all played a role in community activities – helping sports teams, community groups and doing the right thing. My parents were heavily involved in charity work. I understood the importance of values and respect.

My entrepreneurial kick comes from my life as a singer – I was fascinated by the music industry and went on to manage the bands I worked with. I was lucky enough to have some pinch yourself moments – singing on stage as a Vandella with Martha Reeves and with Candi Staton and meeting stars such as Smokey Robinson, playing in front of crowds (as a support band) of 15,000-20,000 and going on tour. It was exciting, hard work and taught me so much.

It was also a fickle industry at times and after a while, it was my  passion for the business side of music and business in general which then led to bringing those skills to different industries, where I found myself working internationally for some big brands. The things I loved about working in showbusiness – global travel, people, adapting to change, presentation – I brought to my business life.

It’s a tough space – business consultant etc – how important has it been to you to invest in your personal brand?

I think it is important that you have values and that you live up to them as much as possible. People like to really feel they are dealing with authentic and genuine people – and so I don’t think I have invested in a personal brand as such, but that I have always been myself, living those values.  I’ve worked hard and stood for what I believe it and hopefully that comes across when people see me on television or hear me on the radio.

I am a person that will work hard to deliver on promises, and although I may feel out of my comfort zone when certain opportunities present themselves, I try and surround myself with research and information as a way to comfort myself. I also am prepared to work with other experts and ask for support.

I’m really proud of the relationships I have with several charities and community organisations – as a business we give 20% of our time back to supporting good causes, mentoring small businesses and helping charities work more strategically. That’s a huge part of what I’m about and it’s not about building a personal brand but more so using my platform for good and get others involved too.

Do you find that too many business owners forget the fundamentals about putting the customer first?

Unfortunately, yes and that can occur in businesses of all sizes. It can be easy to forget about the needs of the customer when the business is undergoing change or embracing new technology and the work I do with businesses around the world focuses on resetting and putting the customer back at the heart of the business.

An example of this would be the rush to respond to the pandemic last year, which saw many brands try to scale up and evolve processes and operations, but in some cases the service levels and support were just not there – and communication with the customer faltered. Communication is so important – and we must never undervalue the strength of really listening.

This is rarely intentional – most businesses seek to and think they are serving their customers but customer needs and wants are evolving at such a rapid pace.  It’s therefore vital to keep up with trends in data etc. and to have regular contact with customers whilst also ‘getting back to the floor’ on a regular basis and live the customer experience day in day out – that means reviewing every email, every piece of packaging, every web chat – to ensure the business is delivering the service its customers need.

You’re passionate about retail – what do you feel needs to be done to save the High Street?

I’ve long campaigned for the ‘human high street’ – one that is unique to its place and truly serves the individual needs of the local community – again it’s about putting the customer first and empowering decision making from those who actually use it.

Something I see in towns and cities across the UK is a failure to get the basics right – we must start with key things like facilities, accessibility for all, safety and cleanliness. These should then be the foundation on which to build fantastic experiences for all different user groups.

Whilst those who live and breathe the local area must be empowered to make decisions, it can’t be an entirely microlevel approach – we still need a centralised commitment to delivering better places and this must come from the very top.

In my 2018 ITV Tonight report, End of the High Street?, I highlighted the need for greater focus from ministers on the matter.

We have had 10 High Streets Ministers in the last decade, one in the role for just four months, while the majority of the others fulfilled the role alongside other responsibilities. For example, Jake Berry (6/17 – 2/20) was also Minister for the North. How can any minister, no matter how experienced, be expected and be able to evolve the strategy for our smaller shops, our high streets and our towns in such a short amount of time and with other areas of policy needing their attention too?

Of course, the financial support offered in the past year has been a wide-ranging short-term success. But support and advice now needs to be aimed at encouraging existing independents and smaller retailers to innovate and grow their way out of this situation, working collaboratively to do so. Partnerships are key – retail, hospitality, education, health and wellbeing must all work together to form an offer that properly addresses what local users want and need.

What are the traits that put you off a business deal or engaging in business with somebody?

That’s a very good question and after 25 years in business I’ve encountered a few individuals I’ve had to step away from.

For me it’s about how someone behaves as a person – regardless of anyone’s success in business, just as my values matter to me, I look for them to in others, and I appreciate it when they are delivered with authenticity.

As a result, I’ve turned down some unbelievably lucrative opportunities, but I can look back and know that without a doubt, I’ve made decisions based on my own values of honesty and respect.

I feel we’ve seen a huge shift in what we value in business leadership, particularly over the past 12 months and I’m pleased to see an end to the days when many business leaders, particularly in retail, would rule in the often glorified manner of fear, rudeness and egotistical behaviour.

What is your views on schooling in the UK – does more need to be done to put business and failure being OK in the curriculum or is it too early to talk about that?

I think the issues of business and failure being ok are two very different issues in education. Business as a subject needs to be lived as well as taught – I learnt more in a year managing my band than in any first year at the prestigious education facilities I have also attended.

In general, we need to focus on entrepreneurship, inspiring children to think differently, innovate and embrace change and measure success in different ways. Naturally, business success will come from this and an approach which celebrates constant change and adaptation will recognise that failure is inevitable but it’s the learnings from it which are vital.

In addition to business, I want to see changes to enhance young people’s awareness of other life skills – understanding finances, health, wellbeing, diet, the social skills required for life and work too – there’s so much more that could be taught.

Do you have any concerns for some businesses – in that they may have received loans/ had payroll and VAT deferred and unless they can trade out of this may struggle when it all needs to be paid back following the pandemic?

Yes, that is something that concerns me – it is not always glamourous or exciting, but bootstrapping your business can be an essential skill. You have to evaluate what is absolutely essential versus what can be worked around – and often it can mean living without comforts yourself, as the head of the business.

Again, communication is key, helping stakeholders and others understand where you are adding the value and where you try and run in a lean way.

Back in March 2020 I hosted some free workshops for small businesses where I highlighted a ‘finance first’ approach to navigating uncertainty and the need to plan ahead, save where possible and keep open dialogue with suppliers and creditors with a view to thinking like an accountant.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Absolutely everything! I’m fortunate to have built such a varied career that satisfies my inner geek whilst enabling me to meet lots of interesting and wonderful people.

I am switched on to meet brilliant and skilled individuals and I value the opportunity of genuine collaboration. We should build more bridges and not thrones.

I love the variety and the challenge of different projects. One day I may be in a boardroom in Sydney helping an amazing business delight its customers with new strategies and technology.  The next I will be discussing the latest news and current affairs on Radio 4 or Sky News and another day will see me helping a family back home in the UK live better and save money on ITVs Eat Shop Save – it really is that varied!

And what’s one fact we can’t find about you online? 

I have a stack of wigs from my stage days that handily come in to disguise myself for mystery shops.