By the summer of 1976, Richard Branson was starting to make a name for himself in the music industry. The Virgin chain of record shops was a huge success and he had launched the record label. Unfortunately it became clear that of all the artists that Virgin Music had on its books, only one – Mike Oldfield – was making the company any money. All of the others were making a loss.
Richard, not for the first or last time, was forced to make a difficult decision to drop a number of artists from the label to allow the business to regroup and develop in new, more profitable, directions.
During this difficult period, something happened which would have been highly improbable at the time, but which now companies are dealing with all the time. Richard takes up the story in his autobiography ‘Losing My Virginity’:
One of the artists we reluctantly dropped was Dave Bedford, who was a brilliantly gifted classical composer. Dave reacted very well to the bad news: he wrote a long letter to me saying how much he understood the decision, the he appreciated his records had not sold, that he would have done the same if he had been in my shoes, the he bore Virgin no grudges and wished us all the best for the future. At the same time he wrote a letter to Mike Oldfield in which he described me as a complete shit, an utter bastard, and a vile, tone-deaf, money-grabbing parasite on musical talent. Unfortunately for Dave, he then put the letters in the wrong envelopes.
Back in 1976 the only way a company knew that people were saying negative things about them was if the person in question was angry or bullish enough to tell the company directly (and human nature is that people rarely are) or if the issue was big enough to be picked up by the press. Or if someone made a mistake such as that Richard describes.
Today, of course, the equivalent to Bedford’s letter to Mike Oldfield, would be a rant on Facebook or twitter or a blog-post or a video on YouTube. All very public.
I am sure that actually Richard really appreciated the musician’s mistake. It could have been seen as an opportunity to learn and, as an entrepreneur, a good chance to examine what had happened and see it from someone else’s point of view.
Today businesses still have to take decisions that might not always be popular. But now you don’t have to rely on the fact that someone will make a mistake before you find out what they really think or discover public outcry in the pages of a newspaper. Now you can find out what people think about your company and your products and services directly from them in social networks. You just need to make sure you are also in the social networks so that you can hear what they are saying and respond to them. That has got to be better, right?