Love her or hate her, the death of Margaret Thatcher has sparked heated debate on the nature of leadership and the legacy of the Iron Lady.

The arguments are particularly pertinent for the customer contact sector as the reforms Thatcher introduced - deregulation and privatisation - paved the way for the emergence of large scale private businesses serving huge swathes of the population with essential services such as gas or electricity and of big call centres to serve those customers.

The popularisation of share ownership during Thatcher’s premiership also resulted in a new hybrid of customer-shareholders,  creating a new and more complex customer service dynamic. Also, a monolithic service culture in state-run enterprises gave way to a plethora of management creeds as newly-privatised businesses sought to put their own stamp on service methodologies.

The Thatcher years also saw major technology developments which impacted on the growth of contact centres, as advances in such things as automated call distribution enabled businesses to concentrate activities in purpose-built centres and employment in the sector rocketed. Technological advances (accompanied by political decisions to encourage greater competition) also fostered new business models such as insurer Direct Line in 1985 and First Direct Bank in 1989.

Thatcher lit the touch paper for change and passed the torch to the bosses of the deregulated businesses. From a consumer viewpoint, the lofty ideals in which those businesses were born have become tarnished. This is not a political statement but a factual observation in the wake of numerous publicly-recorded instances of abuse of power and mis-selling which have driven a wedge of mistrust between companies and their customers.

The sectors most often in the dock are banking and utilities. Banks seem further advanced in making concerted efforts to repair trust but utilities are lagging behind. It requires strong and principled leadership to restore customer trust and to ensure that brand promises made in the boardroom are kept throughout the entire organisation, from the sales force to front line customer contact teams who bear the brunt of customer anger when things go wrong...and many things have gone wrong. Consumers are too often confused or misled by choices not in their best interests and the onus is on companies to confront these failings bravely and honestly.

Tackling change requires nerves of steel and strong convictions but an unyielding approach will not work. The nature of leadership has, by necessity, changed from Thatcher’s time and today’s business leaders should cull the best characteristics of her leadership and adapt them in a way which best serves modern customers.

Whether or not you agreed with her politics, Thatcher had unshakeable conviction, clarity and strength of purpose. She once said: “I’m not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”  

The two are not mutually exclusive. Why can’t we embrace a leadership style which combines clarity and conviction with a more consensual approach than the Iron Lady?

Thatcher was famously obdurate, declaring “The Lady’s not for turning.” But, at a time of crisis in terms of public loss of faith in corporate integrity, such obduracy has no place. Where companies have lost customer trust, leaders need to make a major U-turn and to introduce a relentless focus on re-establishing integrity.  Customers deserve no less.