Customer service stories (1)

The lovely 'Toppings' bookshop in Ely

Customer service – or the lack of it in the UK – is a particular bugbear of mine. So many people who ‘serve’ seem to regard it as a form of subservience, rather than an opportunity to help people.  Whenever I’m asked to design or deliver customer service training I never had to search hard for examples.  Inevitably, in the few days leading up to the training I am on the receiving end of good and poor examples that I use to illustrate my points.

Take the bar of a well-known Spanish tapas chain on Regent Street.  On requesting a second glass of wine I was told ‘It’s not my job, I just take you to a table’. No referral to a colleague, just a turned back.  Second example same place.  After two more requests to the waiter we decided to pay the bill and leave.  A manager look-a-like approached us. ‘How was it for you, ladies?’ (Ugh!). So I told him politely. His reaction: ‘Was everything else ok?’. No apology or redress.  Why ask in the first place? It just compounded the contempt with which we were treated.

Now for a London hotel.  Struggling in with my bags, post training, porter sees me but ignores me (see – older women are invisible). Straight faces at reception. I enquire about wifi. ‘It’s the global system’, I’m advised.  What does that mean? It wouldn’t work in my room, anyway, so I didn’t use it.  The bedside lamp needed a new bulb, the shower spluttered and to cap it all… When I went to dine, alone, in the restaurant, they seated me at a table for 8, in the centre of the room.  When I commented they said that smaller ones were reserved.  I don’t mind dining alone but felt exposed to the room. Not like Mumbai where they put a goldfish in a bowl on the table ‘to keep you company whilst you dine with us’. Unusual tactic but at least they cared! What kind of reaction will Olympic-bound tourists form of we Brits next year, I wonder?

Then there’s the Orange shops. I still haven’t bought an Iphone because of the service. So badly treated I walked out of two of their shops.  Not like the Apple ‘geniuses’ who are brilliant.  Totally take on board the Steve Jobs messages.  (See on YouTube his brilliant address to Stamford University grads in 2005.)

Now for a couple of great examples.  Toppings bookshop in Ely.  I went in because they were advertising ‘Nigella booksigning’ in the window.  Sold out – mmh, could have been a disappointing experience.  But no I got attentive service, free coffee, comfy seating, a signed first edition of the Nigella book, two further signed books for friends with birthdays, all books covered in protective cellophane. In all I bought six books, at full price, something I never do (with Amazon).  Later I discovered that the shop is owned by a former manager of Waterstones, Manchester, who was fired for giving customer good service. What this meant was that he refused to remove books he felt customers would like, in favour of the rubbish celebrity books he was asked to provide. See their website, they do interesting stuff. (And Ely is a great place for a weekend break).

Last week, a busy London restaurant, Da Polpo in Covent Garden. Really interesting place. The interior is built largely from reclaimed materials including a salvaged tin ceiling from New York, church pews, chemistry lab benches and Dutch school chairs. Crammed and crowded.  No reservation, no table available., no problem. ‘Stay and have a drink with us…’. Charming waiter with a sense of humour. Treated like real people. Knew all about the dishes on the menu (Venetian ‘tapas’, try them!) How many should we order? ‘No need to over-order… try a few and then more if you wish’.  None of this a big deal – but exceptional enough to remember and comment. Oh by the way, it’s a family business.

I am with Mary Portas on a crusade to improve customer service. When I train, I define it as ‘being a decent human being’. Although to be fair it’s more of a recruitment issue and not always easy to teach. I have a personal mission to ‘spot someone doing something well’ and tell them.

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