Why are so many customer service providers so rude?

Why are so many service providers so rude these days? My young friend just told the story of what happened to him last Friday as he skateboarded down the path into uni. As he walked through the entrance hall a receptionist shouted out to him, telling him he shouldn’t do this and she would report him to Security, which she promptly did. Yes, he broke the rule and yes it was risky but he apologised and accepted responsibility. That wasn’t the issue. What he took umbrage with, rightly, was the tone and manner of the address. Both security and receptionist shouted and admonished him as if he were five years of age. Keeping his calm and drawing their attention to this, he was prevented from speaking because they interrupted him constantly, addressing him as a naughty child. I think people like this are generally known as ‘jobsworths’. Give them a badge or uniform and they behave as if they are mayor of Toytown, as a friend of mine says. It’s not just the words and the tone but simple things like a refusal to smile. So simple yet so rare.

In this case I suspect it’s a discrimination issue. Along the lines of ‘all students are the same’, along with the prejudices that go with this statement. And my friend, with his long hair and skateboard, was given the treatment they believe students deserve. All of them, irrespective of behaviour.

I find that retail assistants are particularly poor. If they’re trained they’re ok. Well for a short time. You can tell because there’s a consistent script. It happened at our local railway station. I was so taken aback I asked if they’d been trained and they confirmed it. It was such a shock I almost prefer them grumpy. They save their most horrendous behaviours for foreign students, particularly those struggling to make themselves understood. I have cringed with embarrassment many a time whilst waiting to buy a ticket. The problem with trained service is that as soon as a line manager fails to model the desired behaviours people revert to normal discourtesy and continue to process you through the checkout. That’s why customer service training generally doesn’t work. There’s a feel-good factor that evaporates as quickly as your goodwill towards their business. There must be something about a uniform that transforms a reasonable human being into a ‘I go by the rules’ automaton. The London Tube staff are pastmasters at this. Listen to the announcements and responses to simple questions. They must be badly managed.

When it comes to service I make an exception for local family businesses where they really value your custom and treat you as an individual. And occasionally you get someone who loves people, or perhaps their job, and goes out of their way to make you feel special. This kind of talent should be spotted at the recruitment stage. It saves investment in customer service training.

A few plaudits now for good service received this week.

Severn Trent Water – courteous, efficient, pleasant

M&S Simply Food – chatty without being irritating or overly personal

Bonfields estate agency – efficient, personal, don’t oversell

Quorn Crafts – efficient, interested, friendly

Royal Exchange Manchester – patient and caring.

That’s it for now. Can think of many more who are not but won’t name and shame today. Got any examples yourself?

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Let them eat cake … during the Olympics

I don’t get all the excitement about the Olympics. From what I’ve read it is less about sports excellence and prowess and more about corporate hospitality, celebrities and their cronies and money. All subsidised by the British taxpayer, currently to the tune of £6billion, estimated to finish at about £24 billion, around £350 for every household. (Sky Sports investigators discovered this fact through freedom of information questions). For what? If you believe the hype it’s about the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’. Except it’s more about London and what they will get out of it, ripping off tourists, more so than usual. In addition I don’t see any evidence that the benefits will filter down into local communities. We will have the Japanese team here in Loughborough and there’s a festival in the park. Big deal. Is that all we get out of it? Well there’s the debts and useless buildings left behind…

Firstly there was the farce of ticket distribution with the masses fighting for the few tickets allocated to the general public. More recently the news that almost £6 billion will be spent on security and counter-terrorism measures. Tube drivers are being bribed not to strike during the summer. And over £1 million was spent recently taking 30,000 Transport for London staff on a tour of the Olympic Park. I could go on… As for health benefits the Olympics is hardly about good nutrition when three of the main sponsors are McDonalds, Cadburys and Coca Cola. Today we hear that the sick and vulnerable will be at risk as ambulances will be banned from their normal routes to allow VIPs to take a fast lane to the events.

All this reminds me of the TV mini series ‘Versailles’ that I’ve just finished watching. It seems to me that the coalition government has much in common with the Kings Louis and their noble friends when it comes to excess and the place of the ‘third estate’ (that’s us!). Although we learned from commentator Antonia Fraser that Marie Antoinette never said ‘Let them eat cake’ Olympic decision-makers seem to be operating in this spirit. Watching it on the TV will be the nearest that most people get. Not me though!

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The wisdom of a crowd – not!

Sometimes you can have an experience which makes you realise that you live in a rarefied atmosphere, associating for the most part with people who are ‘just like you’. Then you have an experience that jolts this reality. It happened to me last week when I attended a focus group. I have run these groups but never actually participated. The session was run by a university research group, on behalf of a charity. An investigation into ‘what constitutes a living wage’. I decided to go because in the light of all the cuts I thought it might be interesting, I like meeting new people and I had a free evening. If I’d been working at full pelt I wouldn’t have bothered. They paid expenses of £35 which contributed towards the Chinese meal we had afterwards. All twelve of us – eight men and four women – were of a similar age. That’s where the similarities ended. Everyone – not me – described themselves as retired. They painted a miserable picture of retirement and most of the debate focused on the cost of everyday items, bus fares, prescriptions etc.

The focus of the session was on the specifics of what individuals need to live. The basic minimum standards to survive and contribute to society. We had to imagine ourselves as 32 year olds, a couple, living in a flat with basic amenities. A picture was painted. We weren’t told whether these two were working. Questions were asked and we were invited to offer an opinion.

‘What do they need in their lounge, bedroom etc?’

‘What should they spend on household essentials, holidays, gifts, haircuts…?’

‘Do they need internet, a mobile phone, a landline…?’

We were asked to speak individually, not talk over one another, keep to the subject. All of this proved impossible and the researcher struggled to maintain order. It reminded me of my school teaching days with an unruly class of third formers. Some people found it impossible to tailor their comments to the scenario and talked about their personal situations – at great length.

‘Well, my missus sends me round the shops looking for the cheapest items… ‘

‘We go to the Market… Now you can get cheap veg there… Mind you…’

Others would then join in, telling their own tales. The session provided an opportunity for people to get support for their views about the high cost of petrol, energy etc, where to go for the cheapest haircut, why Morrisons is better than Tesco etc etc.

When brought back to the scenario of the 30 somethings we were supposed to be focussing on one guy offered the opinion that…

‘Young people today live on a diet of soaps and McDonalds…’ which didn’t sound like any young person I know.

I sat there silently screaming, considered making my apologies but decided to stick it out. I could provide a different perspective. I had a duty to do this. I didn’t want the researchers to go away believing all 60 somethings thought the same. So I spent the rest of the session saying ‘I disagree…’. I had nothing to lose and thought it unlikely I would ever meet these folk again. No doubt I was branded a snob.

It did make me question the validity of much research. I also wondered what, other the age and location, were the criteria they had used to select us. Did we represent ‘average consumers’, ‘the retired’, the 60s, or ‘town people’? We were only representative of people who had been contacted and agreed to volunteer their time. It seemed to me that most of the questions should have been directed to experts who would use real data rather than idiosyncratic and uninformed (for the most part) opinions. Look out for these research findings in July when they will be published as ‘research’. I won’t be volunteering for any more focus groups.

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Hidden Loughborough

I met a wonderful woman called Dettie last year. A qualified nurse, parent of five adult children and all-round wonder woman she runs a charity for the homeless here in town. Many of the people she looks after are suffering from alcohol or drug misuse, some have been released from prison, others have been thrown out by their parents or partners. All of them need the basics that most of us take for granted: shelter, food, comfort and love. Dettie and her small team find people a place to live and support them to develop skills to aid their recovery and build their self esteem. They do all this work without any government financial support, relying on benefactors and local churches.

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With the assistance of my young friend Dave we are making a video to help promote the charity. And so yesterday, on one of the coldest days of the year, well wrapped up, we went to a local park so that Dave could film Dettie as she told her story. As we wondered through the park to find a good spot to sit Dettie told us of homeless people who sleep in the park. Under the bandstand, even in the bushes. Because there is no night stop in Loughborough, nowhere for them to go. Sometimes an uncaring police officer will move them on. Apparently it’s illegal to sleep outside. I could not imagine how anyone could survive the current freezing temperatures. One of the homeless is a 67 year old man and he was without a sleeping bag until Dettie gave him one.

Loughborough is quite an affluent town. I understand that it has one of the wealthiest student populations for a university town. Perhaps because of the elite athlete students whose parents have paid for sport tuition. Many of the Olympic athletes are training here. But like most towns it has a side that is hidden if you live ‘on the right side of town’. Dettie told us that homeless people are not always identifiable. They try to keep themselves clean and generally feel ashamed of their predicament. The problem is likely to get worse as the cuts bite.

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Ballet and all things Chinese

A typical cold restaurant in Shanghai

I am interested in all things Chinese. Daughter 2 has just returned from a work trip to China and has been telling us tales of what it was like. About how people kept their coats on in the office where there was no heating. One employee made a tent to surround her hand holding the computer mouse. About the Peoples Park in Shanghai where she saw crowds of old people gathered in clusters, seemingly haranguing one another. She read later that they go there looking for partners for their children. About the shack-like restaurant that served delicious food that cost five pounds for two. Having only been to Hong Kong myself, and really only seen the banking quarter, I am left yearning for real China. The nearest I normally get is The Laughing Buddha in town.

A couple of years ago I heard the Chinese broadcaster and writer, Xinran, speak at the Hay festival. She talked about the ‘good women of China’ whose stories of the harsh ways they were treated remained suppressed until she started to broadcast them. And then wrote a book of the same name. I was riveted by her tales. Then I helped a Phd student called Margaret (euh?) with her dissertation on the use of the Internet in China. What I read was quirkily written but mind-boggling. I wondered how she could do her PR job with this level of censorship. We became friends, exchanged details but apart from a Valentines card (?) I never heard from her again. I wondered if the content of her essay had been seen by her bosses.

So, seeing that the Chinese ballet was coming to Nottingham I booked tickets and brought along two daughters and their boyfriends. Who weren’t sure what they were letting themselves in for. This is what we saw – see link. Ballet will never be the same again. And the kids may think ballet is always like this…

What is it about Danish thrillers…?

A scene from Borgen, now showing on BBC4

What is it that makes these Danish thrillers so good? First we had ‘The Killing’ with Sarah Lund that managed to achieve fame, not just for the acting and the plot, but for her Fair Isle like jumper. If you missed it get all 20 episodes on DVD now. The Killing 2 finished before Christmas and is probably available too. Now we have ‘Borgen’, started last Saturday on BBC4, and will be shown for four more weeks. Apparently it started with 600,000 viewers, more than ‘The Killing’. Billed as ‘a political thriller’ it didn’t sound too thrilling initially. But it is compelling and already addictive. Like ‘The Killing’ it is intelligent drama that makes you think. And although it is sub-titled, which means you have to keep your eyes on the screen, it doesn’t seem to matter.

'The Killing' previous Danish drama by the same makers as Borgen

The heroine, Borgen is the newly elected prime minister. Completely un-Thatcher like, she manages to operate in her own way. Although she does has an elderly male mentor who helps to keep her on track. He teaches her how to negotiate, for instance. I expect she may lose him once she’s more confident in her skin. Birgitte Borgen is young and attractive. She has a husband and young family. She takes time off to attend a birthday party. She owns up to mistakes and at the final pre-election debate she discards her prepared speech and speaks from the heart. She does conform to the norms of formal dress and is aware how severely judged women in public life tend to be, rejecting one outfit because it makes her look too fat. You do care about her, which make her exceptional as a politician.

Compared to ‘Above Suspicion’, three part Lynda La Plante series that started last night… Well there is little comparison. The Danes don’t go in for over-the-top gore and gruesomeness. Hitchcock like, they rather suggest horror. The title means ‘parliament’ and is how the Danes refer to their seat of power apparently. I don’t know anything about the Danish system but there were reflections of our own coalition government, intrigue in the corridors, and the role of spin doctors. What makes both Danish dramas appeal to me is the characterisation of women. Not just the female leads (who are very different) but other strong roles. You do get the impression that women are treated more fairly and Denmark is a more equal society. But it is fiction so who knows?