• Author:Ben Jones
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Customer service; a country of non-believers?

I love America. I love their boldness. Their ambition. Their confidence – sometimes their over-confidence. Their celebration of success. Their sports – especially baseball. And I love their complete and utter commitment to customer service. It’s a religion. A way of life.

I’m sad to say that in Britain I find myself surrounded too often by non-believers. Aethiests in customer service.

Four examples in the last week – two in restaurants, one in an NHS hospital and one with an estate agent has left me in despair. It seems that the old adage of ‘the customer is always right” is not only being forgotten but has been consigned to the deep vestiges of history, never to be mentioned again.

The four experiences I’ve had recently were not upsetting or insulting, or even the worst I’ve ever experienced, but they were indicative of the way so many have forgotten how to treat people who are their customers.

I give just one example in detail.

Lunchtime. Pub/resturant near our home. Empty when we arrived; half full when the “incident” occurred. Lovely lunch. Delicious. Dessert and coffee ordered. 20 minutes later desserts were there none. On verge of going to speak to someone – having failed to catch anyone’s eye for 5 minutes (!), said desserts appear. I politely but firmly point out we’ve waited 20 minutes, seeking something near an apology or an expression of regret. What did I get?

“Everyone has been waiting today. We only have two people in the kitchen. It’s very busy.” etc etc. A little perplexed I suggested that when a customer makes a reasonable point, offers some feedback or raises a question in a polite way they don’t expect a defensive, negative response. More excuses followed – delivered in a faintly passively aggressive manner.

I genuinely believe the person in question just didn’t know what to say or how to handle it – the ‘it’ being this outrageously ungrateful customer. She then said in one of the bizarrest moments of the episode – dessertgate; “I was going to take them off the bill, but…….”. She left this threat hanging. Long pause. I assume she was about to say but now I will charge you double! It was almost tragic. I suggested a simple “I’m sorry for the delay” at the first raising of the issue would have resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction. Again, we failed to agree. More defensiveness. More excuses. More noise. Sad.

The bill then arrived. Desserts not removed. Further discussion followed. Bill updated. More sadness.

What did this episode tell me? Perhaps I was being unreasonable – I should have taken time to understand the staffing complement in the kitchen, the usual staffing ratios and made a calculation on how long my food would take to bring out (all desserts were cold!). Perhaps I should have been more grateful I didn’t wait 30 minutes? Perhaps few people raise concerns or complaints and therefore the art of responding has been lost?

I don’t buy it. I think we have lost the understanding of the relationships between outcome and experience. The attitude appeared to be you got your dessert (the outcome) – what’s your problem? My problem is in the experience. I want to enjoy my interactions, especially when I am paying for the privilege . I want to be treated in the same way I treat people – politely, with respect and when I am providing a service (as I do for a living) with an acute sense that I should try to give them the best possible experience I can. My NHS hospital experience was a classic case of you got the outcome you need – seen a doctor, treatment plan agreed etc – so who cares if we treated you like a nuisance getting in the way of our chat at the reception desk; who cares we made you wait in a corridor for 20 minutes with no communication; who cares that your experience was rubbish? I do.

Every one of the people I encountered had the opportunity to be ambassadors for their organisations – the chance to impress me, who would then go on to tell is it six or twelve of my friends, I can’t remember. Instead they all left me feeling short-changed.

We seem to have replaced the honest apology and expression of regret with excuses or deflection – not my fault Guv. I have lost count of how many times I have raised a question of an organisation only to be told it’s the system’s fault (it’s being slow today/my machine needs to be rebooted/could you call back later when its less busy etc).

Not everything done across the Pond is perfect – far from it. Witness the current Donald Trump and Ben Carson show for all the evidence you need. But our US cousins have kept fidelity with the notion of the customer being king. They are still preaching the gospel of the customer being right.

The legendary hotelier Cesar Ritz had a rule in his hotels; “If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked”. This approach lives on in the States. Back here, the congregation appears to have lost its faith – along with timely desserts.