Service ≠ Subservience

So impressions of the UK since returning from the Windy City – rain, gray, rain, misery, rain, poor customer service, rain.

OK, so the rain is a given, but it’s the striking difference between the US and UK on customer service that has really struck me. Since being back for just over one month now I have been told by a waitress that she only has “one pair of hands”, been served by a girl in Halfords who said not one word to me, made no eye contact and dealt with my purchase with her feet resting on her desk the whole time and been made to feel plain stupid by London Underground staff, when my ticket wouldn’t let me through the barrier, by just staring at in me looking exasperated.

I was also lectured by a conductor in front of lots of other passengers because I had no ticket – reason being that the ticket machine on my station was vandalised and other travellers clearly had season tickets. That was nice at 6.30 in the morning. Thanks Capital Connect.

These experiences have been punctuated by one or two great ones, namely at the checkout in M&S, who remembered just what sandwich I’d bought a couple of days earlier!

But overall, the experience has been rotten.

I do get the impression that the people delivering this dire level of interaction (to call it service would be quite wrong), have a chip on their shoulder. It smells of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, perhaps borne out of the old British class system that was refreshingly missing in the US. Whilst there, not once did anyone ask me what school I’d gone to, or ‘what line of country’ my father was in!

So here’s the thing, the level of service I experienced and came to expect in the US I feel was a result of the absence of inverse snobbery. In fact there was a real respect for those providing service. I remember the first time I rode the train and hearing the passengers call the guard “Sir”. By the time I left I was doing the same. It was natural. Customers knew that their waiter wasn’t a servant, but a hugely important part of their experience.

And they tipped well!

As I’ve written many times before in this blog, social media now gives a louder voice to those who want to challenge the level of service they have received. Complaints online are amplified through social channels and provide the complainer with a barrier to hide behind that saves them from a real confrontation (something we Brits shudder at the thought of), meaning that their true feelings come out.

The enlightened companies are listening to these voices through the SMM tools such as SM2 or Radian 6, and are engaging with customers to turn things around, listening to the issues that people are facing and using this information to develop products and services into markets with greater confidence.

The adoption of these techniques combined with more of a focus on customer service generally – thank you (Mary Portas and Michel Roux), hopefully mean brands are upping their game in this crucial area.

To serve someone doesn’t mean being an inferior or subservient, but that you are sharing something about which you are passionate, whether that be a product, food or a ride on a train!

2 thoughts on “Service ≠ Subservience

  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for mentioning Radian!

    Indeed social customer service is gaining in popularity and hopefully more businesses will embrace it rather than ignore it.

    There is definitely a need for a more general culture shift as a lot of companies, due to the public nature and pressure of social media tend to provide a different service level to customers enquiring online rather than on the phone or in person – in any case, as you say social media has the potential of being a real catalyst for that.


    Olivia Landolt | Marketing and Community Manager | @Olivia6C

    6Consulting | UK authorised Radian6 partner

  2. Sir Richard,
    I had no idea that you had this blog. What a treat to find it and take this respite to read.

    Interesting that you find the service culture in the US to be a more collective experience between the person sharing/selling the experience and the customer seeking it out. I think that the service culture in the US has gotten so far away from human interaction and relationships and has become entirely too focused on efficiency and instant gratification.

    While I have never been told by someone that they only have one pair of hands, I have been subject many times to feeling in the way and that taking my time to make decisions was somehow insulting to the person assisting me.

    While there might be room and sometimes a definite need for speed and transactions devoid of human interaction (i.e. buying something on the web,) I find it more and more necessary that companies place more emphasis on training their teams to be trusted experts. This is a time when customers are seeking value and spending primarily on things that they most care about, and companies have to meet their customers desire to spend this way with trained, happy, ready, teams to gain credibility.

    There was a time in retail’s history when we not only respected salespeople, we trusted and believed their knowledge was greater than our own. We sought them out to tell us what to do and to make our choices FOR us.

    The world may pass me by and think it old-fashioned, but I think it imperative to get to back to this place, where salesmanship is once again revered and companies understand that how we spend is based not only on flawless product, but on our desire to have relationships with smart, thoughtful salespeople.

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