A British disease?

In Britain, there is an inbuilt constraint to achieving the best in customer service that goes deep into the national psyche. In America they thank you for your custom and say, “Have a nice day!” – and they mean it! This is because they have a clear understanding that service is what makes money and they are happy to give it.

In Britain, however, people in organisations often seem to regard themselves demeaned by having to give service – they resent it – and this is probably due to a combination of a historical British issue and our national temperament.

It is a matter of historical fact that only a hundred years ago, ‘service’ meant to be ‘in service’ which meant that you were ‘lower class’ and reliant on the largesse (and whim) of the ‘upper classes’. This idea doesn’t sit comfortably with the British temperament anymore.

The words from Rule Britannia, that unofficial National Anthem (at least of England), with its defiant stanza “…Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” sums this up perfectly. These stirring words, always sung with such fervour at the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London speak of more than just a nationalistic pride, they articulate a deep individualism.

Napoleon Bonaparte is once said to have disparagingly described England as, “A nation of shopkeepers” meaning she was unfit for war against France, but this idea seems also to embody something of a lack of imagination that constantly transfers itself into the business world. The British are inherently transactional in their approach to business. Britons don’t really ‘do’ servant-hood. Instead, they seek to replace it with systems and processes. Service, it seems, is often considered an add-on.

One Response to A British disease?

  1. Laurie Cansfield December 15, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to use my initiative (and general intelligence) when it comes to customer service, and whilst I feel sorry for folks who have to stick to the scripted type of service that many ‘big’ companies swear by (especially in retail and fast food outlets), the experiences I often have one the other side of the counter can make me furious. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about…

    Laurie walks into Primark on the way home from work, on a whim, hungry for bargains. He looks around for a while, enjoying the Christmas music, not really that excited about the new range of menswear but sure of finding something worth spending a couple of quid on nevertheless. He finds some novelty undies with a tiger on them that he thinks his girlfriend might see the funny side of, and he decides to buy them. He queues up, happy (yes, actually happy) that he’s found something fun and cheap to give him a quick retail fix. Now comes the dialogue…

    Customer Service Assistant: “Who’s next please?”

    Laurie (walks to counter): “Hello, just these please.”

    Customer Service Assistant: “Okay darling.”

    Laurie: “Thanks.”

    Customer Service Assistant (ringing in undies): “No problem.”

    Laurie: “I’ll just put it in my own bag.”

    Customer Service Assistant: (getting out a Primark bag): “I have to put them in one of our bags.”

    Laurie: “But it’s a waste of…”

    Customer Service Assistant: “Company policy.” (Turns to colleague) “It’s company policy isn’t it?”

    Colleague: “Yes.”

    Customer Service Assistant (putting undies in Primark bag): “It’s company policy.”

    Laurie: (Takes undies out of Primark bag and puts them into his own bag…)

    Customer Service Assistant: “Can you take that out of your bag please. You have to take one of our bags.”

    Laurie: “But why?”

    Customer Service Assistant (arms folded, triumphant smile): “Because you do.”

    Laurie: (Speechless…)

    Customer Service Assistant: “What you do with the bag once you get outside is up to you.”

    Laurie: “Okay, but it’s a ridiculous waste of paper.”

    Customer Service Assistant (moving on to next customer): “Sorry about that. Who’s next please?”

    I felt 1) Narked, 2) That I’d asked a reasonable question and had been responded to as if I’d said something unreasonable, and 3) A bit sorry for the assistant. Sorry that she’s obviously had ‘orders from the top’ to give such inflexible responses, and sorry that she seems to agree with it!

    They’ve assimilated her.

    The obvious answer to my “Why?” is something like “To stop people stealing things.” or “Because we want people to stop being embarrassed about shopping in the cheap shops and start advertising out brand while they’re walking around.” Whatever the reason, Primark will be receiving a friendly but firm email of complaint from me in a few minutes…

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