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Friday, 11 October 2013

Customer service in Britain

BT, complaints, bad customer service, unhelpful staff, call centres, Warren Buckley
Horrendous experience with BT, Britain’s leading telecommunications provider (possibly the world’s worst company?), as well as the twerps at Royal Mail, got me thinking about customer service in general.  If you’re a visitor to these fair shores you should know what to expect when spending your money with us.  If you live here, you already know what it’s like; you’ll be well aware of the cavalier, often bullying, style adopted by some of the UK’s major communications, financial services and public sector organisations.  But what visitors really need to know about happens at street level – not because some oik has messed up a direct debit or your broadband.

It’s hard to resist saying that customer service can be exceptional in Britain; so, make the most of it when you come across it.  But, bad jokes aside and to be fair, you should find that customer service is on the whole pretty good in smaller owner-operated retail outlets, restaurants and pubs.  Occasionally, you’ll come up against the salesman or waiter that thinks they’re doing you a favour, but intentionally bad service is rare.  However, indifference, or a lack of basic manners, is unfortunately universal – particularly in the larger chains.  Those amongst the latter that generally get it right include Booths (a family-run supermarket business in the north of England where, I am shocked to say, shopping is actually enjoyable), John Lewis (including Waitrose), most branches of Marks & Spencer, Pizza Express, TGI Fridays and Premier Inn (except their restaurants, which range from naff-awful to very good). There are two independent DIY stores local to me that put the big boys to shame, but I have found the folk at Wickes to be pretty good.
Booths Supermarket, good customer service, Kirkby Lonsdale, Kendal, Settle, Preston

Good customer service is nothing to do with intelligence; I sent a link to this post to the good folk at Booths and they ignored it; how stupid is that?

Motorway service areas and railway stations are in a class of their own – and are mostly a rip-off; one exception is Tebay, on the M6.  You may also come across the charming trait of ‘upselling’, whereby it is assumed you are an idiot who has forgotten that you need a large bar of chocolate, bottle of water, big sticky cake – or something else that you hadn’t asked for, but which the assistant helpfully reminds you about.

Misunderstood be easy is it to sometimes, so here are a few phrases/signals you may experience whilst out and about in Britain:

Which means…
“Good morning/afternoon/evening sir/madam, how may I help you?”
Madam.  Or Sir.
Sir.  Or madam.
I’m not your friend at all, but do imagine that I’m much tougher than you are, so don’t get cocky with me you miserable customer.
“Enjoy your meal”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this.
b) The cat refused this earlier so I’ll be interested to see how you get on.
c) Enjoy your meal.
Masticating on chewing gum whilst talking to a friend
I don’t deserve to have a job and you are an irrelevance to me.
Doing something with the till roll and completely ignoring you
Not only are you irrelevant, but I’m also much more important than you are; and anyway I’m so stupid that I can only think of one thing at a time.
“How is the meal?”
a) Absolutely nothing; I’ve been told to say this and will be very confused if you complain.
b) I’m intrigued to see you haven’t thrown up yet.
c) How is the meal?
“How are you today?”
a) If you know this person, “How are you today?”
b) If you don’t know this person, you are up against trainers who are not only insincere but also socially retarded; don’t fight it unless you are feeling strong.  The best response to this naff enquiry is to say, “Actually, I’ve not been very well.”  And then provide a few gory details.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
I really hope there isn’t - hurry up, I’ve got a hot date and want to go home to wash my hair.
“Tall, grande or venti?”
The firm is fond of pretentious twaddle.
“If it’s not on the shelf, we ain’t got any.  Innit.”
I’m so dreadfully sorry, my friend, Tarquin, got the order wrong and we are clean out; but we are expecting a delivery next month.  God forbid you should think I can’t be bothered to drag my pimply arse into the warehouse to check the stock for you.
“Our computer system is, like, literally down”
The computer is feeling very depressed.
“The soup is, like, good.”
The soup is close to being edible.
“The fish is, like, off.”
I’m terribly sorry; the fish is so popular that we’ve sold out.  Please let me tempt you with an alternative tasty morsel from our wonderful menu.
“Sorry for the delay, we are, like, really busy at the moment.”
We got our staff levels wrong so you will have to wait even longer than you have already.
“You look great in that dress/suit/fluffy bunny outfit.”
They could be lying; get a second opinion.
“Did you see the match last night?  We decimated them.”
Every tenth member of the opposing team was taken out and shot.
“See you later”.
Goodbye.  (DO NOT mistake this for an invitation).


  1. Having just come back from the US, I can testify that on the whole their customer service does seem a lot better - though no-one actually said "Have a nice day" to me. Furthermore, general politeness is noticeable. Drivers stopped to let me cross the road even when I wasn't actually intending to! Sometimes I crossed just to make them feel better!

    1. The problem when a Brit says, "Have a nice day" is that it rarely sounds sincere. But when you consider the image of the British, it is surprising how bad we can be at customer service. And it's not rocket science, is it? On the whole though, it's pretty good at street level - and often exceptionally so. However, some major corporates are downright offensive - my recent experience with BT has been absolutely appalling. And some of the financial institutions are no better. I suspect customers are viewed as an inconvenience...come the revolution!


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