The Decline and Rise Again of Service

Customer ExperienceCustomer FocusCustomer LoyaltyCustomer ServiceCXQuality of Service+-

My parents frequently arrive quite late on their flight from Iceland, meaning that we’re stepping out for dinner at around 22:00 - just as well then that there is a restaurant local to us which has its kitchens open until 22:30. We’ve been dining there since it opened 10/15 years ago and we always leave a generous tip. In times past we’ve arrived as late as 22:20, but have always been seated courteously and given options. That was until Friday before last - on this occasion the time was barely 22:00 and we were unceremoniously blocked off at the door with the statement ’We have run out of food!’ and in effect the restaurant was therefore closed. There was no offer of an alternative or ’we could knock you up a quick...’ - nor was any recommendation made of an alternative venue - we were simply just shown the door with supposedly not even a morsel left on the premises. I have frequently been the victim of moody publicans proclaiming lunch service over 15 minutes before the appointed hour, but never encountered a restaurant shunting regular customers away - a full half hour before the kitchens are supposed to close. As far as the family is concerned this restaurant has now burned its bridges - the Hilton Hotel by contrast was very pleased to see us though and could not have been more accommodating. We know that standards of service in the UK are often lax, but surely businesses should look after their regular customers? My parents in particular are well known and highly regarded regular restaurant customers - whoever takes good care of them is rewarded with long-term regular, loyal and generous custom, yet there have still been bizarre instances which have resulted in the termination of our family’s patronage. Some of these restaurants we attended regularly for the best part of 20 years allowed poorly trained new staff to put an end to these wonderful relationships in the most peculiar and somehow underhanded of ways.


In this age of increased competition - where with clever take-out services (Deliveroo etc.) enabled by the Internet and our ever evolving mobile digital world - your competitive patch is far larger than the local catchment area. Bigger companies can compete on price and range, while smaller companies have to make use of specialisation / curation and amazing service. Yet the service I encounter in shops and restaurant in this country seems to be currently in marked decline and I kind of hold Ryanair responsible to a degree. If you travel economy class / coach on most airlines now, you get an experience wholly stripped of any enjoyment or ’service’ really. Cabin crew are closer to traffic wardens - looking to tax and fine the traveller rather than reward their loyal custom with warm and friendly service. The customer has been reduced to the lowest level sack of grain commodity with barely any rights or privileges remaining. I used to quite enjoy my Chicken Kievs and Cordon Bleus on Icelandair - airplane dinners were rarely an amazing culinary experience, but there was something about them that still engendered positive feelings. Nowadays you pay twice the price for half the quality - typically some stodgy sandwich - if it’s not already sold out! Most airlines are still competing at lowest common denominator level when most customers have had quite enough of that sort of thing. I steadfastly refuse to board a Ryanair plane, I will board EasyJet at a push, but I would take a police holding cell over a Ryanair seat every time. A few airlines have started to bring service back to the fore, but by and large we’re still living with an industry devoid of decent service at the regular level.


I used to shop regularly at Tescos, as when I lived in Devon it was my closest store, and we menfolk are creatures of convenience and practicality, meaning I came to know the range offered pretty well and knew my way around the aisles. Over progressive years though I watched and witnessed the service get worse and worse - staff mysteriously disappearing from tills just when it was your turn in the line, blocking your way in the aisles while stacking shelves and refusing to pass an item or step out of the way, and the most heinous crime of all - wrongly packing a grocery bag by hurling delicates into the bottom of the bag and then crushing them with heavy tins and bottles. I complained a number of times, but service continued to decline and I moved to Sainsburys. The honeymoon period at Sainsburys lasted not much longer before I bore witness to all the same kinds of things over and again - with the addition of bare shelves of key items often several days in a row. So I ended up at Waitrose - which by an large gives me the kind of service that I believe everyone should have as standard. Even here I see some troubling signs - staff unwilling to step in on tills when queues grow large, and the occasional abuse of produce - in the bag-packing department, but compared to everyone else a healthy step above. I am encouraged really to use Ocado more and more often, as they are the only ones that seem to regularly give me what I need!


A key reason I use Amazon - even with all its controversial associations and activities - is its pretty consistent reliability and how quickly and deftly it handles issues (Amazon Prime). Meanwhile, I have had a torrid few weeks with Ebay and with Amazon Marketplace - where no fewer than 6 items failed to materialise. After an appropriate timespan I enquired into the whereabouts of my items, and most of those vendors claimed ’lost in the mail’ and refunded my payments. If you are familiar with Ebay / Paypal, you know this can produce quite a lousy experience - as for reasons of fraud-protection - Paypal can hold your refund in ’Pending’ for up to 30 days. In a couple of my cases I paid for items which the vendors claimed had been already sold (inventory issues) - I was refunded immediately on the account, but then had to wait 10 days or more to actually get access to those funds. I have similar experiences of Amazon Marketplace (minus the refund pending), so now I do extra due diligence and any vendor with more than a handful of negative reviews is out of consideration. Only good service can be rewarded by loyalty surely.


Barely a week goes by without an addition of one or two of bad customer service examples - it seems fairly epidemic. Just try grabbing any item of clothing, taking it to the counter and enquiring about availability of certain sizes and colours. Staff disappear into store rooms, often never to re-appear, or usually come back empty handed - it rarely matters what it says on the computer! They then need to be forcibly cajoled into looking up / asking about availability in neighbouring branches. It seems neither the systems or the staff are up to the task of good customer service. M&S and John Lewis used to be amongst the best for customer service, while they are now often quite indifferent really, although M&S is still great for returns and exchanges.


As global competition continues to heat up, companies will have to start ramping up their services again, as only the largest few can lead on price and range, as I’ve already mentioned. The majority of retailers will have to start smiling warmly again and getting on friendlier terms with their customers - you just need to look at the backlash against Abercrombie and Fitch in America to see how quickly the marketplace reacts to general woeful or indifferent service - and I mean service to all. More companies need to start paying more than lip-service to Hard Rock’s motto - ’Love All, Serve All!’. I also believe a lot of the issues here are down to lack of or poor training, alongside lack of initiative. It is a very long time since I recall a member shop staff acting cleverly on their own initiative to sort out a problem. At the root of good service their must also be decent training and proper positive attitude from the top to the bottom of the organisation. Business leaders these days are too often associated with greed and selfishness rather than generosity and friendliness - the Richard Bransons of the world seem very few and far between at the moment ... but more will arise.

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