How can I help?

One of the really interesting things that constantly came up in last week’s celebration of Independent Bookseller’s Week was the wonderful depth of knowledge and care that so many booksellers show.

And this got me thinking about customer service in general, especially in the context of a recent event put on by Flamingo called “The Future of Shopping.” The researchers at Flamingo studied how the decline of the high street affected real shoppers, and also how real people shop — both online and offline. What they discovered was no surprise to me. Bricks and mortar shops cannot just be suppliers of goods anymore — they need to give people a reason to come in. As the Flamingo study said, ” The future strategy for the high street is clear: become a retail destination or turn those empty retail spaces into something more useful…”

A critical part of becoming a “retail destination” is customer service — a somewhat rarely-assumed part of the customer experience here in the UK. The general lack of good customer service in the UK came as a shock to me when I first moved here. And what’s even more shocking, is that people are actually really bothered when they get bad customer service, but then they don’t seem to do anything about it. Why. WHY? I just don’t get it. So, I sat down with Sarah B, who is also frequently appalled by bad customer service, to ask her about this curious aspect of British culture.

AO: Sarah, as a UK citizen, can you please explain to me why there isn’t an over-arching expectation of good customer service?

SB: I don’t think there isn’t, but I think that our expectations are lower than they are in the US. I certainly recognise that every time I go to the States, I remember how pleasant the shopping experience can be.

I do think it’s a sensibility thing too, I know lots of people that find people offering them help offensive.

AO: Really? Why?

SB: Because of the natural British way of keeping things to yourself, a lot of people don’t like interacting with people while shopping.

I suppose that once you’ve experienced great service in that kind of environment, you start to appreciate what’s possible in a shopping experience.

AO: What do you mean by pleasant? Is there something about American shop service that sticks out for you?

SB: Politeness! A proactiveness. I find that in many UK shops, only if you’re confident enough to ask do you get service. In America, they are absolutely there to help you the moment you walk in the door, and this country, they’re hoping that you don’t ask.

AO: OMG, that’s how I feel too! I do feel like sometimes when I walk into giant chain stores, they are extremely put-out if I ask where something is. Which is weird, because I want to spend money in their shop. And that somehow doesn’t enter the equation. Why is that?

SB: I think it’s all down to what that staff thinks they’re there to do — at a lot of big stores, they don’t treat staff very well, they are just there to stack shelves and take money. The staff don’t have a share in their store’s success. They are not invested in going over and above their job description.

AO: But OK, so my question is, that in the standard job description for a cashier, let’s say, don’t you think provide excellent customer service generally included?

SB: Certainly was where I worked. I worked in a small, family-run department store as an assistant on the perfume counter. We had really strict standards of customer care. One of the main things I remember is not being allowed to talk to my colleagues if there was a customer in sight. We also were trained to engage with the customer and know our regular customers by name.

AO: About how often would you say you receive good customer service? And along those lines, when you receive good customer service, do you revisit those places?

SB: I would say about 20 percent of the time, to the extent that when I receive good customer service, I am over the moon about it. I’m generally quite loyal to the places which give me good customer service, so every time I go to those places I would be very surprised if I didn’t have a good experience.

AO: Share please! Where are you finding this wonderful experience in London?

SB: I have been quite lucky in that I used to live in Stoke Newington, which is a hive of small, independent retailers and restaurants. It’s such a competitive environment and there’s so much choice in terms of restaurants that service is something that sets people apart. There was an absolutely fantastic butchers and green grocers that I really miss now that I am no longer in the area. A Saturday walking down the high street was a generally lovely experience because there was such an interesting and diverse mix of retailers. And that’s something that’s quite hard to find these days. Shopping is no longer about browsing, but getting what you need and getting home as quickly as possible.

Even though I no longer live close to Church Street, I have already found a new favourite place in my new neighborhood. It’s a place called Coffee7, where they are a real community focused coffee shop. They have this program called Suspended Coffee where you can buy a cup for yourself and one for someone else who can’t afford a coffee. The staff are lovely. The first time I went in there, the woman behind the counter just struck up a conversation with me about the area.

On a bigger retailer scale, I’m a huge John Lewis convert. I just feel like they generally do everything they can to help you in-store and online to help you get what you need. And that leads to continued, repeat purchasing.

AO: What does good customer service look like to you?

SB: Being helpful, I’m quite an impatient shopper now, and I quite like to be able to ask someone if they have something rather than having to wander around. And I would expect that person to know or to be able to find it. Otherwise, I might as well order it online. What I’m looking for is, “We don’t have that, but we have this instead…”

When you are looking in a larger chain store, and if they don’t have something, they used to call another branch to find it. That seems to happen less and less these days. Office shoes is actually good at this — they can look up sizes and styles in any store (or you can do it yourself online).

AO: Thanks Sarah!

LoveYourLocal

Following on from our celebration of wonderful Independent Booksellers and motivated by our love for good customer service, we are launching a week of blogs devoted to shops in our area that are doing it right. We’re calling this week LOVE YOUR LOCAL WEEK. All week long, we’re going to be talking about the shops in our area that we love, and that love us back. At the end of the week, we’ll post a map of all the shops we mention so you can go visit too.

And we want to hear from you! Does customer service matter to you? Are you more inclined to buy things in bricks-and-mortar stores which provide you good customer service? Where have you received excellent customer service (please tell us, we want to visit!)?

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2 responses to “How can I help?

  1. This interview reminded me of my days In London when I used to work for a Coffee shop at Heathrow airport,(won’t name it) and although we would give our best we hardly experienced any “meet-cute” with the American customers and specially those who’d spent a while in UK and were departing back; they’d be so frustrated that they would complain about everything and anything. And, I used to always wonder why was that so, since customer service was our main focus, it always helped in adding that extra panini or the chocolate short-bread to go with the Americano or the latte. Or even sell that dangerously handsome tumbler to carry their coffee with style….Lol!!! Now I know why, they might have had some disastrous experiences outside the airport, no wonder they used to be so agitated!!

    “Love Your Local Week” what a fantabolous gesture, you rock (everyone) @Hotkey!

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