Written by Frederica


When I was a student, I worked part-time in an attended petrol service station.  We pumped petrol for the customers, cleaned windscreens as a matter of course, took the money and returned with the change.  We also offered water for radiators, oil top-ups and ‘Redex’ shots with the petrol as extras.  No-one was permitted to stand idle if there were customers to serve and everyone mucked in with a view to sending customers on their way as quickly as possible so as not to cause them any unnecessary delay.  Customer satisfaction was all!

Thus, Customer Service has always been a bit of a ‘thing’ with me.  Perhaps because many of my jobs during my working life were ‘customer facing’  I came to believe that business thrives when it invests in a workforce that will give genuine service and ensure customer satisfaction. I have argued this point many times over the years with my line managers.  I had the following quotation pinned up on my office wall:

“People are the only appreciating asset you have in business.  All other assets disappear; you write them off.  You depreciate them every year.  In five years a machine is counted as nothing in the balance sheet.  But your people count and age makes them more experienced and gives them better judgement – if they are capable of learning, which most people are”.  – Sir Monty Finniston, former British Steel Chief

But, these days, nobody seems to believe that Customer Service matters any more.  Brits seem to be too proud to give ‘service’.  Perhaps because the word carries unpleasant echoes of the time  of domestic service and the unwelcome connotations of tugging forelocks or bobbing curtseys to the masters and mistresses of the landed gentry.  I guess that it chimes with an identification with ‘slavery’.  And yet, such days are likely to return unless the people of Britain manage to shake off their sloth and reclaim their freedom from the present generation of ‘lords and ladies’ of modern political thinking!

My grandmother was in ‘service’ during her younger years and even my own mother began her working life ‘in service’ in the years before the Second World War.  My grandmother was vociferous in her championing of the ‘old ways’ and used to regularly harangue my Mother about her determination to have her daughters properly educated so that they did not have to follow that life.  My grandmother frequently told my Mother “Put them into service.  Service was good enough for me!”  We girls were not at all keen to follow that exhortation!

I believe that there is a world of difference between the ‘service’ of the old days and the genuine ‘customer service’ that most of us would very much like to receive today.  One company that I worked for did believe in the concept of good ‘customer service’.  It believed so implicitly that it commissioned an agency to give a training course to all the staff – including managers and directors!  Because much of our work began with telephone contact, the first thing we were taught was ‘smile’ when talking to customers on the phone.  They even put yellow ‘smile’ stickers up on every phone and on office walls and notice boards.  

One position I held was as business manager affiliated to a team of sales staff.  My role was to facilitate any finance required to secure the deals.  Occasionally, ‘the computer said no’.  Sometimes it was obvious as to why the deal had been declined.  In other instances, it was clear that the computer was not necessarily right.  Often upon investigation, it became clear that records had not reflected the true situation.  Thus with a little persistence and with the co-operation of the customer I was able to resolve some of these ‘unacceptable’ cases.  Customers showed their appreciation by sticking to their deals through their terms and returning again to put further business in our way.  The business I put through was always audited and any cases that went ‘bad’ would have been swiftly brought to my attention.  I only ever had one in all the time I was in that job (quite a few years!). 

I had customers coming back to bring me flowers and chocolates when the deal that had been done made all the difference to their lives.  I used to keep a box of children’s toys in my office for use when clients brought in their offspring.

These days, it seems you are more likely to encounter a ‘grouch’ at the end of the phone or blank stares in places of business if you ask for service. ‘Owning the problem’ seems to be an alien concept!  The prevailing ethos seems to be to plead ignorance and offload the customer and their enquiry on to someone else at all costs.  Actually taking responsibility for resolving a customer problem is anathema!  Utility companies in particular are some of the worst customer service providers, closely followed by the banking institutions and tradesmen.

What has happened to the ‘national psyche’ that makes people unwilling to offer ‘service’?  The advent of off-shore call centres no doubt has much to do with the decline.  Being faced with someone who can hardly converse with you in your own language hardly encourages customers to want to do business with any company.  And yet, despite claims by some companies that they are repatriating their call centres onshore, there is so little choice.  The sense of National Pride in Country and Product has declined almost beyond redemption.

Britain used to be a fine manufacturing and exporting nation.  Greed and ever increasing profit margins to pay huge salaries and bonuses to those at the top of our business institutions (at the expense of those at the ‘coal face’ who actually carry out the day to day work – those ‘appreciating asset staff members’) has destroyed much of what made this Country great!  

Our political ‘class’ has little or no idea – or even interest – in re-building the National business capacity and reputation.  More than 40 years of subservience to the European Union (which many of them have only ever known!) has rendered Britain unable to reclaim the world standing that we once enjoyed.  Pockets of entrepreneurial businesses exist and are trying to give the old style service.  All praise to them.  But they are the exception rather than the ‘norm’ today.

How much I mourn the passing of those old-style businessmen such as Sir John Harvey Jones who knew the value of their workforces and actually understood the companies that they were running.  Now companies are ‘run’ in the main by ‘bean counters’ and those on the endless ‘revolving door’ of ambition whose main objective is to milk the highest salaries that they can negotiate on the slimmest of qualifications.  What ‘value add’ can they claim to bring to the industries and companies, into whose higher echelons they worm their way?

‘Service with a smile’ and the ‘customer is always right’ are concepts that appear to have gone the way of the dodo. 


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