Is good customer service dead?

I was in Fortnum and Mason over Christmas. I worked out long ago when choosing a present that it's better to give people a very expensive version of something cheap, rather than a cheap version of something expensive.

In other words, a Fortnum's packet of biscuits goes down better than a big Poundland hamper.

So every December I spend an hour or two mulling over the Fortnum cheese biscuits and boxes of mince pies, which I know would be a real treat for my sensible friends and family who would never buy them for themselves.

Having filled my basket, I went to the counter, and a pretty young female assistant, with a plummy voice, told me the total I owed - without looking up. "Are you doing this as a holiday job?" I asked.

For the first time, she made eye contact. "Yes, I am."

"I thought so," I said, in my best Mary Portas manner. "The reason I knew is that you served me without ever looking at me." She did stare at me then, but without a smile. A think bubble appeared over her head with "whatever" written all over it.

I suppose she was making holiday money, and had already decided the life of a shop assistant was not for her. But even so, as I nearly told her, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well.

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A dying art

Service is an attractive, old-fashioned word, like graciousness and courtesy. It implies caring about other people, taking care of their needs nicely. There is something chivalrous about service. People need to be trained to serve well, like the knights at King Arthur's round table.

My school-girl shop assistant had obviously never been trained, unlike the full-time Fortnum's staff, who take pleasure in looking after us customers. But service is a dying art. In these computer-dominated times, though you can program a computer, you can't train it to give good service. 

Recently, I've had a bit of argy-bargy with the M&S Money online customer service, which saddens me, since I have always associated M&S with excellent standards of service. But this time the M&S Money online system got into a real strop.

First it accused me of failing to make a minimum payment (because my cheque had got stuck in the post), then when my cheque arrived it told me I was wildly in credit. However, on the statement it asked me for yet more money, and docked my credit allowance.

It was gobbledygook, and it took an age to locate a real person to unravel it all. But when I did, the person treated me like a customer instead of an account number, and managed to prevent the automated system charging me loads of interest and late payment fines.

The same thing happened when I was taking my washing into the launderette. Launderettes are an industry as old as the knights of the round table, but I'm not sure they have an equally long history of chivalry and service.

Recently, my cheque to my launderette got lost in the post as well, so it invoiced me again for everything. I rang up to explain. A gruff man on the other end was extremely defensive, and the more I explained why I didn't want to pay again in case the cheque turned up, the more he huffed and puffed.

In the end, I put on my old That's Life! voice and said, "I'm going to pretend that you've just said to me, 'You're a valued customer, madam, and I want to thank you for your patience. We'll sort this out as quickly as we can. In the meantime, suppose we send you our bills by email, so that you can pay them by credit card? That would avoid any problem of cheques getting lost in the post.' Would you like to say that to me?"  

He huffed and puffed a bit more, and the conversation ended. But whether Mr Launderette (or indeed the shop assistant at Fortnum's and the M&S Money automated system) learned anything about the nature of true service, I wouldn't know.

Let's stay optimistic, after all, as the laundry proverb has it, where there's life, there's soap.

Your Comments

I live in Birmingham and we have a furniture store not to far away called Dennets. This store provides real old fashioned service.
Polite, very well dressed staff. The know what they are talking about and extremely professional.
We had purchased a three piece suite from them a few years ago and went back a few years later, as we walked through the door and being acknowledged, they remembered us from before.
Nothing is to much trouble and you are never rushed. When we went back the last time for a three piece suite, we took along a sample of the carpet we were having fitted. They left us alone while we looked around and even let us leave our sample there while we went for a coffee to talk about the decision we had made.
A lot of companies today should take stock and spend time with this store to learn the qualities needed to serve the public.
We cannot speak highly enough of them

Hi, this article made me very sad. There seems to be so many things that have fallen by the wayside in recent years and I find it very disturbing. I heard a radio 4 programme about rudeness & how it has been surveyed and that people, in general don't mean to be rude but just lead very busy lives and just don't have the time for the little nicities anymore! Holding the door for some one behind you, not pushing past people in the supermarket isle, waiting a second or two for that chap to pick up his bag of frozen pea's before you lean over saying "sorry, can i just..."
Generally, we have never been really great at giving good service in our green and pleasent land but it really has gotten worse. The advent of automated phone-lines and on-line shopping really hasn't helped. In the interest of cost cutting and efficiency we have forgotten that great service makes us want to go back & buy again.
I guess I shouldn't be too sad about this though, as it is helping our business. We stand out of the crowd. We have a small but perfectly formed company that sells downloadable software. How very technology and non customer facing that sounds! All on-line, find what your looking for and in a few minutes you have your software.
However, if you can't find what you're looking for or if you are having trouble with your software, if you don't know what you want or if you just bought the wrong thing and want a refund we are there on the end of a chat window or a phone line. We will be courteous, gracious and just about as helpful as anyone can be & our customers come back for more time after time.

I believe this is just one of the ways we can "make things better". Lets look back and think how we used to do things, interact and communicate again, REALLY communicate.