Is good customer service dead?

Published by Esther Rantzen on 16 March 2011.
Last updated on 28 March 2011

Esther Rantzen

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.

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