Listening to other peoples' stories of bad service has become as uninteresting as hearing your hairdresser's latest holiday experience. We try to empathise and nod sympathetically while mentally we glaze over. But bear with me – there is a point to the stories that follow, and a possible way out of the jungle of indifferent service, in many ways a more subtle enemy of real improvement than poor service.

wordle image for The Great British No and How To Change ItMy wife and I recently visited an up-market hotel in the Cotswolds for afternoon tea. The lady on reception bounded from behind her table to inform us it wasn't possible. Why? Because it wasn't being served in the residents' lounge. She eyed us with the grudging suspicion so many in our country direct toward people who want to spend money with then.

Unaware that there were separate lounges, we said that was fine. But, no, they were short staffed and not serving (despite a large sign outside indicating tea was being served now!).

Eventually we negotiated this hazard, but upon sitting we were told initially what was not on the menu that Sunday afternoon. Thankfully a Swedish waitress appeared and charmingly told us what she could serve.

I then asked the receptionist as she passed by if I could show my wife the charming walled garden that had first attracted me to the hotel. "No - it's not open to non-residents." This was the same hotel that had been very efficient in taking a full cancellation fee from me for a night we couldn't stay at short notice due to a family illness.

An isolated incident? Two months later I was there again and saw a sign outside the same hotel advertising 'morning coffee now being served'. I tried my luck once more, only to be told by the man behind the desk that they had just finished serving and, no, they wouldn't make an exception.

It would be churlish to name the hotel (it's the Close Hotel in Tetbury by the way). The experience brought home to me a notion I'd been toying with for some years, that the British brain is hard-wired to say "no". This may be a survival strategy to defend one's self from the indignity of having actually to serve someone, and often manifests itself as defensive and surly behaviour. This may be the major cultural barrier to the successful implementation of Focus on the Customer initiatives.

I remember the large number of encounters over the years when I'd be told 'no, not possible', sometimes even before asking. How many times have you phoned directory enquiries only to be told, "no, the number's not listed". Hang on for a few moments – it will annoy the hell out of them because they've been targeted to deal with you quickly rather than effectively – and ask again, twice more if necessary, and they'll often find it. "Oh, is that how you're spelling Smith – S…M…I…T…H…? Here's the number." But many callers have hung up after the first 'no', as they do after trying to breach the first line of defence in a call centre, or speaking to a store assistant who claims no knowledge of the product that's sitting on the shelf right behind them.

"There's a shortage of ground plastic, sir", I was once informed by a sales assistant, explaining why the chemist was out of combs. The next shop had hundreds of them – narrow tooth, wide tooth, tortoiseshell, children's, any colour you like. It seems the favourite national pastime is making the customer run the gamut of blockers like:

"I wouldn't want to promise."
"Can't say."
"The computer's down." (said with great glee)
"We may have one."
"Nobody stocks that within 50 miles."
"I haven't got a clue." (used three times by a Dixons' 'consultant' in a three minute conversation.)

Thanks for your patience. Yes, I'd rather be telling stories of great or even legendary service myself, but the great national 'no' – often accompanied by a slight negative movement of the head and much pursing of the lips – sticks in my craw. And probably yours, too. Also, it's not confined to individual encounters as you can have a similar experience dealing with company systems that are mainly designed for the convenience of the server rather than the customer.

How often do you ring a call centre and find that your story is cut across with urgent requests for reference numbers, post codes and personal information which you'll then have to repeat at length to the next person on discovering this isn't the right department? This leads me to engage in childish games of avoidance, a low grade form of consumer aggression in which I give the individual at the other end of the line my personal reference number, made up on the spur of the moment and often running to 24 characters. I insist this is quoted on all future correspondence to me.

Does it have any effect? No. does it make me feel better? A little. And that's the point: because of the subtle form of rejection I have experienced, the relationship I've entered is oppositional, strained, ever so slightly war-like.

A poet recently described how he'd discovered the real fuel that Britain runs on. It's called suppressed rage. It's cheap to produce but expensive in its negative effect. Many – far too many – people in service roles are running daily on this fuel and indiscriminately pumping it to their customers. There isn't space here to analyse all the causes of this: the concept of service as servility; the relatively poor pay of many service providers; the continuing legacy of a highly stratified society, and so on.

Whatever the cause, the need now is to create systems, people, processes and experiences that say "yes, come in, welcome" to the customer.

Compare the signage outside a San Francisco-based retailed of mechanical toys, Woundabout, with messages you see in many a UK retailer – 'Breakages must be paid for.' 'No food or drink.' 'No returns without a receipt.' Change should begin here as the customer is already experiencing a vague sense of rejection. The same principle can be applied to phone systems that amazingly tell you your call is valuable while forcing you to listen to rather more Vivaldi than you would have chosen in this lifetime.

Woundabout's Guide To Fun

  • Please do touch the merchandise.
  • Feel free to play with anything in the store, except the employees.
  • If you break it . . . relax, we know you didn’t mean to.
  • Because we care. . . share demo toys with others.
  • Food and drinks allowed – enjoy!
  • Speak any language – except foul.
  • If you’re under 18 you must be with someone older.
  • Our toys carry a lifetime guarantee – the lifetime of the TOY, not YOURS.
  • All sales are final (more or less) .
  • Most importantly, our employees are instructed NOT to say “Have A Nice Day”.

But the real enemy is the 'no' response often unconsciously expressed by the service behaviour, but felt so keenly by the customer. It's not so much a case of the glass half empty, more like 'we don't even have a glass!' The consultants in my business, Service Legends, became so frustrated at the lack of sustainable change in service behaviour in many organisations that they have created a simple new approach to the customer called Connectives™. All of this is geared to switching the service reflex to a 'yes', giving the customer a positive buzz and helping them to enjoy and even be enriched by the experience. Even if the answer has to be, ultimately, a 'no'.

In outline, here are the steps. I make no apologies if they seem mind-blowingly simple because my insight is that the simple stuff has been absent from many an organisation's cultural radar screen for far too long.

Firstly, Connectives™ looks at the status and style issues involved in typical customer transactions. Are you, for instance, wanting to be an equal partner with your customers, a sympathetic but subservient helper, a technically accurate professional, etc. The logic here is clear. Not all kinds of customer-facing behaviour is appropriate in all kinds of situations or industries. While preserving individuality, it’s important for people to know which kind of relationship they are trying to create. Only in this way can they connect appropriately with a customer’s expectations.

Secondly, Connectives™ explores how to create a ‘yes’ in customers. This is not sales technique or trickery. It’s to do with positive affirmation of customers’:

  • State of mind
  • Level of knowledge
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Specific needs and wants

The ‘no’ reflex, even if occasionally appropriate, creates a sense of rejection.

Thirdly, Connectives™ focuses on creating relationships first, and an operational or technical response second. Naturally, this needs some flexing according to situations – some customers just want to order and go – but it’s based on the notion that relationships come first, and provided you are competent it will be both a differentiator and source of future business. Also, if you have a stronger relationship, customers will forgive you a great deal!

Last is the theme of continued connection. Certain behaviour reinforces and provides a long-term learning relationship with a customer which:

  • Puts the power of your attention on customers
  • Recognises patterns and critical points in the relationship
  • Respects and tunes into customers’ most prized asset… their individuality.

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.