Brits battle bad service: The UK’s customer care crisis – Matthew Brooker

Brits battle bad service: The UK’s customer care crisis – Matthew Brooker

Matthew Brooker delves into the enduring issue of declining customer service standards in the UK, attributing it to cultural factors and bureaucratic rigidity. Highlighting anecdotes and data, Brooker explores how this trend impacts businesses and suggests avenues for improvement in customer experience.

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By Matthew Brooker

Every nation has its eternal truth. Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be. In Britain, where the obsequious butler or maid is a staple of the world’s imagination, customer service is forever getting worse.

Reports of bad and declining standards of service are a staple of UK media going back decades. Such tales resonate. Everyone has a story about the poor treatment they received from a bank, restaurant, airline, utility company or health insurer. They are almost always bad experiences — these are the ones that stick in the mind. That’s one reason why conclusions drawn from anecdotal evidence should be treated with caution. The data, though, tell the same story. A biannual customer satisfaction index compiled by the London-based Institute of Customer Service and based on a survey of 15,000 consumers fell to its lowest since 2015 in January and has declined for three straight periods.

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Having returned from three decades in Asia around the 2022 high point of the institute’s survey, I hadn’t noticed the deterioration. That’s not a commendation. It’s just that the most trying encounters were clustered at the beginning, during the period of initial adjustment to life back in the UK. Some experiences have been good — helpful, polite people willing to go out of their way to fix problems or strive for higher rates of satisfaction. Nonetheless, there are some striking differences with what I became accustomed to in Hong Kong.

What stands out most is the bureaucracy and the rigidity of many who administer it. I abandoned an attempt to open a UK account with HSBC Holdings Plc after being unable to prove my address. Try doing anything as a new arrival in Britain without a utility bill, a magical document that can open more doors than a passport. Having been an HSBC customer for 30 years in Asia didn’t count; neither did the letter that the utility company provided in place of a bill. “We can’t accept that,” the branch employee said, before it was more than a quarter way out of the envelope.

Forms and procedures that serve no discernible purpose proliferate. The traditional model of retailing is: Customer hands over money, shop hands over item, transaction is complete. John Lewis Partnership Plc required me to provide a name, address, phone number and email address before it would fetch a lamp that was in stock. Could the department store just scan my membership card, which contained all these details? No. John Lewis consistently ranks near the top of customer service surveys in Britain — and deservedly. But still. 

I sometimes miss the agility and pragmatism of Hong Kong service. It can be a little rough around the edges (“surly” and “rude” are less charitable descriptions), but speed and problem-solving tend to be prized. A customer-service person for a mobile-phone company once cut short a debate about whether I was liable to pay a break fee for moving to another carrier by interjecting: “OK, what about this: You pay half.” Such midstream adaptations are a rarity in the UK.

Handwringing over the perceived decline in standards isn’t idle rumination. Companies that earn superior customer satisfaction ratings post higher revenue and profit growth, and have fatter operating margins, according to the institute’s research. So getting businesses to raise their game should be an easy win for an economy dependent on consumer spending that has been stuck in a rut of subpar growth and stagnant productivity for more than a decade. Any regression in standards represents a missed opportunity.

Is this really happening, though? I’m not convinced. The customer satisfaction index hit its peak in mid-2022, just as Britain was coming out of the pandemic. “Covid forgiveness” was the term coined by Peter Pritchard, former chief executive officer of Pets at Home Group Plc, to describe customers’ willingness to tolerate substandard service during these testing conditions. This spirit subsided once the emergency passed. The era of Covid forgiveness “is over,” trade publication Retail Week declared presciently in July 2022. The index has fallen ever since.

If service hasn’t deteriorated as much as the survey suggests, I would also temper optimism on the size of any potential improvement. There are things that could help. Companies must resist pressure to cut costs in customer-facing roles. The training, incentives and authority given to these employees are also crucial. And the technology that drives AI chatbots (the source of much frustration) can only improve with time. But the deeper issue may be cultural.

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There is a strain of British society that doesn’t accept the concept of service. Why this should be is an interesting question. The Anglo-French chef Michel Roux once attributed it to the legacy of Britain’s class system, in which being “in service” meant being a full-time resident minion of the aristocracy. Freed from servitude by the collapse of this system, we British have been rebelling against any hint of subservience ever since. Taking refuge in bureaucratic rules can be seen as a form of passive resistance against uppity customers.

This tendency helps to explain Britain’s reverence for Fawlty Towers. The 1970s sitcom commands enduring popularity not only because it is very funny but because it inspires instant recognition. John Cleese’s downtrodden hotel manager is an English archetype — brittle, snobbish and outstandingly rude, railing against the unreasonable demands of his occupation such as being nice to people. Parts of the British national psyche still cling to the self-destructive grandeur of this attitude. It does have a certain magnificence. It doesn’t seem likely to be very good for business, though.

Could Britain be better at customer service? Surely. In the end, I’m not sure it wants to be.

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