What’s happened to great customer service?

What’s happened to American customer service? A decade ago there were hundreds of UK companies sending their customer service departments across the Atlantic to float around theme parks, hotels, retail outlets and restaurants just to see how it’s done. There was a worldwide consensus that the US had cracked this customer service mallarky, so the rest of the world paid a visit and learned a lot

But I’ll tell you something, those days are gone. A visiting customer service department could pick up some really bad habits if they repeated the process in 2008

I’ve been visiting the US regularly for the last ten years, and I’ve been to a fair few places. New York (the city and the wider state), Vegas, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Florida, all around New England, and a few places in Nevada and Arizona. So I’d argue that the sample from which my observations are drawn is reasonably broad. My main point being that the national obsession with customer service has more or less disintegrated. I’ve just returned from a break in Boston, so I’ll give some recent examples to illustrate the point

First, the journey over. My flight was booked through KLM, but I did notice it was a code share with NWA. I had hoped that the carrier would be KLM, but unfortunately it was not. Consequently myself and the other passengers had to put up with a crabby, short-tempered NWA cabin crew who gave short-shrift to many quite reasonable (to my ears at least) passenger queries and occasionally bickered quite openly with one another in the aisle. At one point it sounded like the gentleman behind me had somehow got his coffee poured all over his lap if the stewards words “It was your own fault, you moved your cup” were anything to go by. Hey, even if that was true, is it really so helpful to point it out? Scolded as well as scalded, what a combination

Was it lack of sleep? Were they demoralised for some reason? Who knows? Things were clearly not right, and the resulting level of service just seemed so unprofessional on both outbound and inbound journeys

So we arrive in Boston Logan and first off encountered a surprising little oasis of civility at passport control. In exactly the place you ‘d expect icy glares and barked requests, you actually get a smile and an occasional joke. Maybe it was my passport photograph, it has happened before. Baggage collection was another matter. The airport was not at all busy but we had a long, long wait (after passport control) before anything happened on the belts. Was it always like this? Possibly. On my travels in 2008 I’ve been through Dubai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Schipol, Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow and Karachi and the waiting time for baggage at Boston Logan was the longest

However it’s when you hit the malls that you really notice the change. The customer service in the stores is really in the doldrums. Take Abercrombie & Fitch. Now I do strongly suspect that the sales assistants here are recruited primarily based on a physical capability to promote the brand as in-store models, which they do quite well, but in their capacity as sales assistants they fall short, coming across as cold, self-absorbed and generally unhelpful.  Sister ship Hollister is the same. Maybe it’s just models acting like models so I may have no right to complain. I did note that A&F was virtually the only store steadfastly avoiding the “s word” (sale!). A strategic decision to protect the premium status of the brand, no doubt. This they will probably achieve, possibly at the expense of making sales, because their stores were not busy.  Maybe I’ve just got a downer on A&F because the teeth fell out of the zipper of the fleece I bought last year and they are ignoring my emails

Next we have a middle ground of retailers that fall under the category of “variable”. Meaning that if you wander in to one of their stores you could encounter something approaching a decent level of service. But then again you may not. Catch them on a bad day and you’ll get bored looking cashiers who seem to view the occasional attempt by a customer to make a payment in exchange for goods and services as a major inconvenience. Borders Books and Filene’s Basement were towards the poorer end of that scale, with American Eagle, Aeropostale, Aldo, Gap and Barnes & Noble generally a bit better, but never great

Starbucks was interesting. They’re making an attempt at a mini re-launch just now, with the offer of free wireless internet access for customers appearing to work quite well for them, they were busy. On the other hand, and I do accept that this may be an isolated incident, I did witness a fellow Brit trying, and initially failing quite badly, to secure the purchase of “a black tea”. He must have asked for it four or five times only to be met with looks from both servers that made me wonder if he’d actually asked for a peak at their underwear. Eventually he succeeded by describing the process by which a black tea is fabricated. “You know? You pour boiling water on to a tea bag? That’s it?”

[Hmm, that gives me an idea for a great new party game along the lines of Pictionary. I wonder …]

Starbucks may specialise in coffee (and free wireless internet access), but they do also offer a broader beverage portfolio with “black tea” not being (IMHO) a particularly outlandish request – just a training issue perhaps? At least they seem to be making an attempt

Then we have Macys. Where do I start with Macys? If anyone is even thinking about challenging the general theme of this post I suggest you endure “The Macys Experience” before you prepare your counter attack

While the staff at Borders Books and Filene’s Basement project “bored” and “mildly inconvenienced” quite well, Macys takes it to a whole new level. They are literally in a class of their own. As an example I was served once by the most miserable looking cashier it is possible to imagine. The girl actually managed to take my purchase, fold it, wrap it and process the credit card transaction without making eye contact or uttering a single word. Counterfoils were slid across the counter and tapped with an index finger, and for the most part she focussed her gaze on a small patch of floor to her right, sometimes the ceiling, occasionally on the register, and the transaction was brought to an end when she spun on her heal and shuffled off (much to the bewilderment of the people behind me in the line, I might add). I walked a safe distance and hid behind a rack of clothes so I could see what happened next. It turned out that after about a minute, the three remaining people in the line had a short conversation with each other, exchanged shrugs and wandered off, presumably hoping to find a cashier who was at least there in body if not in spirit

Now call me obtuse, but surely there has to be something in their training program that tells them that isn’t right? Is there a training program? Or do they just watch Fawlty Towers re-runs?

I’ve racked my brains trying to pinpoint a reason for this decline. It’s too easy to blame the current credit crunch, and anyway the decline started long before these recent troubles. Actually, if anything you’d think standards of service would become more critical under these current conditions when transactions are fewer and competition more fierce. In fact it’s possible the reason could be the exact opposite. The decline could be a result of times being too good for American retail over the preceding 5 or 6 years. A weak dollar brought in tourists and kept them spending when they arrived. It also made staying and spending at home more attractive for Americans. Maybe retail was actually having it too easy, got lazy and fell into bad habits as a result

Whatever the reason it certainly wasn’t always like this, and in Vegas it still isn’t. On my first visit to the US about 10 years ago, I wandered into some shop or other inside Caesar’s Palace, on the morning after my arrival, semi-jet-lagged, a few paces behind my wife who was charging on ahead of me. It may have been Gap we went into, but I can’t be sure

“Hello, how are you today?” chirped a young greeter in the doorway

“Oh, er, I’m OK thank you” I replied, a little taken aback

“You look really tired. Are you with her?” she motioned towards my wife. “ Why don’t you go sit on that sofa while she does her shopping. You can have yourself a break while she has a look around the store”

“Oh … thanks … I will … thanks”

This is American customer service, I thought as I sat on the sofa. OK, you do expect to be encouraged to “have a nice day” in a sing-song type of voice twenty times a day for every day that you walk round an America Mall even now, but she actually seemed to mean everything she said. Not dead behind the eyes. I then reflected that it was in fact a well executed strategy. After all I was out of the way of my wife on the sofa, the enemy had been disarmed. Instead of following my wife around the rails looking truly miserable and employing other subtle techniques to increase the chance of a hasty exit from my retail hell, I was quarantined, sat on a sofa while my credit card stole itself for a punishing work out. It was so simple and perfect I was almost proud to have been a part of it

I’ve heard a lot of people over the years criticise Las Vegas, with the words “false” and “phoney” being thrown around. I sometimes wonder how many of these people have actually been there because I don’t share that view at all. I call it professional. Las Vegas knows exactly what it is and has designed its processes to deliver. These little customer service techniques are employed because they work and they work well because the players work at their game. Small town America, where you get more family run enterprises also continues for the most part to be great (although the Happy Days Diner in Schuylerville, NY is an exception – I won’t go into details)

So what is happening to American customer service? And, more to the point, when is it going to wake up and get back to what it used to do best?

One thing is for certain. If you’re thinking of sending your customer service department to America, you should stick to Vegas

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One Response to “What’s happened to great customer service?”


  1. [...] A year ago I was so shocked by deteriorating standards of service in the USA I ranted about it in a post, naming names to such an extent that Ezine refused to re-publish it. You’ll note Starbucks [...]

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