American customer service always interested me. Growing up, my brother lived in California and my frequent trips to the South Coast were always followed by me sneering at UK customer service. “This would never happen in the States” or “If this happened in America our meal would be free” were comments that were often muttered by me after crossing the Atlantic.
It seemed to me, at the time, that America was the Holy Grail of customer service. Their staff were friendly, well engaged and great at problem solving. When I started my own property business over 20 years ago I wanted to emulate the experience I had witnessed first hand in America. The book “The Magic Kingdom” became part of my training programme. Disney, to my mind in particular, was the gold standard of world-class customer service. Nothing was too much for their staff and the inspirational tale of their “traditions” training programme which taught their staff to not only “talk the talk” but “walk the walk” was close to my business heart for may years.
But, like the wicked witch in so many fairy tales, something is going wrong in the US of A. I have had an American resident staying with my family for 3 weeks and she currently rates American customer service as a lowly 4 out of 10. That prompted me to re-think whether or not America was still a world leader in customer service. Fortunately, I had two rather excellent sources of information. The first was my friend P and the second a senior manager M.
P has an annual pilgrimage to the States with his family. A trip that is not only undertaken with military precision but one that he blogs about in minute detail and has done for the last 7 or so years. P shares my schoolboy type humour and whilst I enjoy reading his blog greatly, I have noticed a dis-chord appearing in his musings. This came to a head just after our American house-guest dropped the “things ain’t what they used to be” bomb. It was great timing.
P had received, shock horror, poor customer service at both a very famous Las Vegas hotel and a high street, up market retailer. Now, whilst I may feel that P is a little old to be shopping at A&F, his story there correlates with the under-laying message from our lodger; that beyond the saccharin sweet “Good afternoon, welcome to "  there is very little depth to American customer service. Yes, they get the start bit really right but when it comes to actual problem solving, they tend to Flounder a bit (see what I did there?)
By sheer co-incedence, M has just returned from a similar trip to the one that P completed a few weeks ago. Hitting, California, Vegas and some other parts of the West Coast, I was keen to hear her thoughts. The news was not good.
M had recently read “The Magic Kingdom” before her trip and, following her comments, I know actually feel pretty guilty for introducing her to this book. I fear that some of her disappointment with her Disney experience is perhaps as a result of the high standards spoken about in the book. Standards that were certainly present in the parks when I visited over a decade ago but were sadly missing during M’s visit. Her visits to retail stores revealed the same sort of experience that Paul had. To compound matters, even a leading American airline’s staff were found to be “moody” and seemed to have a “couldn’t be bothered” attitude.
The main issues around both l and M’s visits centred around the “walking the walk” part of the customer experience detailed in “The Magic Kingdom”. This, for those who haven’t read the book, is all about not just the delivery of world class customer service, but the attention to detail that involves. The example the book gives is the gold paint on the carousel at Disney. The book claims that Disney use real gold foil as opposed to gold coloured paint. The idea is that although most guest would not know, the staff know and this helps the staff understand the idea of walking the walk and how Disney value attention to detail.
As I said before, the greetings from American staff were found to be universally excellent, but the problem solving and even physical presentation of some stores and the parks were found to be well below par. Poor M spent some of her time, much to her partners amusement, taking photos of chipped paint and worn fittings.
Given my previous, almost love-affair like obsession with the American way of doing things, all of the above made me a little sad. I am unsure as to how America seemed to lose her way but there is good news (albeit if not for actual Americans).
My experience of customer service in the UK has been, generally, positive. Now, obviously not everyone gets it right all the time. Afterall, the very fact that humans are dealing with humans creates the scenario where mistakes can be made but I suppose the point here is not just how customers are dealt with but how we, as service suppliers or retailers, deal with those customers when things go wrong.
I think we in the UK get it. For the most part, we seem to understand what good customer service both looks like and feels like. I travel a fair bit and this year have been to France, Morocco, Cape Verde, Belgium, Amsterdam, Spain and Greece. I can honestly say that I am proud of how we deal with customers and clients in the UK.
My most recent, positive experience of world-class customer service was whilst staying in a rather nice hotel in Luton. I was in the lounge area and had lost my room key-card. I was patting down my trouser pockets trying to find, when a junior member of staff who was passing by, stopped to ask if I was ok. I explained that I had lost my room key and said that I felt it was probably in my room. She kindly escorted me to my room, waited outside whilst I located my room key, and then bid me a good afternoon. She could have simply walked past me. She could have even directed me to the reception to have them deal with it. But no, she took ownership of a problem that was not hers and resolved it. That to me is world-class customer service.
Have you had any world class customer service recently? Have you visited the States and had an amazing time or did you also leave a little disappointed? It would be great to read your comments.