Friday, August 11, 2006

Why The British Should Complain More Regularly: The Case for Service

The British are famous for a lot of things--Waterloo, rolling fields, tea, the Queen, informative news programming, great cheese. . .a very impressive list of checked boxes in the "accomplishment" category. However, there is one thing that the British are a little lagging on.

That is: Service.

The Brits can poke fun at us Americans for dozens of things, and rightfully so. Yes, our currency is meaningless in comparison to yours--I pull out an American dollar bill and have to realize that it is worth the equivalent of a fifty pence piece. Our country is run by a man ignorant enough to think he's God's representative on earth and resembles an ape. There are lots of fat people in the US. We're, apparently, loud and boorish in comparison (however, we do have activites other than drunkenness to occupy our Friday and Saturday nights). However, in the US, if I need service, I get it with a smile no matter what I do or say to attempt another response from the server. It's very similar to poking around one of those Buckingham Palace guards that aren't supposed to move or speak. No matter what I do or say to an American service employee, I am still going to get fantastic, efficient service with a smile.

Not so here in the UK. Service here is horrible, save in chain stores that are American brands, such as Starbucks or Gap. You line up for absolutely everything. You may be in a line with seven people in front of you and the front-most person in line is having a debate with the counter clerk, but that clerk will not, under any circumstances barring fire or a hold up, call for back up to move the line faster for the customers. If you want to pay for something in the US, that's no problem--you can do anything as long as the money gets into the hands you're aiming for. When I tried to pay my credit card bill over the phone with my debit card--very standard practice in the US--I get a song and dance, a lot of excuses, and really, no explanation why that can't happen from the operator, but apparently, I have to send in payment in the form of check by post. I go to the library on campus--the signs say it closes at 5:15pm. Promptly at 4:55, I am ordered to leave the photocopy room so one of the employees can do the very physically taxing and time consuming task of turning off the machines, then gruffly told by one of the other employees that "We're closed" as I exit the room, regardless of the fact that every clock in immediate view says a range of times between 5:03 and 5:07. One Sunday, I went through hell and high water on the only-sometimes-efficient bus system in the city to get to Tesco. Upon arrival at 3:45pm, I was turned from the door by an employee explaining they were closing at 4pm--well, yes, I knew that, hence why I arrived fifteen minutes before closing. However, I still couldn't go in for the one item I needed, so I said to the guy, "And the reasons your country lost the American Revolution still persist today," while marching off.

In the US, service is key--it's the key to keeping your business going in the face of countless others. In any shopping center, there will be at least three stores all selling the item or type of items you're looking to buy, and the prices are all within about 10 USD of each other. As a result, what gets you to come back is how useful you found the staff, how willing they were to help you and how available they were, and just generally, how they treated you. If you were treated poorly, found no one to help you and waited in a long line at the counter, you may just leave behind what you were thinking of purchasing and then going into the store across the street. Although there are very many downsides to Capitalism, this is one of its best features. It forces a store to find a way to spend the least amount of money it can to operate while serving the customer as well as possible, and if that standard seems deficient, well, you never have to go back there again.

Not so in the UK. The way things are structured, you are FORCED to come back because that is probably the ONLY store for miles that is selling what you need or want. For example, the only sizeable drug store in York is Boots. It doesn't matter if they treat me like crap or as if I am descended from their royal family--I still have to go back there if I need painkillers or shampoo. Therefore, they treat you how ever they fancy. If the clerk at the counter wants to have a ten minute discussion with one of her regular customers, she can and she will because you may not wait in the line now, you may walk out in exhasperation, but you'll be back because you have to be.

My most recent poor service experience involves the bank--Barclay's Bank, to be specific. There are a lot of banks in York, so I cannot complain for want of suitable alternatives. It's more the principle of the thing that makes the difference.

Last month, I had to pay for my last housing installment at the University of York. This was a considerable sum--over 1000 GBP, and I had the money wired into my account from home to cover it. I was going to go back to the US for a short time, so I paid early by personal check at the office on campus, then went home.

While I was at home, I received a very brief e-mail from the bursar's office at the University. Apparently, my check had been refused for the funds, and the explanation had come back to them as "suspected fraud." The bank, of course, had not notified me at all--I was left in another time zone with only this piece of information to go on. I waited until a suitable time, then called the bank. The first issue was figuring out which number applied to my situation the best. I tried three of them, and each time, I had a teller give me a new number to try. By my third or fourth phone call, I finally got someone who had the information to help me and who was with the right department. I explained my situation--just the information I had via the e-mail. I asked why I had not been informed about it, with the reply that it wasn't bank "policy" to inform customers if their accounts were under inspection for fraud. Eventually, he transferred me over to a manager or some such supervisor named Paul. Paul at least had more answers. He had three of my most recently written checks in front of him as I spoke to him--all written between the beginning of June and mid-July. He told me that they expected all three of them of fraud because of how they looked. Why, then, did they allow two of them to clear without complaint and only stopped this one? He had no answers, only that they were "trying to protect and serve me as best as they could." Since there weren't going to be any explanations forthcoming in that capacity, I moved on to what could be done to clear the latest payment. He kept telling me what they looked like, as if that made them suddenly become invalid and fraudulent in the face of all I was saying to him to the contrary. Finally, he "relented" and agreed to redraft the refused check, and in addition, to stop this from happening again, he issued me a new checkbook.

Problem solved, right? Absolutely not.

I returned to York about a week later. As I deplaned in Manchester Airport, I noticed there was a message on my UK cell phone. While standing in the nearly endless immigration line at the equivalent, for me, of about 4am, I listened to it. It was from the bank. A woman who didn't audibly identify herself well said that she was from Barclay's Bank and wanted to talk about something having to do with the account, leaving me a number to call which I swiftly wrote down. The line, with at least seventy-five people ahead of me in it, had not moved up more than a foot or so in the meantime, so I was in no danger of being called to the podium in the near future. Instead, I called the number she left me--I even double checked the number several times on the message. The number, according to the operator's recorded voice, did not exist.

A few hours after returning to my room at the University, I called again, this time, the number that had finally been resolved upon when I first called the bank after I found out about the fraud charge. At first, although the teller could bring up my account on the screen, no one had any idea why I had been called, and I was put on hold for about ten minutes. Finally, someone apparently found something out because I was picked back up and then assured that I would speak again to the same Paul as before. When I finally got on the phone with him, he told me that they tried to redraft the check and could not, no explanation given. I asked him how he expected me to pay the department with an invalidated check book on my hands. Paul assured me that if I did write a check by this same means, he would clear it. Given the number of concrete answers I had received from Paul to that point to rather weighty matters, I decided not to risk it and paid the bill with my debit card instead.

Things got even more interesting when I went to the bank. Since the buses on my line only allow for payment in correct change, I regularly go to the bank to get one pound coins. That day, I used the end of my remaining English coinage to get to town, then went to the bank as usual to replenish my supply. As soon as I got to a teller and had my card swiped, there was a problem. A lot of numbers and letters on the teller's screen alerted her to a hold put on my account, stating that no transactions could occur on it. She checked with a manager, I explained what happened, and the transaction passed. I thought that I had seen the end of it.

I was very, very wrong.

The next day, I thought to do the same thing in order to ensure I had enough to do laundry. Right before I went into the bank, to make the transaction more simple, I took 100 GBP out of the cash machine on the side of the bank building. Then, I went inside, stood in the line, presented my card to the available teller. The same problem came up on my account again. This time, when a new manager looked at it, she wouldn't allow the transaction to follow no matter what I said, and proceeded to take me to the next available personal accountant. The manager stood there while two women looked at my account. I sat in a chair and listened to them talk in such a way to ensure that I said or asked as little as possible. No, there was nothing wrong with the account--it looked just fine--the whole issue was explained having to do with the check book. So, why was it affecting my card if it was check book oriented? It had to do with the whole account, so a block had been put on all transactions. So, why could I take money out of the machine? No real answer to that one. How come I was not notified when the check was suspected to be fraudulent? Because I may be committing fraud on my own account. With my own funds? What is the statistic of that happening? Sometimes it happens--it isn't bank policy to notify you. So, if you suspected fraud, why did your bank allow two checks that were believed to be fraudulent to pass through only stopping the third? My reply to this one was a quick change of subject that someone with a lower IQ would probably have still noticed. The "speaker" of the two female accountants was rather tiring of my questions, probably because she didn't have suitable answers to them, and thought that I would be satisfied if I were allowed my transaction to pass and sent on my way.

Well, the conflict of interests here was more than clear. I wanted to know the whys they didn't have answers to because I wanted the problem to be solved so I could go to a teller in peace. They thought that as long as I got what I came in for that day, that my temporary quick-fix satisfaction would be enough to carry me through the situation.

At home, I called the bank again. I spoke to another teller, who explained to me that the computer revealed a claim on the account that my personal banking information had been removed from my room. I asked the teller when this claim had been made and she said the date was the 20th of July--the same date I had called up the bank the first time right after receiving the e-mail from the bursar's office. I insisted that I had never said anything about that at all--and now, I was starting to get, very simply, a bit pissed off. First, the bank charges my account with fraud that wasn't the case, even suspected my account of it two checks before stopping the one that they did without doing anything about it and still insisting they were trying to "serve me as best as they could." Now, "Paul" had made the mistake of restricting my card transactions as well with a completely different problem that yet again, did not exist. The teller I was speaking to on the phone said to me that "my complaint was noted, but there was nothing he could immediately do about the problem." Surprise, surprise.

About twenty minutes later, the phone rang. It was another associate at the bank to which my complaint had been passed. She told me the same thing the teller had less than half an hour before, then explained it would be cleared up by Monday. I was even called on Monday morning by the same woman who said to me that "everything had been cleared up" and asked me whether or not I wanted that in writing. My reply? "Hell yes, send that right away."

To test this new assertion, I proceeded again to the bank. This time, I got a teller who recognized me and knew the circumstances. She put through my transaction only to find the same problem come up on her computer again. Since she knew me, I could get my money, but she suggested that I see one of the accountants on my way out and mention it, along with my recent phone call. I went to the podium, amply supplied with a large, blue sign that said "I'd Be Happy To Help" by the door. A young man was standing there. As soon as I got up to him, I handed him the card, saying to him "Your day and my day isn't going to get much better unless this gets cleared up." He told me, "My computer isn't working well, so I may not be able to see what is going on. My reply to him was "Well, then, you'll be finding another way to solve this problem." He swiped my card on the computer--nothing was showing as wrong. I took him to the teller myself, and she showed him what it said when she tried to put a transaction through on it. Basically, he had no idea what was going on. He stuttered that perhaps it took a day or two for the computer system to completely register any changes made to the account. I left, with the full intention of coming back the next day.

And, the next day came around, and I took my now daily stroll to the bank. I got to the same teller again. Not surprisingly, the same problem occured, and she told me to go to see the accountants. So, I did.

Finally, I got someone I had been through this song and dance with before at the "I'd Be Happy To Help" stand. It was one of the two women I had spoken to earlier, but this one wasn't the one who insisted upon talking to me then and refusing to answer my questions satisfactorally. I handed her the card, explained the situation, and she remembered me. Instead of asking me questions about why the problem continued, or what she could do about it, or showing me any sign of her being "Happy To Help," she insisted that all had been explained to me before and tried to hand me back my card to close the conversation.

That was it. I HAD it.

I looked at her straight in the eyes and said to her: "Look, I don't know how many times I have to come in and be a pain in the ass, here, for this to be resolved."
I stood still in front of her podium, making it clear through eye contact and body language that I was NOT going to be put off and I was NOT going to continue to deal with this.

She sighed, almost huff-like, and went behind the counter to find out exactly what the computer was saying. She returned with my card and a piece of paper with some writing on it. She explained that she would be just a minute, she had to call the bank branch in London. I heard her go behind the counters through a side entrance and say something in an exhasperated tone to whoever was there to listen to her. I know it had to have been something none-too-complimentary about myself, but I didn't care. She was actually doing something about the problem. Eventually, she came out again and gave a few pieces of paper over to another accountant who was sitting in front of a computer and brought up my information. The other accountant, another, more pleasant woman, picked up the phone to make a call, then, beckoned for me to join her while the previous, less "Happy To Help" accountant pointed me in her direction and resumed her place behind the ironically labeled podium.

The other woman spoke to someone at the London branch and explained the whole thing. Suddenly, within a few words, the problem was solved. She told me that if I had any more problems, to come to her directly on Monday and she would sort them out in person with me.

So, what's the moral of the story here? First, the irony of the line "We're trying to serve you as best as we can." NO ONE save the last woman and the very understanding, but limited in action tellers, served me as "best as they can." The accountant who was with me twice--she is the one I have the biggest beef with, but not only because she was so dissatisfied to help me. It was because she was there, steps and steps ago in this process, and she obviously knew how to take care of the problem. She didn't, for the sake of convenience for only herself, do anything for me until I stood there and literally made a scene. Only then was she forced to take action, but I don't think she realized that never would have happened had she done that in the first place.

Well, my British friends, on so many fronts, you one-up your American counterparts, but I'll tell you, this circus never would have happened in the US. Perhaps if the British learned how to complain, which never seems to happen, then something may be done.

At least if you make a scene, you'll have a good story to tell about it.


fairscape said...

Careful you don't have something go SPRONG in your head. All I can think of is the stories they'll be telling about you for the rest of time.

slskenyon said...

Yes, and good for them.
I hope you enjoyed the "entertainment value" of the piece, given that was, say, its point (Note to self: See "satire" in nearest dictionary).

Matt said...

Wow, you spend a lot of time writing in your "flat."

I'd have to say that, yes, fat Americans do piss me off. I am 170 pounds because I lift and run religiously. If I wanted to be over 200 pounds I suppose I could just start eating fried crap like you're typical midwesterner. God, what's wrong w/ these fat asses and then they're superstitious.

You might as well pray to the damn Tooth Fairy.

Worst country in the world!

But why the affinity for QE2? That sounds like a good name for a cruise ship.

Matt said...

Alright. Sounds like a damn Third World country.

Kat said...

So I should be fearful, very fearful, of my upcoming trip to London?!?

Anonymous said...

Erm...I'm really sorry you had a bad experience or several, but I can't quite believe you actually responded with a jibe about the American Revolution. Sorry, Steph, but that beggars belief. For one thing, no-one here actually gives a toss. For another, yes, service is sometimes poor in this country, but it is something of a two-way street.

British visitors to America have often complained to me about American service, for reasons that are rather different. The general impression we get is of a very poor, exploitative service culture where servers churn out the 'have a nice day' attitude regardless of inclination. Politeness is one thing, and there's no excuse for the absence of that, but a false effervescence is quite another - and let's face it, retail is no laugh. I happen to have quite enjoyed my forays into sales, but I know a lot of people who put up with rather shitty employment conditions to earn a crust. Being sniped at by someone for something they've probably been told to do by some faceless office-bound type does little to lighten the load, I can assure you.

The fact is, English people (can't vouch for the rest of these islands) have a big hang-up about jobs like that. It's a leftover of an old, bad class system, and sales assistants tend to be very aware of any 'attitude' from customers. I know that's not helpful - and I've had many a row with dodgy staff in my time - but frankly, compared to some countries in continental Europe, it's a picnic. I also think it's worth bearing in mind that I have seen numerous Americans being served in shops here, and it was quite apparent that they were expecting a level of service that, frankly, an old socialist like me doesn't. Right or wrong, I don't know, but that's the way I see it.

Can I also just say that as the victim myself last week of customers who rushed in a few minutes before closing and then proceeded to wander all over the place before finally, ten minutes after closing and having been politely reminded of this several times, doing us a favour and buggering off, that closing times are there for a reason and it is a requirement in many stores for tills to be closed at exactly closing time, otherwise they crash due to the way remote payments are set up. I have to concur that the bank situation is ridiculous, but that is a bad problem in this country which is undergoing some pretty stringent reform at the moment, hopefully with some success.

Sorry if this sounds unduly harsh, I do understand your irritation, but it's a different culture. You might not like it, but it's not gonna change anytime soon. My only real advice is that patronising the natives is never the best policy - the British 'reserve' does have some limits. There are ways and means to approach shop assistants here that will usually elicit a positive and helpful response, apart from in a few hopeless cases. Unfortunately, learning that takes a fair bit of time.

But I've got to return to this, because it amazes me: do you really think that coming out with a comment like that to a shop worker is in any way helpful? I don't mean to sound funny, but the first thing most English people think of when they see an American (especially in Yorkshire - frankly, my people were too busy starving and being exploited in heavy industry to care much about the exploits of comparatively wealthy colonists at that time) is not 'shit, we lost the Revolution!' It might be best to have a bit more tact when talking to a people who have had quite enough of being condescended to by our own countrymen, never mind anyone else. I'm a bit surprised that you haven't got some kind of a handle on Yorkshire identity yet, but I can't really blame you - our own dear BBC is the greatest offender.

slskenyon said...

Well, Gem, I am going to refer you in the same direction as the first poster, which is, to repeat myself again, to the dictionary entry for satire. This was meant to be an amusing piece, not a personal attack on all Englishpeople or service people, although I notice that a lot of those who get extremely offended at things like these also are those who have the easiest time poking fun at us Americans, our administration, and all the rest of it. If you wish to be offended rather than read it for what it was meant to be without my needing to put a disclaimer on it, or a big "SATIRE" sign in the title, well, that isn't my fault nor is it my problem.

And, I will warn you as you have felt so passionate to advise me, please be careful and be aware of who you are speaking to. If you doubt my awareness of being in a service position for any length of time, I can only refer you to my job experience for say, the last 10 years, the previous 4 full time.
Maybe, just maybe, part of the satire of this piece is: that I have been "Paul," I have been the accountants I spoke to and I have been the guy turning people away at Tesco.

Perhaps you, and anyone else who is indeed offended by this post, should reread it with that in mind next time instead of running off on that personal offense and not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees.

Philip said...

I guess that was one of the latent reasons I generally always disliked Europe

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, sorry, I do take offence. I haven't the slightest problem with America or Americans, merely with a few individuals who would no doubt have angered me if they were English, French or anything else, and I don't recall ever having made that kind of comment to you, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to opt out of your category of America-bashers.

It's a little bit too facile to write off any criticism as a sense of humour failure, don't you think? I appreciate that you often write tongue-in-cheek, but I've got to admit that it wouldn't be the first time I've been, frankly, annoyed by some of the rather ill-informed comments you've made about us. No-one's expecting you to love (or even like) all, most or any aspects of English life - I've been learning Spanish at a fairly advanced level for 8 years now and have visited the country for extended periods of time, and I have to admit that, while Spanish people are generally very nice, and I love their language and certain aspects of their culture, I come away fuming every time for a variety of reasons. This is why I know I wouldn't want to live there.

I also feel the need to point out that I'm well aware of your working background, and I respect that. However, I stand by the comments I made - if you were treated badly as a worker, I would have been on your side.

The point stands, sorry, and the advice - whether you choose to take it is entirely up to you. As someone who writes often myself, and rarely in a terribly serious light, I appreciate your need for satire, but I'll be honest - I don't think it's very charitable. There is a time and a place, and I'm the last person to advocate a tone of cringing respect towards any place or institution, but I have to say that if I went to America I would, all told, take the rough with the smooth. This is the same reason I was a bit baffled by the list you made of aspects of English culture you disliked - I could have understood genuine criticisms of the culture or place, but it largely amounted to a litany of 'what I can't buy in England'. Now, I'm sorry if it's an inconvenience to go without some favourite things, but it hardly makes us a 'Third World country' as one poster rather presumptuously said earlier in this thread.

The truth is, I can't remember one occasion when I've met you and you haven't had some complaint to make about England. That's your prerogative, but loudly denigrating something merely because it isn't America in front of people you're meant to be interacting with on an equal level is, to my mind, a mistake. I've no desire to fall out with you over this, but I'm afraid I'm not going to back down on it.

I think it might be worth remembering that, just as you evidently love your country, so others love theirs. I hate kneejerk anti-Americanism and slap it down when I hear it, which you'll be pleased to know is not very often outside a restricted circle of far-lefters. The fact is, I'm a Yorkshirewoman first, English second. We've come a long way in this county, and this country. I have sat through too many lame jokes about us not to be aware of the fine line between the humourous and the offensive, and the experience that is needed to ride it (one of your very best comedians, David Cross, is adept at this with his southern 'criticisms', being a native of Atlanta). We can take a joke, even many jokes - self-deprecation is the foundation of our sense of humour. But we have some limits. Looks like you've found mine, doesn't it?

slskenyon said...

Well, Gem, I'm sorry you feel that way. However, it is clear to me that your commentary has more to do with your personal feelings in relation to me than the content of this post. If this is the case, I would appreciate it if you would have the courtesy to address me one on one on the issues you raised rather than using my weblog commentary to air your dissatisfaction. You do not see me going to your blog and leaving long, insulting descriptions about how I perceive your opinions.

My blog is NOT your soapbox. Please discontinue using it as such, or I will be forced to moderate comments here in the future.

"Angeldust" said...

You are to be admired for your patience and persistence.
This example denotes an absolute lack of common courtesy, never mind customer service – wow – I closed and account at the Bank of Nova Scotia for less (they had a withdrawal limit a their branches that did not suit me after standing 20 minutes in line)

You are also very good natured, yes!

take good care
joy to you

Matt said...

Yeah, sometimes less is more.

Christina said...

I heard several comments, while living in London many years ago, about the propensity of Americans to say "have a nice day." It was always referred to as an example of American insincerity. I find that ironic because there were many instances where I heard the word "sorry" employed in all kinds of contexts where the speaker was most certainly not apologetic. So this cuts both ways.

I think service is on the decline, in general. So is decorum on the part of customers. And too often, people will continue to patronize a place where they complain about being treated badly. I see it happen all the time in the U.S.