Three Anecdotes

28 Sep

First off, let me preface this post by saying that British people are nice. They are. Really. Now let me also say this: when at work, Brits seems to derive some kind of pleasure by making things as difficult as possible for the customer, e.g., me. It’s as if they have never heard of the concept of customer service, much less the radical notion that the customer is right. Three examples:

1. The Mobile Phone: I brought my iPhone here with the intention of setting up a 12-month contract on O2, one of the local mobile networks. I went in to the store, and they ran me through the application process, but got an error message when their computer was checking out my bank details. They politely told me that I needed to confirm with my bank that my address was correct. I said “no problem,” and headed down to my bank, who confirmed with me that my bank details were indeed correct. I trotted back up the street, and tried again with O2. Again, same problem, but this time the O2 attendant suggests that there may be a problem with my UK credit history, and tells me to consult my bank. I ask if she can provide me with any details, and she replies that I would have to email their company headquarters to get more details. I ask about a phone number to call, and she says there isn’t one.

So, I gamely trot back down the street to my bank to check one more time. The teller at the bank gives me a deadpan expression and says, “I’m sorry, but we really can’t help unless we have more details from O2 about the specific nature of the problem.” I am starting to get irritated. I decide to go downtown to O2’s main location, and see if they can help. I go through the application process yet again, and again the same problem. As politely as I can, I tell the O2 saleswoman “I am trying to spend my money with you. There has got to be some way around this! Is there anything you can do?” Very sincerely, she tells me that I could visit the O2 headquarters…in Leeds. That’s right, Leeds! That’s over 200 miles away! I can hardly believe my ears. The ridiculousness of her suggestion slowly washes over her, and she then says, “Er, well, you could write them a letter if you wanted.” A letter?! What year is this, 1952?! She finally gives me an email address for customer complaints. I practically beg her for a phone number to call, but she says that their office only responds to letters and email (and probably carrier pigeons too), but not phone calls. It’s not like they are a phone company or anything…

2. “Do you have a _____?” British workers take questions very literally. If you are at a restaurant and ask the waiter, “Do you have a bathroom?” they will simply reply “Yes,” and look at you expectantly, and then wander away unless you ask the necessary follow-up questions, “Where is said bathroom, and may I use it?” My first week in Glasgow, I was in a local café ordering lunch and had a paper bag I wished to dispose of. I approached the counter and asked the waitress, “Do you have a trashcan?” to which she replied “Yes” in her best no-DUH-voice while pointing behind her to something beneath the counter which I can only assume was the rubbish bin. I held my fistful of garbage a bit closer to her face and quietly asked, “May I throw this away in it?” It dawned on her what I was asking, and we both shared an embarrassed  laugh. It’s like they don’t get implied questions, or like getting wishes granted by a genie—you have to be very specific with what you want!

3. The Battle of the Youth Rail Pass: This is perhaps the most egregious case of how the British completely disregard customer satisfaction. The National Rail sells a discount card to students that grants them the right to purchase train tickets at a lower price, typically 1/3 off. The card costs £26, but in my case it paid for itself in my first trip. The trick is that you have to present your student rail card along with the tickets while on board. I ordered my rail card and tickets about a little over a week before I was planning on traveling to Oxford. As my travel day got closer, I still hadn’t received my rail card yet in the mail, and without the rail card my discount tickets would be no good and I would have to purchase a full-price ticket. I called National Rail, and they told me that there was nothing they could do, and that I would have to purchase a second rail card from the station directly. I could not believe my ears. I asked, “So, you are telling me that I need to purchase the rail card twice so that I can use it once?”

I went to the station, and after speaking with four different people it became clear to me that there was no winning. Everyone kept saying that it was out of their hands, their computer systems were different from the National Rail system and they couldn’t access my records, that I should talk to National Rail directly, blah, blah, blah. Since I didn’t want to re-purchase my very expensive ticket at the regular rate, I had no choice but to purchase a second rail card. As of yet, my first rail card still has not arrived in the mail. I am now doing battle with the National Rail customer service team via email (surpise! they also DO NOT HAVE A PHONE), politely requesting a refund for one of the two cards that I have now purchased from them. We have only fired our opening salvos, with me requesting a refund, and them saying that it is not their policy to issue refunds, but the battle has only just begun. Mark my words, I will emerge victorious from this with my £26, even if it kills me.

It’s common to see posters in train stations, banks, the underground, warning that  “this company has a zero tolerance policy for verbal or physical abuse of our staff.” I mean, when it seems like every employee is out to make you the customer’s experience with their business as difficult as possible, it’s no surprise that people lose their tempers. I bet that companies would have a lot less problems with customers assaulting their staff if they trained their staff in how to look after the customer’s needs.

Here’s thing I just don’t get: how do the British live like this? How can they stand it? In America, if customers were routinely treated like this, then that company would simply go under. And when I tell people over here these stories, they understand my frustration yet show no idea that there could be a better way. I want to take them all to America, to the promised land of the empty “How can I help you?” and “Please listen carefully as our choices have changed. Press one for….”

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One Response to “Three Anecdotes”

  1. Dodie Reagan September 28, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    Oh, Robert. It occurs to me that the reason you have a three-day weekend is to deal with the phone company, the bank, and the rail people. Just kidding. I remember when the phone company here did not have phones in the phone stores. It was infuriating because you had to just go there to deal with them and get your avocado green princess phone to hang on the kitchen wall. We are truly blessed, or spoiled, no I think it’s blessed, here, to have an emphasis on customer service. I think it’s part of our wide open spaces and American competition and work ethic that make us want to provide good customer service. Europeans are more used to having to “que up” for everything from going to the restroom to ordering their food, so to them, they don’t see it as deserving service like we do. I think they’re just glad to get any service sometimes. Anyway, kudos to you for hanging in there. Dodie

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