Posted on 26th June, 2017

Opinion: Uk And American Style Customer Service

James Walker on, Comparing customer service styles

Customer Service USA Style

Whenever we want to say how poor service is in the UK we love to compare our experiences with how amazing service is in the USA, and how we should learn from it and how we should strive to deliver service like America.

I struggle to reconcile this image of a great experience with the reality of US customer service. In my experience, the reality is either very poor, unless you are tipping 20% or more, or there is an inability to make a decision without referring to layer upon layer of management and rules.

UK Culture is confusing

I have always thought that stereotypes were largely unfounded, but, when you look further at us British, perhaps not. We don’t say what we actually mean. A colleague from Sweden said to me the other day, “When someone (British) asks, “Would you mind responding,” what they mean is, “Do this…”” The British struggle to say what they think and so don’t like having to explain what they want.

This is a major problem when complaining since we do not understand it when we don’t get what we want, even though we didn’t ask for it. This expectation factor can cause issues in the UK and is completely incomprehensible across the Atlantic. To give yourself the best chance of being understood, a certain clarity of expected outcome is required. At this point, you will encounter the real challenges of good ol’ US customer service.

USA customer service is concerning

There seem to be 3 types of customer service in the USA.

“Hi my name is ….and I am here to serve you”

This is generally followed by, “Today’s specials are….” This person is surviving on tips and so knows Americans will give a better tip for great service. So, smiles all round and nothing is too much trouble. The British reaction is either: this is too friendly, feels fake and therefore I feel uncomfortable with it; or, how amazing was that service.

What is actually amazing is that the price you are paying for the food will be subject to a 20% smile tax that you will be guilted into providing to your waiting staff. Whilst in the US with my wife, we ordered drinks at a table with table service and since we were ordering only drinks the waitress was sullen and uninterested. As soon as we ordered a meal and this was now bigger bucks, a switch was thrown and she became attentive and happy. Oh, and by the way, if the service is poor, there is still an expectation of a mere 10-15% tip to reflect your disgust!

“Can I help you today? Let me know if you need help”

This is typical of the retail environment. The staff in the store are either bonused on the sale or will be penalised if no sale is forthcoming and so there is a strong incentive to help you buy from them.  This for a Brit can be a little intimidating on the basis when you go to a shop in the UK staff are usually far more conscious of personal space and the negative reaction to “pushy” sales people.

If you walk into Home Depot (DIY store) in the US, you cannot do an aisle without being asked two or three times if you need assistance. If you were at a similar store in the UK, although they look and feel very similar, you could walk up and down almost without ever seeing a member of staff.

If you can cope with the constant invasion of your personal space, then you might feel that the US retail environment has added more staff to help deliver better service whilst the UK has focused on taking staff so we can browse freely, unfettered by excessive attention.

“Sir can you get in this queue”

The first experience for most visitors to the USA is Immigration Control and the 1-2 hours it now requires to get into the USA. The lines are long, the staff are never helpful and rather than answer questions, they simply repeat the same instructions, whether relevant to the question or not. The customer is by no way king (or queen) and is treated as an irritation.

Unfortunately, this final example seems to represent most customer service in the US that I have experienced, from cable TV to energy and airlines. This has been graphically illustrated recently in the well-publicised story of United Airlines dragging a passenger from the plane to make room for a member of staff. This was slightly complicated for them when other passengers filmed the incident and posted it to Twitter in real-time.

It can feel that there is a disdain for customers. We are a hassle, cause problems and there is a real underlying sentiment of, “Why do I need to care for them as they are going to pay us anyway?” If you get the chance, try comparing the experience in the same brand of coffee shop in the US and the UK and see if you can see the difference!

Do you really want this?

I would argue customer service in the UK has little to learn from mainstream practices in the USA. The US has a lot less consumer regulation, with corresponding fewer rights. The customer is only the king if they are spending enough money or are giving a good tip. If this is not present, the true mediocrity of US customer service is exposed.

UK customer service may rarely hit the heights of the superlative examples of customer service in the USA but we also never hit the low. No one (to our knowledge) has been dragged from a plane in the UK due to the airline overbooking and I hope that this will never happen.

British customer service may come with a smirk over a smile, but in general, the majority of companies care about their customer because they have a greater realisation that if you treat them well and fairly, they will stay as customers. And smile or smirk, you don’t feel like you have to pay extra to expect one.