Customer service – America v Britain

I was watching a stand-up comedy programme on television recently, and the comedian opened his set by expressing his pride in Britain’s reputation for delivering poor customer service, citing this trait as an honourable merit badge of ‘Britishness’ that should be prized above the overly friendly, goofy-grinned model of American customer service. As an American, I found this joke funny, but the raucous uproar of laughter from the audience got me thinking:

“Do people really have this impression of our respective service industries?” That is, do people consider this joke “funny because it’s true”?

The truth is, this joke is not new. Say what you will about our vocabulary, fast food, and love affair with the letter ‘z’ (pronounced ‘zee’), Americans, do have an international reputation for delivering a particular style of customer service. After all, a number of global companies consistently recognised for customer service skills are from the good ol’ ‘Land of the Free’: Apple, Disney, and Hilton Hotels Corporation regularly feature in ‘Top 10’ lists for outstanding customer service. But what’s the real difference between the American and British service industries?

It’s a question of industry values, of culture, and of tradition. Each country generally adheres to a set of service values, informed by their respective history and culture. For Americans, our stereotypical service values – what we are traditionally considered to do well – include friendliness, enthusiasm, and personable sincerity. These values, however, are lost in translation to many in the British public, who often interpret these behaviours as forced, cheesy, or (ironically) insincere. Stereotypical British service values, then, appear to value formality and politeness, with a firmly-held sense of respect for both oneself and for those that one serves. After all, these values have made the traditional English butler an international icon of British service for over a century.

The question now remains: which service model is superior? Obviously, a debate of this kind could easily descend into an embassy-storming, tea-dumping déjà vu of the American War of Independence (but hopefully not). But what if, instead of debating the flaws of each, we considered the possibility of merging service values from around the world to create an international service standard – what would that look like?

The answer is, I think, right in front of us. The spirit of MITIE Client Services speaks to the value, dignity, and empowerment of our individual team members, while treating our customers and clients with the utmost respect – that is: “creating exceptional, memorable experiences…one guest at a time.” A world-class service delivery can be achieved by people of all cultures by remembering these three universal principles:

The customer is sometimes wrong – front of house teams must be empowered to use their judgment and work within agreed boundaries in order to provide a consistent memorable service. If the customer is always right, as some believe, service providers are put in an awkward position of deciding when and with whom they can change rule.  This inevitably leads to a breakdown in procedure and will most likely result in disappointed customers.

Enthusiasm can and must be sincere – enthusiasm isn’t about being cheesy or fake; it’s about being truly delighted by the personal interactions you have with your clients – this is, by definition, the meaning of enthusiasm. If you do not genuinely enjoy working with customers, they will spot this and it will be impossible to create those exceptional, memorable experiences.

Respect others, respect yourself – it has often been said that the only way for others to respect you is for you to respect yourself.  Indeed, it takes dignity to work in a position of service. You can show respect for yourself by taking complete ownership of your role, and when you demonstrate this confidence to clients, their respect will naturally follow.

Sharing best practices with others is a brilliant way to improve yourself, your team, and your workplace. By incorporating some international standards of service with traditional British ones, MITIE Client Services is cultivating a truly world-class, modern service delivery for our clients each and every day. But this can only start with our people!

By David Melnick, Learning and Development Co-ordinator, MITIE Client Services

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