Land of hope and bad service

First published in Ray Mallon The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

MAYBE we should have a competition for the Diamond Jubilee: choose the one word that best describes the British character.

I am sure there would be some high-sounding entries. Indomitable, invincible, unconquerable, perhaps.

There would only be one winner, though.

It would be uncomplaining. Because in an age when the consumer is supposed to be king, as a nation we display distinct republican tendencies.

Bear with me, as I tell you about three little incidents I have come across in the past few days. They all make me wonder why there isn’t a verse about “not making a fuss”

in the national anthem.

First, there was my conversation with a family who bought a fridge and found within days that it was faulty. They went back to the shop where they received, not a replacement, not a refund, not even a spare part and a set of instructions about where to stick it.

Instead, they got a telephone number to ring in their own time and at their own expense to sort the matter out.

Then there was my trip to a cafe with my grand-daughter: breakfast for me and some hot water for her. No, I was told, hot water only comes if you order a pot of tea.

Finally, another – quite expensive – cup of coffee with a local businessman. He’d missed lunch so rashly asked for an extra biscuit to go with it. He didn’t get his ginger snap but had to digest a pretty stern lecture from the waitress about house rules on cookie rationing.

It was probably good for his waistline but did nothing for my blood pressure.

You’ve probably come across countless incidents like this. Individually they’re minor irritations. But add them all up and they show we constantly settle for second best – and that is bad for us and bad for business.

As cash gets tighter and customers more choosy, it will be interesting to see whether these rules – and these businesses – survive.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame the people on the front line. I have huge sympathy and admiration for the people in service industries who work long and hard for low wages. It’s their bosses who make them follow pointless top-down diktats, instead of developing proper customer care skills that I have in my sights.

A friend of mine recently finished a stint behind the counter at a high street store. It was a friendly place where the experienced staff knew their customers’ shopping habits and liked to treat them as individuals and as friends.

Yet, company policy dictated that at each transaction they had to ask them if there was anything else they wanted, were they paying by charge card and if not would they like one. It didn’t sell them an extra tin of beans, was an embarrassment to staff and customer alike, but of course, it fulfilled one vital function.

It ticked a box on the supervisor’s check list.

At times, it seems to me that the process by which the faceless corporations who run so much of our lives have replaced people by machines was only part one of the project.

Part two is to ensure that the few remaining human beings in their employment are made to act and respond like machines too.

Here and there the human race is fighting a spirited rearguard action and even in the most regimented organisation, individuals still flourish.

But the march of the robots is picking up pace every day. And if we’re not careful they will walk all over us.

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