What, no service culture?

by Stephen Tall on March 31, 2005

What follows is a personal rant cunningly disguised as political polemic. For this I apologise in advance. So what’s my problem, you ask (albeit silently)? Well, it’s the total lack in Britain of what is often termed a ‘service culture’. Three separate, but closely related, scenes will suffice to amplify my point.

Scene One. I’m in the menswear section of a popular, but troubled, department store (no, not Allders – though I am £300 out-of-pocket owing to a non-delivered sofa. Still, I’m aware those who lost their jobs are worse off than me.) – let’s call it Marks & Spencer, because that’s it’s name. I’ve got a business trip coming up, and I need a new suit. After a bit of browsing, I find an off-the-peg one I really like. But not in my size. I hang around for a few minutes, trying simultaneously to look ineffectual and well-off, the better to catch the eye of anyone who might help. There’s a (long) queue at the till with three harassed-looking assistants successfully teaming up to get in each other’s way. After a few more minutes trying and failing to attract attention in a pathetically reticent British way, I leave empty handed.

Scene Two. I’m in River Island: they have an Easter sale, and I need some new shoes, essential as the canvassing season is almost upon us (be warned: I’ll be on a doorstep near you soon). I try on a right shoe – my size and half-price: what could be better? Well, for it to be reunited with its companion, its partner, its sole-mate: a left shoe yin to my right’s yang. Surely, with three assistants, and no other customers, that won’t be a problem? Unfortunately, I’m less interesting than their plans tonight down at Po-Na-Na’s. Eventually, I brazenly walk up to them, apologise for interrupting (genuinely, not in a sarky way – I’ve been well brought up), and get distractedly served.

Scene Three. I’m in New York City (that business trip I mentioned), and determined to take advantage of low US prices and a weak dollar. I walk into high-street chain Armani Exchange, and idly riffle through a hanger. Immediately, I’m pounced on by an assistant: can he help at all? I intone the standard reply – “Just browsing thanks”. But he then breaks the rules, and asks a follow-up question: have I anything particular in mind? I talk vaguely about a pair of trousers I’d looked at and rejected because they were too large (a common enough problem in the US). Immediately, he begins a search for some that will fit, finds them, brings them back with a neat belt, and a shirt I’d not seen but wished I had. I buy all the items cheerfully, and he wishes me a nice day – and I think he means it.

Okay, so there’s my partial evidence to back up the sweeping generalisation that Britain lacks a service culture, certainly when compared to the USA and its ‘synchronised swimmer’ service-with-a-smile.

So what brought this to my mind? Two things really. The first was reading an interview with former Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, who, since his sacking, has once again had to live life like a normal person. So what would he do differently, he was asked, if he were once again in charge of a mass circulation newspaper?

“The number one thing I’d do is launch the mother of all assaults on call centres. I would erase them from public life. I would wage war on them. It takes people hours to get through, and they’re treated like shit when they do. You’re just not aware of that sort of thing as an editor because you’re immune from it.”

The second has been tuning into BBC2’s brilliantly compulsive business reality show, The Apprentice. For those who’ve been fixated instead on Channel 4’s equally addictive Jamie’s School Dinners (against which it was cruelly scheduled), this is where head of Amstrad, Sir Alan Sugar, puts 14 hopefuls wannabe tycoons through their paces in order to find his very own mini-me. It is sublimely painful viewing. In part, this is because many of the individuals are addicted to dropping in business terminology in the desperate hope they will sound impressive, rather than utterly out-of-their-depth. For example, “That is not in my professional capacity,” which, succinctly translated, means, “It wasn’t me.”

But more depressing still is the utter disregard most of the show’s participants exhibit for their customers. One of their tasks was to flog merchandise from a special stall set up in Harrods. How often during the programme did we hear the contestants originate enthralling sales patter to entice prospective customers such as, “Perhaps this is your sort of thing, or not, maybe?” or “This one’s okay,” or “It’s over there.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that we all speak in über-hyped marketing slogans. Nor is this (solely) an extended gripe about how I can’t get served in shops. But I think this gaping chasm in our service culture points to a deeper-rooted malaise in this country’s self-regard.

First, it shows how depressingly pessimistic we all are, accepting our lot, and accentuating the negative whenever possible. If you don’t like your life or your job, change it for one you do like. If you lack the experience or education to get the job of your dreams, work hard to get the qualifications you need. If the system is stopping you gaining those qualifications, try and change it. And don’t just shrug, and say “There’s no point”. Because there is an important distinction between scepticism (good) and cynicism (bad) – as a nation we revel in, take pride in, blurring the two.

Secondly, we hate taking real responsibility. The sales assistant who stands idly by gossiping while a helpless customer looks around pleadingly is just one step removed from the parents who turn a blind eye to their children’s nutrition-free ‘Super Size Me’ school meals. And they are just one step removed from the Prime Minister who says ‘The buck stops here’, and then ducks and dives the questions about when he decided to take this country to war against Iraq.

Diagnosis is easy. Are there any cures? Here’s my three-step plan of happiness:

    1. Make the most of what you’ve got.
    2. When complaining about what you’ve not got, propose a practical way to make good that deficit.
    3. Recognise your responsibility for achieving that goal. If it goes wrong, ‘fess up. If it goes right, share.

Oh, and one other thing: give all shop assistants a performance-related commission bonus. Please.