Thursday 22 March 2012

Guest Post: Hospitality is just not the forte of the British

Guest Post (ie article stolen from news paper and posted on this blog) time!

Because we've all been thinking it: Come London 2012 time, what the hell is the rest of the world going to think of the infamous British customer service?

Take it away Simon Kelner... 
I was in Manchester last night, on an intensely private matter. Oh, all right, I was at a football match. Anyway, I was staying at the city centre hotel where I am a regular visitor. In the relatively short time I have patronised this establishment, it has changed names – and, I assume, ownership – three times, and in its latest incarnation it went from a hotel with a short, memorable name – just four letters – to one with a cumbersome, Americanised moniker – three words, 18 letters.

But no matter. It is clean, efficient, friendly and good value. There is nothing special about it, apart from the fact that, in my experience, British hotels are generally found wanting in at least one of those four categories. And that's before we even talk about the overheated rooms with windows that don't open, key cards that don't work properly (sorry to be a parody of a grumpy old man, but how I long for the days when you'd check in to a hotel and be given a key that was actually a key), staff who don't understand the meaning of service, and a dining room where everyone talks in a conspiratorial whisper.

It is a truism that comedy works best when it is rooted in reality, so the success of Fawlty Towers was in some part due to the fact that we had all had experience of similar establishments. The truth is, I think, that the British are not very good at the service industry. Servility doesn't come naturally to us.

Compare the way, in America for instance, you are treated at anywhere from a hotel or restaurant to a dry cleaners. My favourite story of the British service industry happened early one morning at Gatwick airport. I was having a cup of tea in one of the terminal's restaurants and I heard raised voices from the serving counter. I looked up to see one of the staff with his arms round a customer's neck, dragging him across the counter. "If you do that once more," he yelled, "I'll [expletive deleted] kill you, you [two expletives deleted]." The customer skulked off, and when I went to pay my bill, I noticed that the member of staff was wearing a badge. It read: "My name is Michael. I'm here to help you."

I remember a conversation several years ago with Tessa Jowell, then a Cabinet minister who had responsibility for tourism, telling me at a Labour Party conference that she'd just had a deputation from British hoteliers wanting government help. She said they might have had a more sympathetic hearing if she hadn't been paying an extortionate amount for a tiny room at a hotel where she was unable to order a cup of tea on room service.

It does make me wonder what visitors who come for the Olympics will make of it. The overcharging, the inefficiency, and the fact that many hotels seem to be run for the convenience of the staff. How many times I've heard that triumphant message, delivered with unfailing good cheer: "Sorry, the kitchen is closed for the evening." Whatever else, don't expect Team GB to qualify for the final of the 100 metres hospitality.

Text courtesy i Paper


  1. Yes, it's true. British customer service is generally awful. Mainly the attitude. Rudeness is often the rule rather than the exception.

    Americans make you feel better. The only downside that I've found (apart from they expect a bigger tip) is that often the "substance" with American customer service is surprisingly and sadly lacking sometimes. You will be told information in a friendly and confident voice, but later it sometimes turns out to be completely wrong.

  2. American "friendliness" can also be superficial and disingenuous. I invite you to visit my part of the Mid-Atlantic where you will find good customer service seriously lacking so to say all American customer service is good is a generalization.

  3. Hey, I didnt say it... this is a guest post. (ie not written by me).

  4. The worst customer service I ever had was in the former communist, East Germany, just after the Berlin Wall came down. The workers were used to the idea that they wouldn't lose their jobs no matter how much they neglected the customers. In the US, workers have very few rights and can be sacked easily for entirely arbitrary reasons, so often they have the threat of losing their job hanging over them if someone complains. The UK is imbetween the two extremes. I do think worker's rights is also a factor in all this. Most of us are both workers and customers in our lives and to some extent there is a play off between the two and a balance has to be found.

  5. "the infamous British customer service?"

    Is it really that infamous?

  6. @Dave - its my blog, so it is.

  7. "@Dave - its my blog, so it is."

    As Micheal Winner would say (in his E-sure commercials), "calm down dear"!!
    What I meant was, is it really that infamous in the US? Is this also something we're world famous for.

  8. Probably not infamous in the US until someone visits... then it smacks them in the face.

    I have to say, I love the customer service in the US, no matter how fake it is. It's a welcome contrast.

    Me at Applebees: Can I substitue this for that?
    Waiter(ess): Yes, of course. *smile smile smile*


    Me at Harvester: Can I substitue this for that?
    Waiter(ess): No, you can't do that. (no apology, no offer of paying the difference, not even a 'its not my fault its company police face')
    Me: That's ok, I'll pay the difference then.
    Waiter(ess): *Blank stare that I know means "oh F-off you picky cow. Now I have to push extra buttons on this order machine thingy and may even have to go talk to the kitchen staff just so you can eat less carbs*

  9. And I always thought Harvester was very American (with the "Helen will be serving you today" spiel), do you think American service is driven by the hope of a big tip though?