What is it with me and supermarkets?  Maybe it’s the time of year, but recently I’ve had several interactions with checkout staff which were, shall we say, a little more genuine than one would normally expect.


It started a few weeks ago, when I popped into to my local Major Supermarket Chain (oh alright then, Sainsburys).  The young gentleman on the checkout looked like he’d just arrived from an all-night rave.  He had a shaved head, dried blood encrusted his nostrils, and he coughed violently over my shopping as, with great effort, he lifted each item towards his red-rimmed eyes, peered at it, and then managed after several attempts to get a comforting beep out of the scanner.  Eventually, he lifted his head painfully up towards me and said: “So how are you then, alright?”  “Erm, fine thank you,” I replied brightly, “But you look like you’re suffering a bit.”  “I’ve got a terrible headache,” he confided.


On my next visit, the woman behind the checkout launched into a spontaneous polemic about how stupid and uncaring her manager was.  The following week, when the man serving me started telling me about his kidney transplant, I reflected on why I found these encounters so startling.  I suppose it’s because in this age of customer focus, we’re used to getting the textbook treatment everywhere: customer facing staff don’t usually deviate from their scripts.


But sometimes we need a little more than a script. I was running a series of workshops at a UK hotel, where the staff had a positive, but standard, response to any request:

“We need to move lunch back to one-thirty…”

“That’ll be no problem at all, sir”

“Oh, and could you do something about the temperature in the syndicate rooms?”

“That’ll be no problem at all, sir.”

“Great, and at 12.53 I’d like a troupe of elephants to march through the room, with a few fire breathers.  Oh and the Dagenham Girl Pipers.”

“That’ll be no problem at all sir.”

The interesting thing was, nothing I asked for ever happened.  I could live without the elephants, but the other things remained resolutely unfixed.  Maybe the reception staff were goldfish in human form.  Or maybe there was more to the script: “That’ll be no problem at all…. because I’m not going to bother to do anything about it.” 


What a wonderful state of affairs we’ve achieved as organisations: we train staff exactly what to ask customers, but we don’t give them the skills or authority to do anything with the reply.  I’m a great believer in the power of language, but with customer service there comes a point where you realise that words are not enough. Why do the commuters at my local station seem unmollified when the man on the loudspeaker says “I am extremely sorry for this delay”?  Probably because they know he’s really a computer. 


Mind you, it's hard sometimes to tell the difference.    I’ve been a regular visitor to an overseas hotel where every action you take as a guest – checking in, ordering a drink, asking for an extra coat hanger – is rewarded by a questionnaire asking how satisfied you are with the service.  When I received my tenth questionnaire in two days (asking me whether I preferred two pillows or three on my bed) this focus on my needs had an unexpected effect: I lost my temper.  I told the reception desk staff that I was fed up with spending hours every day being asked what I wanted, when actually all I wanted was 1) to be left alone and 2) to be able to ring my children to say goodnight without having to pay 350 Euros for a two minute call – an option which, strangely, did not appear on the ‘customer preferences’ questionnaire.


There must be a rip in the fabric of the universe if a concerted effort to make a customer feel special and valued actually drives them away.  It seems to me that where such initiatives really fail is they lack authenticity.  If customer service training was less about following a script and surveying customers to the point of exhaustion, and more about creating a connection between two mortals, maybe we’d be better off.  Right now, if walking into a hotel I had a choice between an airbrushed robot greeting me with “Good morning Mr Lowe welcome to the Radissintermoat hotel my name is Leon I’m your guest interface coordinator would you like an early call we hope you enjoy your stay could I ask you to fill in this guest interface interaction satisfaction survey?”  and a half asleep guy with a bleeding nose asking me “How are you then, alright?” as if he really wanted to know, I know which one I’d choose.

(c) Phil Lowe 2004.  All rights reserved.