It's generally agreed that the UK does not possess a service culture. British companies - especially those dealing with the general public - spend many millions on staff training each year, yet few Brits seem capable of waiting at table with the skill and attentiveness - or brio - of Italians. And supermarket shopping - hardly much fun anywhere in the world - would be less awful in Britain if it were easier to find what you were looking for, ie if staff were more oriented towards helping the customer - and doing so with a good grace. The transatlantic 'Have-a-nice-day' may lack sincerity but at least it's polite.
Standards in Britain are a good deal higher than 10 years ago, says David Evans, chairman of The Grass Roots Group, which advises firms on communications, training and incentives. On the other hand, he adds, there's ample room for improvement. Some months ago Grass Roots sent more than 100 trained 'mystery shoppers' into a total of 2,500 assorted retail outlets, in order to assess service levels according to a variety of yardsticks - like time spent waiting for attention; the knowledgeableness of the assistant; whether eye-contact was made; and so on. A summary of the findings was published earlier this year as 'The Front Line Survey'. Evans promises that it will henceforth appear annually.
On average, the retailers scored 82 out of a possible 100 when judged by these semi-objective criteria. But a wide gulf existed between best and worst categories. The top spot, surprisingly, was taken by the privatised electricity showrooms with 94%. The high street electrical retailers also showed up well. By contrast, McDonald's and Burger King, often regarded as models of cheerful efficiency, barely scraped into the upper half of the table.
The stores were 'black spots': 'The main problem shoppers experienced was in getting staff to acknowledge their presence'. Some criticism was more specific: 'The truth is that you do not get served at M&S, you get efficiently processed'. Music shops were particularly economical with smiles and eye-contact. Newsagents scored 'below average on knowledgeability, helpfulness and friendliness' as well. Supermarkets did slightly better on most of these counts. They nevertheless came bottom in the performance ratings, with 71 out of 100. Press reporting of the survey led to predictable cries of outrage, and nowhere more than among the newsagents. Many small newsagents wrote to their local papers complaining that the findings were unrepresentative and unfair. At W H Smith, Valerie Hart, communications manager was 'quite amazed' by the outcome. 'To start with, we are not a newsagent,' protests Hart, which will surprise some people. But once the indignation had worn off, did companies accept any of the criticisms and, if so, how did they propose to react?
If they rejected the Grass Roots verdict out of hand, the answer was - obviously - not at all. 'We took the grossest exception to their report,' says John Lewis's PR chief, Robert Forsythe, speaking for both the department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain. 'We feel they have nothing at all to teach us.' Forsythe points out that the market researchers attributed to John Lewis two stores which the group didn't own - a careless slip which Grass Roots acknowledges but says that it did not affect the outcome. Over at W H Smith, Hart claims that the study 'flies in the face of our own research'. Beginning in March last year, she explains, 'we completely changed the focus of the business. We took out a layer of management and regraded people to put everyone in touch with the customer ...' Grass Roots, it seems, failed to notice.
At Marks & Spencer the rejection was less emphatic. 'We know there are things we can improve on, but we did think the survey was unfair,' says a spokeswoman. Dixons' personnel director, Peter Cox, thought it was 'quite a good survey', but then the electrical shops emerged fairly unscathed. More surprising, in view of the drubbing given to music retailers, Hmv's response was extremely positive. 'We accepted it wholeheartedly,' says personnel director Wilf Walsh. Selling skills and product knowledge are ultimately more important. 'But please, thank you, a smile, eye contact - these are basics,' says Walsh.
Britain's productivity gap is said to be closing. The national service standards gap might be closing even faster if there were more companies prepared to go 'back to basics'.