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The good, the bad, and the ugly...

Tuesday, 15th February 2011

A rather rapid and very spontaneous blog this one. A frustrating series of calls with my broadband supplier got me thinking... Are their any industries or sectors with generally brilliant customer service? Are there any with generally poor customer service? Why is there the big difference, and how could one learn from the other?

My starter for 10, based purely on personal experience...please please please build on this. I want this page to become a living, breathing entity, and to start doing something about stuff that is wrong!

The good

How about coffee shops? Regardless of what you think about independents versus chains, or the taste differences between Starbucks and Nero, I'd really struggle to say anything bad about the instore service. My local Caffe Nero is quite "unusually" staffed, but I always feel welcome, involved, and cared for.

What other sectors (as opposed to individual businesses) are out there about which it is difficult to find complaints?

The bad

Banks. There appears to be a real division between some genuinely excellent stuff that happens (my last two business managers at HSBC, for example) and some shocking (pretty much everything I've ever had to do with Santander). The difference appears to be only partly about the organisation; a significant chunk is about the specific individuals you're in contact with.

Some structural stuff applies - call centres versus a real bank manager for example - but the individual plays a huge role as well.

The ugly

I'd put telecoms in here. The organisations seem far too big; internal structures are built for their convenience, not the customers; any training that goes on misses actually looking at things from the customers' point of view.

Why would you build a customer service operation that insisted your customer repeats (often lengthy) security information every time their call is transferred? Why have a broadband department and a telephone department and insist that a customer speaks to both about their one physical line?

I'm yet to find a telecoms provider that has done anything other than really, really annoy me, and I've tried a few!

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Subject: Customer service - the good the bad and the ugly. Management training blog from Simon Roskrow

To anybody out there thinking of a career within the security
industry, I'd like to say DO IT! You will meet great people, discover lots and never look back. Thus much better than an ordinary 9-5er!

gravatar Jan Dixon – Chichester, West Sussex
February 22, 2011 - 14:32
Subject: Customer Service

Hi Simon
All comments are worthy and I think we have all been there. Two providers that I would praise are Utility Warehouse as our home energy provider and Focus4U for our business phones and broadband.

Another example of poor customer service and staff motivation was an episode of the Mary Portas programme when she was working with a retailer. The staff at a particular shop were obviously so undervalued and their working environment was tatty. Once the transformation had taken place both the staff and the shop was really buzzing, the staff were smiling and you certainly felt they were enjoying their work again. All companies big and small use the "our people are our asset" but in most cases this is never the case.

Reply to Jan Dixon
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 22, 2011 - 15:14
Subject: Re: Customer Service

Hi Jan, and thanks for getting involved in this debate! There is an update, specifically referring to, now published at

Retail is another fascinating area. (For my sins!) I was at an out-of-town retail centre at the weekend, and, towards closing time on Sunday, had two very different experiences. In one store (possibly H&M?) the service was in line with (low) expectations. Nothing too awful, just very little interaction, even at the till.

A few doors away, I headed into Blacks, the outdoor store. All the staff greeted me, smiled, some asked if they could help. They joked with me at the checkout. A very, very pleasant experience.

I wonder what the difference is between the two stores in terms of pay, training, conditions, management support, prospects and so on. I also wonder what differences there are in the quality of the original recruitment.

Very, very interesting area.

Thanks again for your comment Jan.

Kind regards, Simon.

Reply to Jan Dixon
gravatar Jan Dixon
February 22, 2011 - 15:31
Subject: Re: Re: Customer Service

Handling your recruitment process correctly and professionally can obviously be a factor and although I do not recruit for the retail sector, it applies to all businesses - make people want to work for you, get them interested and fired up and employ a recruiter that cares!

Your experience at Blacks is a testament to good staff management and probably ongoing training with the people employed there having a geniune interest in the great outdoors.

Have to get back to work now.


gravatar Justin Flitter – New Zealand
February 15, 2011 - 23:25
Subject: The most important thing is the conversations

I hope I dont keep you up but the best thing from blog posts like yours Simon is that we're talking about these issues. The more people that fell confident raising issues, whether through social networks or face to face 'in the moment' the better.

People are hungry for transparency, knowledge and less stressful customer interactions. We're all fed up and tired of people that cant be bothered to care for their customers.

The best thing we can all do is be strong enough to address service failures at the time they happen. Businesses must learn that poor service is no longer acceptable, they need to care and deliver

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gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 16, 2011 - 07:55
Subject: Re: The most important thing is the conversations

Hi Justin - no, you didn't keep me up, I had a great night's sleep, thank you!

In an ideal world, businesses would listen to feedback from customers, and do something about any shortfalls in service. However, one of the reasons I was looking at service standards by sector is a hunch:

businesses who operate in sectors where there is either (a) little real choice (meaning all/the majority of the suppliers are pretty much the same) or (b) where changing supplier is an awkward and/or infrequent process will have worse customer service

Car insurance (in the UK) intrigues me. Pretty much every year, I change provider. Each one lures me in with a great first year offer, and then, on renewal day, tries to sting me with a massive price I simply change every year. Technology has made switching pretty easy; I don't (touch wood!) claim often (last one was 17 years ago!), so interactions are minimal. Therefore my only experience of customer service is that, once a year, they try to fleece me. If they didn't, and committed not to, I'd stick with them forever!

I hope that one day, changing banks, utility/energy providers, phone/broadband providers becomes as straightforward. And then, even better, I hope that companies will wake up, small the coffee - I'm having a beautiful cup right now! - and come to the realisation that the only way to beat their competition is to look after the most important people in their business. Their customers.

In the meantime, at least poor customer service provides work for training companies like mine!

Thanks for your comment Justin, and say hi to NZ for me. On of the places top of my "must visit" wish-list.

gravatar Gareth Everson – Harrogate, UK
February 15, 2011 - 19:36
Subject: "Customer" Service. The Two-Way Street.

Hi Simon -

Whilst your article does not refer to them by name, your Twitter discussion prompter clearly points to issues you've experienced with the company that tells us that 'life is like a neon rainbow'.

This is an interesting decision on your part to choose them as a provider of comms service for your business (and home). Your business derives much of its success through successful communication and your USP draws heavily on your ability to communicate with and encourage successful communication and clarity of purpose amongst your trainees and clients.

So as somebody who encourages people to challenge themselves, I know you won't mind me now lighting the blue touch paper....

Even as a rural telecoms customer you have virtually limitless options ranging from high-cost, robust, secure connections to low-cost cheap and cheerful provision. But as a business customer with a degree of reliance on being able to surf, email and talk(-talk) to generate your business' income and to do so without the distractions of dealing with supplier cock-ups, you chose a comms provider widely known for low-cost, low-service provision which is more focused on the 'just get me online cheaply' 'residential' customer base.

So isn't the first element of "customer service" the "customer" themselves? The customer's value perception is determined by the combination of service, quality and price. You chose the low-price, low-quality, low-service end of the spectrum and have spent a not insignificant chunk of your day dealing with some of the fall-out from that value decision.

Customer service is a two-way street, driven by the customer's decision to buy in the first place. We wouldn't confuse a stay at The Ritz with an overnight stay in a flea-pit hostel, so why confuse a no frills comms operator with somebody else more known and respected to deliver high-quality, dependable, no-questions-asked service provision? Just a thought from somebody who spends a lot of time talking value, not price...

Reply to Gareth Everson
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 22:31
Subject: Re: "Customer" Service. The Two-Way Street.

Hi Gareth, and thanks for posing a challenge - one which I readily take up!

You've spotted the inspiration for this post - my 40 minute conversation with TalkTalk this afternoon. As a little bit of background, here's what happened:

1) TalkTalk provide my home phone line and my business phone line. BT provide my business broadband. Long story...!

2) About 3 weeks ago, I was called by TalkTalk saying I could get broadband on my home line, and the monthly cost would be lower than the phone line alone. I queried this at length, but it was confirmed over and over again, so I signed up. More for less.

3) January's TalkTalk bill was twice as high as a normal month. I decided to check what had caused it, and was surprised to find that the individual items on the bill did not add up to the total on the I called the company...

This is where the interesting bit starts. The billing department couldn't access my bill, but came up with 3-4 reasons why the bill could have been more than usual (none of which were relevant). They then passed me to "customer service" (inaccurately, as it happened, as it turned out to be the "home moving" department). They, obviously, couldn't help, so passed me back to billing.

By this point, of course, I had recited my phone number three times, along with my address, date of birth, name of first pet, full address and postcode, etc etc etc...

The billing person I then spoke to could see the bill; unfortunately (a) the numbers on it were different to those on mine, and (b) they still didn't match the total I had, or indeed that they had - the bill total was the only bit we agreed on! So, time to talk to a manager...

Was finally managed to identify the problem, which was two-fold:

1) The gap was a connection charge for broadband on the home phone line, which should have been itemised, but wasn't
2) I should never have been charged a connection charge for broadband at all

With all of that in mind, I'd like to challenge your challenge...

Customers do have responsibility, but...
I agree that you get what you pay for. If I pay 300 for a night in a hotel, I have different expectations than if I pay 50. But, even at the 50 end, I wouldn't expect to have to talk to four people on checking out about the fact the bill is wrong. If I dod, I would expect an apology, and the offer of something in return.

The 'product' that TalkTalk provide works just fine. it's the contact with staff that doesn't. To extend your hotel analogy, the room is perfectly clean and tidy, the minibar is stocked, but the receptionist was rude and unhelpful. Unnecessary, even for a low cost operator.

The best real-world example I can think of here is the difference between Jet2 and Ryanair. Both low-cost, but one manages to have pleasant staff (and an ethos beyond "customers as recalcitrant cattle"), at check-in and the boarding gate, and one doesn't. And yes, Ryanair is the latter.

Bad customer service costs more than good
Being low cost might be about economies of scale. It might be in a no-frills product. It might even (although I think we're skating on thin ice here) be about no-frills service. But it doesn't have to be about offering bad service.

I would argue that, certainly in the medium and longer term, but even in most cases in the short term, really bad customer service costs more than decent service:

1) You have to employ more call centre staff, because there are more calls
2) Staff turnover will be higher, leading to higher recruitment and training costs
3) You have to compensate customers more often
4) You have to slash prices further, because that is your only competitive edge
5) You have to spend more on marketing, because word of mouth will not do it for you

...and probably a whole lot more besides...


Being a low-cost operator (which, let's face it, a lot of companies in the comments made here are not dramatically low-cost - see the comments on energy companies) is not an excuse for poor service. Poor service causes increased costs for businesses; it's caused not by a desire to be cheap, but a lack of focus on the customer in organisational design, management approach and staff training.

Interesting challenge, but I simply don't buy the argument that low cost has to equal poor service.

I lay down the gauntlet to low cost operators to prove that you can be, and are, great...!

Reply to Gareth Everson
gravatar Gareth Everson – Harrogate, UK
February 16, 2011 - 09:33
Subject: Re: "Customer" Service. The Two-Way Street.

Both Ryanair and Jet2 operate in one market, but offer very differentiated products. Ryanair has become 'the' dominant player in the budget airline market, but is also rapidly becoming the dominant player in the airline industry as a whole, at least for Europe. But its product is as differentiated from Jet2's as Jet2's is from BA or BMI. BA is a higher-service, higher-priced operator, Jet2 is a low frills, lower priced operation, Ryanair is a no frills, low priced operator.

Why are Ryanair successful? They've identified a market sector where the dominant buying criteria in the last 10-15 years has been price. All of its efforts are focused on lowering prices for some of its services and charging a price premium to other customers once those services have sold out. The publicity they generate in so doing is phenomenal.

TalkTalk did exactly the same thing in the broadband market. They made low investments in poor systems, bought bandwidth at low costs and offered customers the resultant product and service; customers flooded to them because they wanted a low-price route into the world of broadband.

Both operators have become the dominant players in their market sectors (and industries), usually operating at a profit (when their competitors are often not - Jet2 and BT are real cases in point) and both are satisfying what the vast majority of their customers need > ultra-low cost products where the customer is willing enough to accept poor or non-existent customer 'service' or even hassle and discomfort in return.

When value perception is driven by price - even if that eventual price is perhaps not what you first thought it was (Ryanair, TalkTalk) - low-price, low-cost, low-service operators will usually win the battle for the business, won't they? If not, why are these two examples such dominant players in their markets, and increasingly in their industries?

gravatar Rob Cameron
February 15, 2011 - 17:02
Subject: Telecoms, definitely ugly

Simon a great post. I know from my own, your and many other people I know what a poor benchmark telecoms suppliers set. I know that feeling oh so well - you ring the first line number get no where, get transferred to someone/some department who really aren't the right people, you get transferred again or cut off altogether; cue ring back and repeat... So frustrating, so unnecessary.

Reply to Rob Cameron
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 22:02
Subject: Re: Telecoms, definitely ugly

Thanks for your comment Rob.

I often imagine (poor examples of) large corporate customer service groups growing like viruses - splitting and splitting and splitting until they are so fragmented they are out of control, and so widely spread that there is no longer any meaningful relationship between the different parts. Dealing with (destroying?!) one part will have no impact at all...

Here's the really strange thing, and a challenge I'd like to put to the heads of customer service at every operation that has a telephone-based operation: one evening, after a day at work discussing strategy, policy, and new initiatives, just call the number you offer to your customers. Pretend you have a problem. Pretend it needs fixing, soon, and that it's important to you.

Indeed, do that once a week. If I was your boss, I'd insist on it...

gravatar Jed Langdon – Plymouth, UK
February 15, 2011 - 16:14
Subject: The good

The good

Online retailers - Ok, I know there are some out there that suck, where stuff doesn't arrive on time, or at all, or the wrong thing arrives, but I must say most of my experiences are now extremely good. When using websites such as Amazon, Play, ASOS, Dabs etc I have found that the ordering experience is easy and the product I ordered arrives when they say it will, or before, 99% of the time.

The very, very, very bad

I have to agree with you about telecoms. I dread it whenever I have to call someone about a problem!

The ugly

Supermarkets - I've put supermarkets here, not because the service is bad overall, but because I find it incredibly inconsistent! I visit a variety of supermarkets and I know different brands of supermarkets have different service levels, but I am also finding that single brands have different levels of service depending on their locations. (I won't include Waitrose or Sainsbury's here because I tend to receive a brilliant level of service whenever I visit them!)

Brilliant discussion idea by the way!


Reply to Jed Langdon
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 21:46
Subject: Re: The good

Hi Jed

The online aspect is interesting - I'd agree that, generally, even the big guys online offer decent service, as do a lot of the smaller ones. Personal favourites range from Virgin Wine, through Amazon, to the small but brilliantly effective run by Paul Ives (selling car windscreen wipers - awesome service, great, simple website, and a company to whom I am now 100% loyal!).

Another real specialist who's delighted me is who sell horticultural polytunnels - any company who ring you up 5 minutes after you place an online order, check to see that you've really ordered what you wanted, and, on discovering that you haven't, replace the item with the right (more expensive) one at no extra cost is simply brilliant.

Supermarkets are an interesting one. Some are (pretty) consistently great: Waitrose, Booths (superb northern version of Waitrose, for the uninitiated!), and, often but not as often, Sainsbury's. Others are, I agree, wildly inconsistent, and massively dependent on individual staff - and most powerfully, the store manager in charge.

As for telecoms, enough said, for now..!

Thanks for your comment Jed. Really appreciate your involvement.

gravatar Joe Cushnan – Worksop Nottinghamshire
February 15, 2011 - 15:43
Subject: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Funnily enough, I use the good, bad and ugly reference points in my book "Retail Confidential" which covers a lot of customer service ground. In the book, I have a customer service diary section charting my own experiences as a customer in various retail, hospitality outlets, etc. Specifically, and based on experiences over time, my "good" would be Waitrose, my "bad" would be WH Smith and my "ugly" would be large Post Officies, closely followed by Health Centres. Customer service ranges from excellent (all too rare) to average (the basic norm) to dire (far too often). If you're interested in the book, here's the Amazon link - For reference, I am an interim manager always keen to take on a business improvement, customer service or people development challenge. Best wishes for all you do.

Reply to Joe Cushnan
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 21:33
Subject: Re: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Hi Joe, and thanks for your comment.

With the exception of large Post Offices (of which I have little experience), I'd generally concur with your gradings. Moving on to more general "sector" rather than "brand" differentiations, I might interpret your take on this as follows: smaller players in a field (be they big or small in absolute terms, such as Waitrose) have generally better customer service than the bigger players (or monopolists).

Two questions then arise:

1) Are barriers to entry a significant problem in service levels as well as pricing? Energy suppliers are fairly narrow in their size range, and therefore (a) there are no small fry nipping at their heels to keep them on their toes; and (b) they can comfortably make profits whilst being, at best, average performers - they are comfortable not competing "too hard".

2) Is there an "ideal" size of a business, which may well be different by industry? Can companies get too big (or sectors consolidate too far) so that the normal size of an organisation in a particular sector almost prevents them from having decent customer service? Perhaps there is some sort of formula, for example:

if % of staff with daily/weekly direct customer contact is less than X%, service will be poor/deteriorate.

Any statisticians with access to this data out there?!

Reply to Joe Cushnan
gravatar Joe Cushnan – Worksop, Nottinghamshire
February 15, 2011 - 21:57
Subject: Re: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Hi Simon. I take a simple view after nearly forty years in retailing. In tandem with my career, I was also a customer. My definition is:
Great service = sincere good manners + efficiency. My observations and research cannot get a handle on the relevance of business size to service delivery. I have experienced huge companies delivering inconsistent service over time. I know of several small companies where service is surly. the flip side is, of course, that big or small, some customer servants are simply superb in attitude and etiquette - but they are all too rare. I narrow the problem down to hasty recruitment and poor follow-up management. The other factor is that most customer-facing employees are lowly paid. Relevant? Maybe. Fascinating subject.

Reply to Joe Cushnan
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 22:55
Subject: Re: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The management aspect, from a professional point of view rather than as an annoyed customer, is one that fascinates me. I think you're right in terms of poor recruitment practices, but I'd also add:

1) Setting inappropriate targets (no. of calls handled per day, and the like)
2) Over-focus on specialisation (I can only talk to you about your telephone, not broadband)
3) Creating departments which are too large (diluting responsibility and accountability)
4) Failing to set the ethos that your customers can, and should be your best (free) sales and marketing team

Employing low-paid, under-supported, under-valued people in front-line roles is such a short-termist approach that I'm amazed people still do it. That's why I'm still convinced that, for varying reasons, some sectors can (for the time being) get away with it, whilst others can't.

gravatar Guy Winch Ph.D. – New York, NY
February 15, 2011 - 15:39
Subject: The Ugly

Have you ever tried to complain in a movie theatre? Say there's a problem with the film, someone is talking too loudly, or its too cold or hot, good luck trying to get a civil response. Even once you make your way over the sticky floor and out to look for someone to complain to, you will usually meet a minimum wage employee that couldn't care less.
Of course, that might be because I live in NYC...but I think many areas of the country are the same.
Guy Winch Ph.D.
Author: The Squeaky Wheel

Reply to Guy Winch Ph.D.
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 18:14
Subject: Re: The Ugly

This must be one of the cultural differences I keep hearing about - not between the US and UK, but between urban/metropolitan and rural (the environment I live in!). I'm very lucky in having a small, independent, well run cinema (movie theatre) locally, with nothing but great service, a lovely environment, and even nice customers who don't cause problems.

One theme that is emerging in these discussions is big versus small organisations; perhaps another is rural versus urban?

Thanks for your comment Guy, and I'd be interested in your further perspectives.

gravatar Nicola Hopkinson – Leeds
February 15, 2011 - 15:17
Subject: The Ugly

Energy Providers - they too seem to be too big to be able to deliver decent customer service. I often get one piece of information from one member of staff and then another piece of info when I speak to another member of staff!

Reply to Nicola Hopkinson
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
February 15, 2011 - 18:10
Subject: Re: The Ugly

Thanks for your comment Nicola, and I entirely agree!

The other particularly ugly thing about the energy market is the lack of pricing transparency. I had one of the "change supplier" calls recently, and I ask him to let me know what his prices were so that I could make a comparison. Fat chance! Apparently, sharing prices with (potential) customers is not what they do.

I'd love to run a shop where I could tell customers I was cheaper than anyone else, make them commit to buying from me for 12 months, and only then tell them the price...and of course be able to change that price and terms almost at will in the intervening period!

Not sure I could sleep if I ran a business like that though...

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