Myth Busting: Who’s In Charge Here?


One of the things I’m eager to do on this blog is discuss some myth vs. realities of what life in London — when compared to other cities in the world — is really all about. Where to start? For those who don’t call London home, there seems to be a endless treasure trove of preconceived notions and opinions on how life in the “Big Smoke” differs from elsewhere around the globe. As someone who has lived in three different countries, and who travels extensively for business, I’ve come to find that these opinions are often grossly exaggerated, totally wrong and sadly, often shaded with a xenophobic edge disguised as supposed nationalism.

But let’s not get too heavy in this post, where to start with a little myth busting…food?…the drinking culture?…the cost of living? So many myths, so little time. But the one I’m feeling most personally at present is the myth that London has bad customer service. I can only conceive that those who believe this have never lived in NY! The truth is that every major city has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to providing good customer service, but as someone who has lived in 3 countries I can attest that Londoners have no idea how much greener the grass is on their side of the fence.

Without a doubt, the quality of public services, private industry, and even the commercial/retail sector in London — the whole of the UK I’m sure — can often be found lacking in it’s ROI. Outages, shortages, policies and procedures, modernisation (or lack thereof) can all cause problems, issues and conflict. But in my opinion the real test comes when the angry consumer seeks satisfaction. In the US complaints are often met with disinterest or aggression. The customer is always right was a phrase obviously left out of the training manuals of most US companies, utilities and businesses. I found this particularly true growing up in NY where the general “customer service” attitude was (and still is), “If it doesn’t work, you broke it. If a mistake was made, you made. And if a problem exists it’s yours, tough luck!” Airlines have a notoriously bad reputation, Verizon is considered by many to be the ‘death star’ of telecommunications.

A decade plus spent in Toronto softened my inner “NY bitch” when it came to dealing with customer service reps. Canada is not a particularly shining example of  great service either, but while they are slow to apologise they are quick to correct. They manifest a “make it right” but not necessarily a “make it feel good” attitude towards dealing with customers. Cable companies are notoriously bad, mobile phone companies too — you know who you are Rogers and Telus.

But London is unique, at least in this broad’s opinion. Perhaps all of Europe is because of an overall mindset. There is a sense of…{gasp} logic, and a rationale that if you treat people with common courtesy it might be returned in kind. Though admittedly that last part doesn’t always play out if those TFL posters entreating tube riders not to attack staff are to be taken seriously. The average person though — particularly one who has lived somewhere else — will tell you that, even when the product is sorely lacking, the customer service is unfailingly polite. Not perfect, but polite. There’s nothing more disarming and confounding than gearing up to rip a strip off of Barclays or Royal Mail or British Gas and being met with a rational, calm and extremely pleasant customer service rep. completely willing to help, even if it requires admitting fault. I defy the most hardhearted complainer to remain hostile in the face of such earnest and affable response.

Admittedly, this is just my experience. I’m sure there are many who may have a differing opinion. But London has gained an undeserved global reputation for something I don’t feel they’re guilty of.  Despite comedy characterisation, London is not full of rude, supercilious Basil Fawlty types, computers do not say “NO,” and an industry (customer service) over 400,000 strong would like to remind you that they often see people at their worst and genuinely try to make it better. All it takes is a little graciousness. Try it. Trust me, it can transform your day.


3 thoughts on “Myth Busting: Who’s In Charge Here?

  1. Hmmm, I have to agree with you. I have lived in London now for close on 13 years having relocated from South Africa, and on the whole I have found the customer service people and serving staff to be lovely and thoughtful.
    In my experience it has a lot to do with the customers attitude…go in guns blazing and you get it straight back. But be polite, ask their name at the start of the call or complaint or request and on the whole you will get a polite, helpful response.
    I have seen people display the most extraordinarily bad attitude and manners, rude beyond belief and then they’re surprised when they get a similar response.
    Waiting staff and customer services are not there to be abused, and invariably they have no control over the situation.
    Being polite goes a long way. Yes, there are some absolute numb-skulls out there and some people deserve a kick in the pants for being morons, but in my experience…if you want bad attitude and service….go to Venice or Paris. They simply cannot be bothered with the English foreigners. And this I have experienced myself. But, there were also some lovely people who went out of their way to show a dumb foreigner (me) the ropes 🙂

    I’m enjoying your posts.

    p.s. I loved America…..99% of the customer service and waiting staff were a delight. I spent more money on tipping than food LOL…just coz they were so lovely.

  2. completely disagree. in my experience london is full of underpaid and uninterested customer service employees. no one seems to know how to do their job properly (were probably trained by the temp before them) and are quick to blame others for their mistakes. walking into a store you are lucky to be acknowledged for a half a second while the attendant briefly glances up from their phone. call in for help and you are on the line for 10+ minutes waiting at 10p a minute for the privilege!

    1. Well as I said, I appreciate that others may have experiences different to mine. Even with my 2 arch nemeses British Gas (whom I loathe) and Barclays bank (at the top of my current s**t list), while I have found the companies themselves to be impossible pains in the ass, the telephone customer services centre agents, with rare exception, have been uber pleasant and helpful. And to be honest, I can’t recall ever being ignored in a store as a customer either. Perhaps it has something to do with working in the communications field (I get on well and can carry a conversation with just about anybody), or perhaps it’s down to the fact that both my parents worked in serivce industries. Or maybe it’s just a blind fluke.

      I always approach customer service people with the thought in mind that they didn’t cause the problem I’m having, so therefore taking my wrath out on them is a waste, and likely counterproductive to getting what I want. I always remember to say please and thank you, and if someone tells me their name or is wearing a name tag I always make a point of making the effort to address them by name. You’d be surprised how many people in service industies feel faceless, and acknowledging their existence can have a great affect. I’ve gotten upgraded on airlines and in hotels, received speedy refunds or replacements and gotten preferred seating and treatment at some of the best bars and restaurants in town. All I can suggest is, “try a little tenderness” and see if it gets you further than you’re getting now.

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