Britain, we are told, is not the place to go for good customer service. And yet last night, I had an impromptu mince pie with charming staff at Shoreditch’s BoxPark, and got 25p off my breakfast this morning at Pret.

Perhaps, I reflected, customer service is not something that you are given, but is more an inadequate label we attach to interactions between ourselves as customers and the people behind the counter. How can we customers get better customer service? Here are two tips – and one black-hearted, dirty trick.

NB. These should work in most places, the obvious exception being banks. High street banks do not and never will give good customer service, because they are inherently incapable of understanding people. I got 25p off a £2.25 sandwich today; I almost certainly couldn’t get 25p off a £500,000 mortgage.

Tip One
You are talking to a person
My dad gave me my most important lesson in communication when I returned home after my first French class and tried out my stumbling phrases on him. Shaking his head, his words have never left me: ‘Son, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t smile.‘ It’s advice that has always paid off, whether I’m speaking a language I know or not. Everyone understands the intention behind a smile.

A smile is very handy in shops. If you connect to another person, they will be more disposed to help you. If you’ve got a real problem with something you’ve bought, can you aim to take it into the shop when they’re likely to be quiet? If you’re in a queue, chat to the people around you. It will pass the time, and if you find you’re standing in front of someone with something straightforward while your problem is complex, let them go first and out of the door quickly. There’s nothing worse for a shop assistant to know they’ve got a line of people waiting and getting crosser by the minute.

You want the assistant to feel they are helping you be happier – not just that they are replacing the phone screen you were foolish enough to crack (or whatever). Reverse the sales relationship: sell yourself to them, and they won’t try to sell you anything other than satisfaction.

Tip Two
Complain well
We don’t, apparently, complain well in Britain. Perhaps we are too reserved and polite. But a good complaint gives the company the opportunity to delight you as a customer. If a business gets everything right, you’ll be perhaps 80% happy with them. If they make a mistake and put it right, you may find yourself liking them even more.

A couple of principles when complaining:
1. Do not criticise the person. They didn’t build the stupid computer, and it isn’t going to get fixed without their help.
2. Know what you want.

And now here is something that even the meekest among us will be able to use to complain next time things go awry: rather than focus on the negative, instead concentrate on bringing out the positive. The ‘praise-criticism-praise sandwich’ is one way of doing this, and it works as well if you employ it in a complaint.

DON’T SAY:
– Your stupid new computer is rubbish, I want £2,000 so I can go next door and buy a good one.

DO SAY
– I’ve really been getting on well with this computer I bought last week, it is exactly what I’ve been needing.
– Unfortunately, the wifi has stopped working, and I’ve got a deadline coming up. Is this a particular problem with this computer or have I got unlucky? Could you suggest a different computer if there’s a fault with this one?
– If you can’t fix it fast, would you be kind enough to loan me another computer I can use in the meantime?

In example one, you are gunning for a fight. And the assistant will want to win.

In example two, you are going the assistant the opportunity to be kind. And which of us wouldn’t want that?

…and a Dirty Trick
How to get served fast in a busy bar
It’s after work on a Friday afternoon, and you are in a crowded bar. The bar tender is running around, studiously avoiding eye contact with you. Normally you’d wait – but today in particular you really want to get back to the squash of colleagues around the table in the corner.

Here, based on my experience behind a bar and occasionally in front of one, is how you get served fast.

– You have stopped work for the week. The bar tender hasn’t. Give them a break.
– Smile benignly. Acknowledge non-verbally that the bar is busy with pushy people. You are not one of the pushy people. (1)
– Have your money ready (cash or card) but don’t wave it in the bar tender’s face. Have it on the bar between your hands. (2)
– If you have a big round, have it written down with names next to drinks (3). Think about how long drinks take to pour; Guinness, Murphy’s and other stouts are notoriously slow, so put them at the top of the list (4).
– If you are not served quickly, here is the gold: very politely say to the bartender that you think the person next to you was next in the queue. Be as apologetic and fluffy as can be. The person next to you will thank you while they are being served, and you will be served next.
– Tip, generously, with gratitude. Obviously.

Notes
1. No one likes to be bullied into doing something.
2. It is very frustrating to have served a tray of drinks to someone who seems to have forgotten that they are expected to pay for them.
3. These are not just measures of liquid, these are things for people.
4. ‘Oh, and finally a Guinness,’ is the worst sound a bar tender can hear on a busy night.

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