Ever since my time at British Airways I have been very interested in customer service. I even wrote a rather nice book about it. A lot of customer service can be trained, but I've always wondered how much a company's nature comes through in the way its employees treat the public.
Sometimes this seems to be true. If you take supermarkets, I've always found Tesco customer service rather cold and couldn't-care. This is typified by an experience when I once found a bank note on the floor in a Tesco store. I took it to the customer service desk, and the attitude was basically 'Why didn't you keep it? You are wasting my time because I now have to deal with this.'
Sainsbury's, by comparison, while brisk, tends to be rather better. I once went to the customer service desk there because I had left a washing powder box on the rack under a trolley and forgot to pay for it. When I voluntarily took it back, they were effusive about how good it was of me.
However, the picture is not straight-forward. You might expect ASDA, the UK arm of the mighty, but not exactly caring sharing WAL*MART, to be similar to Tesco. But it's not - the employees are usually very friendly and give genuinely helpful customer service. I can't help but wonder if this reflects ASDA's roots as a North of England store. Similarly, despite the wonderful corporate ethos of John Lewis, its Waitrose tends to be a little cool in attitude - perhaps contrasting the less friendly attitude of the South East.
Unfortunately I have one example of customer service that totally smashes the ethos concept. Of course it could just be a data blip - this is all based on a ludicrously small sample. But what it suggests to me is that the individual is just as important as the company spirit. Customer service is given by an individual person, and that person's attitude can make all the difference, whatever the company policy.
The example I have in mind is from Sky - an organization that is normally seen as ruthlessly businesslike and uncaring. This was back in the early days, when you could only obtain a Sky remote from Sky themselves. At the time our dog was obsessed with remote controls. Unless you left them well out of reach she would chew them to pieces. And she particularly liked the slightly rubbery feel of the Sky remote. We went through about a dozen of them.
I had written off to get a new one, and imagine my surprise (as they say) when two arrived in the post. But what made this a customer service triumph was the hand-written note that accompanied them. 'I have put two remotes in,' said the Sky representative. 'One for you, and one for the dog.' Now that's what I call capturing customers' hearts.