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Great customer service case studies

Companies don’t give good service, people do.  This is what I learned from talking to the people responsible for customer service in some of the world’s leading customer service companies: Ritz-Carlton Hotels, First Direct and Jaguar.  This is what I learned talking to local businesses that I know and respect.  Most of all, this is what I learned as a trainee at Pret A Manger in the King’s Road.  What all these companies share is a passionate commitment to high quality customer service and the people who deliver it.

The Sharp Pointy End: Restaurants and Shops

I started out looking at restaurants because they are the essence of service.  If you spend £50 on dinner and eat ingredients costing a fiver, the rest of the value is pure ‘service’ – the way the food is prepared and served and, of course, the environment in which you eat it.  I talked to Lee Ashman, manager of Conran’s Bluebird in the King’s Road and Tim Bartleet, manager of Shepherd’s in Westminster.

Ashman: “it goes all the way back to recruitment – you can’t train in a nice attitude.”  In interviews, she looks for confidence, poise, eye contact and an ineffable ‘vibe’ that says that a candidate will do the business.  In training, she emphasises our own everyday experiences as a customer and tells staff to imagine themselves as customers?  “People want to feel that someone’s there, on their side and looking after them.”  Similarly, Bartleet thinks that the key to good service is “getting into the customer’s head and knowing what they want.”  For instance, as Shepherd’s is close to the Houses of Parliament a lot of customers, but not all, want a very confidential, softly spoken service.

Talking to them both, it struck me that there is a great similarity between service, especially in restaurants, and the theatre.  Just as bad acting is obvious, you can’t fake good service but it is more than just innate talent and a strong personality.  To deliver consistently, it also requires co-ordination, standards and constant feedback.  They manage the service in their restaurants like a stage director working in real time.  Bartleet told me “waiting has a mechanical, step-by-step forward procession.  It’s a production line where every step is important but people’s character comes out in waiting – you don’t want to suppress it too much.” But, says Ashman, “you can’t be bigger than any of the guests.”  Part of the service is to make customers feel special.

I also talked to Robert Topping, bookseller and manager of the Pan Bookshop – my local book Mecca – and asked him what defines good customer service.  He replied, naturally enough: “overwhelmingly, it’s about the books.”  Being independent gives him control over the selection and display of books and lets him use his discretion much more rapidly than chain stores “to chase and create a market.”  Given that there are hundreds of thousands of books in print and only shelf space for a few thousand in his shop, being able to react quickly to ‘hands on market intelligence’ is vital to maximise sales, and as a by-product, to optimise the range readers’ tastes.  Secondly, it is about having the right staff who can transmit their enthusiasm and love of books.  Thirdly it is about ambience and availability.  This is where the Pan Bookshop scores highly.  It is open for long hours every day of the week.  It is relatively small and doesn’t have the labyrinthine feeling of most chain bookshops.  They organise regular author events and book signings and most of the books on the tables by the door have been signed.  Customer service at its most basic is about meeting customer needs efficiently and with as few mistakes as possible.  However, I was beginning to form the opinion that while every business is subject to the disciplines of the market, customer service at the most abstract, highest level transcends function.  If it is good, it tells a story and tells us something about ourselves.  Topping says: “buying books is not so much commerce as it is leisure.  Our secret, if anything, is to forget we’re a business.”

Pret A Manger: The Inside Story

I had heard a lot about customer service from people who dealt with customers every day and I had started to get some highfalutin notions about the transcendental nature of service industries.  It was time for me to get some personal, hands on experience. So when Pret A Manger offered to put me to work in one of their shops as a trainee, I jumped at the chance.  First, I spent an afternoon at their head office in Victoria to understand what was going to happen.

Talking to Ruth Elliott, Head of Shops Support, I learned that I would be treated like any new hire – including head office staff who have to work two weeks in a shop before they take up their duties – and start at six a.m. to meet the team and begin my training.  This trial period is an important part of Pret culture.  Each team makes the sandwiches it sells and for reasons that became apparent later they like to have a say in the selection of new team members.  Ruth explained that the success of a shop totally depends on teamwork.  To make the point, the entire team receives a bonus worth about £30 a week if the shop scores well in the weekly ‘mystery shopper’ report.  Under-performers stand out and teams don’t want them.  In a sense there is a social contract between members of a team rather than between the company and each employee.

The culture of frequent, objective feedback is very strong, like a kind of corporate humility and restlessness.  Besides the mystery shopper, stores are regularly audited financially, for health and safety, hygiene and food quality.  Managers receive annual 360-degree feedback, which is not related to their pay, but is used as a means of self-development.  Whenever a team member is mentioned in one of the hundreds of positive customer letters that are wallpapered in Pret reception, they receive a prestigious (and pricey) Tiffany star to wear on the uniforms as well as a mention in the Pret Star newsletter.  It is not just meaningless hoopla: they work hard to stay grounded in reality.  Everyone in head office works at least one day in sixty making sandwiches and serving customers and all the trainers, both in-store and at HQ, have worked their way up through the ranks.

The feedback culture is matched by one of individual recognition and team rewards.  Bruce Robertson, Pret’s Head of HR, told me that the number one reason for their success is the company’s attitude towards their people – “they’re individuals!  You have to allow them to express their own personality.”  Ewan Stickley, Head of Training agrees.  He recalls when he was a manager in a Pret store that the nicest thing anyone said to him was “I like coming here because I get served by human beings.”  A tangible example of this attitude is that managers have complete autonomy and spending authority to resolve problems.  Similarly, staff can discard substandard ingredients or even completed but unsatisfactory sandwiches on their own say-so.

The quid pro quo for staff is salaries and bonuses that are above average in food retail and a package of bonuses, benefits, training and career progression that make it attractive for good staff to remain with the company.  One example of this seemed very valuable – whenever a team member graduates through one of the training programs the company runs, they are given £50 of vouchers to give away to other team members who helped them with their training.  Perhaps as a consequence of all this, team member turnover is around 90% a year – which sounds awful but is very impressive compared to an industry average of 250-280% – and a turnover among managers of around 14%.  In a Times newspaper survey of the best companies to work for in the UK, based on employee feedback, Pret came 10th, ahead of some very well known blue chip companies.

Perhaps this explains why they had the confidence to let me join one of their teams as a trainee at a shop of my choice with about four days’ notice.  It seemed natural to me at the time, but looking back on it I can’t imagine many companies letting a journalist loose, unsupervised amongst their non-media-trained employees.  On the other hand, a six a.m. start is a bit of a shock to a writer used to lazier mornings.  I walked up a deserted King’s Road to the shop and arrived to find that several staff were already there unpacking the day’s deliveries and chopping vegetables.  As soon as I had put on the uniform they put me to work carrying delivery boxes.  I think I learned as much about customer service from Claudio, Emma, Hanna, Robin, Maurizio, Daniella, Sophia and Mo – the people in my team – than from the directors and vice-presidents and managers I interviewed for this article.

First, there was the endless attention to detail.  Every sandwich had to be picture perfect.  Several times during the day, people showed me sandwiches and ingredients they were rejecting.  Every person on the team spent time training me: some showed me how to weigh out the ingredients, others about hygiene, others again about how to follow the recipe cards to make the sandwiches.  Given that I was basically slowing them down and getting in the way most of the time, they were all really friendly, supportive and helpful.  They weren’t all told I was a journalist until the team briefing a couple of hours later so I assume this is how they treat all new hires.  They are also very good at their job.  They make the sandwiches incredibly quickly.  There’s a real rush, accompanied by a loud radio beat, to get enough sandwiches out in time to open the shop.  I saw the week’s mystery shopper report and the name of the person that the mystery shopper had singled out as giving excellent service.  I worked making sandwiches for perhaps four hours and then I went upstairs and tried to learn how to make coffee.  The barista (Pret-speak for a coffee guru) tried to train me in making cappuccinos – an apparently simple process that seemed harder than landing a plane.  While he was patiently showing me how to froth the milk, weigh the finished result to see if it has the right amount of foam and dust it with powdered chocolate, he was serving up a stream of coffees, teas and hot chocolates to customers and each coffee was within one or two grams of the specified weight.  A couple of customers were obviously well known to the staff because it seemed as though he had made their coffee before they asked for it.  The rule is that each coffee has to be served within sixty seconds of the order.  What impressed me most, because I found it such hard work, was that people come up from the kitchen (especially when the busy bell rang) and got to work behind the tills, smiling and greeting each customer in a really friendly way.  The store manager, Anson Read, himself a five-year Pret veteran summed it up for me: “at the end of the day, all we do is sell sandwiches.  What really matters is the service.  People can see through the bullshit – they judge you by what you do.”

Think Big: Ritz-Carlton Hotels

Having experienced customer service on a small scale first hand, I wanted to see how it could be delivered on a very large scale and how the biggest companies made it happen.  In my previous life as MD of a computer software company, I travelled often to the USA and whenever I could, I stayed in Ritz-Carlton hotels.  Why?  Because I found them to be the most consistently high-quality hotel chain.  There are some very good independent hotels but in a new place, it was a comfort to know that I was going to stay somewhere that I knew would be good before I got there.  It’s not just me – JD Power do random guest satisfaction surveys on a monthly basis and Ritz Carlton currently scores 92% across the whole chain (compared to an industry average of 70%)

It is a big chain – over 19,000 employees and nearly fifty properties worldwide.  I asked Theo Gilbert, VP of Training and Development, how Rtiz-Carlton ensures that they achieve a consistently high level of customer service.  The secret is “very aligned employees and leadership.”  In practice this means having very clear, often-repeated ‘gold standards’ of service – each employee has a card containing the twenty ‘basics’ and the mantra “we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”  The text on this card is on their website (www.ritzcarlton.com/html_corp/about_us/mystique.asp).  It means reinforcing these standards by discussion and example around a given daily topic at the ‘daily line-up’ that occurs at the beginning of every shift, for every team, everywhere in the world.  It means that employees are involved in planning their work and are encouraged – proselytised is more accurate – to ‘break away’ to help serve a customer (for example escorting someone somewhere rather than give directions).

It’s easy to say all this and to have a mission statement and so on.  How do you get it to happen every day in the real world?  It starts with recruitment and training.  The Ritz-Carlton interview is structured and the same worldwide.  In addition, a couple of employees from the candidate’s prospective department join the interview as well and as with Pret A Manger, they get a strong say in whether someone is hired or not.  Once hired, a new employee gets two full days of orientation before they start work and is guaranteed to get 250-300 hours of structured, formal training in their first year.  The staff are trained in what Gilbert called “aggressive hospitality” which isn’t as frightening as it sounds.  It means how to live to up to the standards they proclaim; for example using guest’s names, avoiding slang, saying ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ instead of ‘hi’ (try it for a day, it’s not easy), or how to solve guest problems.

On the phone and on the net: First Direct

First Direct shows that service isn’t only about face-to-face encounters with customers.  It also shows that even businesses with a poor tradition of customer service can be revolutionised.  With over one million customers, 86% of whom, according to bank surveys, are either extremely or very satisfied with their service (the other 14% are, apparently, just ‘satisfied’), First Direct is a stark contrast to high street banks.  In general, banks are not popular – at best they are perceived as boring and officious, at worst ‘banker’ is an insult – but First Direct has changed people’s perceptions by offering a distinctively better service.  Like Ritz-Carlton, First Direct’s primary concern is to recruit the right people.  They target people with good communication skills because they figure that they can teach banking and keyboard skills but not how to be a nice person.  They recognise that “every single customer has individual needs” – some want a swift, efficient service and some want a more relaxed, chatty style.  The telephone can be very personal because you are talking to people in their own territory.  It’s a stark contrast to a conventional bank where there is bulletproof glass between the clerks and the customers.  They aim for a “magical rapport” with their customers – picking up body language over the phone and reacting accordingly.  Pollitt emphasised that there are no scripts in the call centre.  “You can see through a script.  What we are asking is for people to be themselves.”

Since a third of their customers bank electronically via the Internet or WAP, I asked Claire Durston, Marketing Innovations Manager at First Direct how they can take the “First Direct personality” online.  She explained: “First Direct spends an incredible amount of time trying to understand the market and the customers.  It is designed around the customers.  It’s no different online.”  They see a lot of people using the Internet but she says we are in a honeymoon period at the moment where expectations are pretty low but over time people will expect ever-improving service and reliability from online access.  The process will mark a change from meeting functional to meeting emotional needs.  They will want to see online services become more personalised, proactive and fully integrated with offline offerings.  The next big thing is ‘proactivity,’ where online systems intelligently pre-empt your needs.  In a limited way, this is already happening when people ask First Direct’s website to text them on a mobile phone when their account drops below a certain level or when funds are received.

And even car dealers…

People know what to expect from a Jaguar – style, performance and luxury – but how do Jaguar take the experience beyond just buying a car?  Andrew Lester, Director of UK Operations explained that Jaguar aims to deliver a “uniquely personal ownership experience.”  He explained: “Jaguar buyers are successful people.  They expect things to be delivered to a very high level of quality.”  This means that the practical things have to be right – for example: the coffee needs to come in a china cup, not a plastic mug.  But it goes beyond that.  “The hardware of a facility is meaningless if you don’t have the eye contact, the enthusiasm and desire to serve – not in a hand-wringing Uriah Heap style – but personal and with mutual respect.”  But, he warns, “expectations increase daily and we’ve got to be vigilant so that we keep improving.”  To move beyond a merely satisfied customer to a loyal customer who will generate repeat business, Jaguar have started measuring more ‘spiritual’ elements in its research, such as customers’ feelings about the relationship they have with dealers and their feedback on values like honesty.  Relationships?  Honesty?  Are we really talking about car dealers here?  The truth is that when selecting new dealers to sell their cars, Jaguar look first at a track record of customer service, as it is the most reliable benchmark of long-term profitability.  It seems to me that this is the truth about customer service.  The traditional class-based lines between service, trade, professionals and aristocracy have gone away.  We’re all customers now and all businesses are in the service industry.  There isn’t a magic wand that can make a bad company deliver good service overnight.  The recipe, from the companies I’ve talked to, is to get the right people in; set clear, ambitious standards; train them properly; give them constant, objective feedback; link their rewards to long-term quality service but, above all, to respect them as individuals and let them be themselves.  After all, companies don’t give good service, people do.


Bluebird: www.bluebird-restaurant.co.uk

First Direct: www.firstdirect.com

Jaguar: www.jaguar.com

Pan Bookshop, 158-162 Fulham Road, London SW10 9PR.  020 7373 4997

Pret A Manger: www.pret.com

Ritz-Carlton: www.ritzcarlton.com

Shepherds, Marsham Court, Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4LA.  020 7834 9552


This article was written by Matthew Stibbe: see his website here.

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