Customer Service is an oxymoron in the UK

Customer service leaves much to be desired here in the UK.  No offense meant.  Just stating a fact.  Let’s begin with basics like customer convenience and the “enjoyment” one normally likes to associate with a shopping experience. These do not seem to be high on the retailers’ priority list here.  Big department stores tend to tuck their restrooms at the remotest corners, without adequate signs to show where they are located.  You just have to ask, or guess, or both.  I can almost swear this is part of a deliberate design to just have restrooms used less — less maintenance, less cost, less headache for them.  Perhaps a conspiracy among the retail giants?  Ok, I’ll try not to be too cynical.  I can tell you they have signages that guide you towards everything else but the loos though.

Today I took the train from our hotel in Falkirk into Glasgow, and did the rounds of the shops.  Mostly window-shopping.  It’s hard to really shop here knowing how much cheaper prices are back in the US.  But hey, every girl needs her retail therapy now and then; — or sometimes we shop with a purpose, as was the case for me this time.  The objective:  find shoes for a formal dinner event this Saturday evening.  It’s the hubby’s motorsports club’s annual gig (where he gets a few awards too), and although things have toned down a bit now, it used to be a “penguin suit” sort of affair, I heard.  Since I’m newly wed, and newly-moved, this is going to be my first time to attend.   I’ve decided to wear one of my Vivienne Tams.  I just need new shoes to update the look, since most of my dressier shoes are in Chicago.  I started the search in a few smaller shops and later turned into Debenhams, a large UK department store.  If I had to make an analogy it would probably be like the US’s “Macy’s” chain.  The store occupies an entire building on Argyle Street, if not a significant part of that building.  Inside it has 5 huge floors full merchandise — and guess what?  Only one floor with toilets.  Yup, only on the second floor, the women’s floor, tucked in one of those obscure corners.   But as if this disproportionate lack of facilities wasn’t bad enough, —  the restrooms were actually boarded up, blocked with cones and crates, and with yellow tape marking the area off much like a crime scene.  Then the almost “apology sign” (a common sight here), “we apologize that the toilets are under repair….”  With the amount of debris blocking that area, I get the feeling that this “repair” has been going on for some time, and no, no other restrooms available in the whole building.  You would think with the price ranges in such a store they loved their customers.  And if this is the condition in a big store in the largest city in Scotland, I can only guess how much worse it would be in smaller places.  But this is how it is, and what can customers do but get used to it, right?

I’ve often wonder how this country is going to be ready for the 2012 Olympics in London because the concept of good customer relations/service is simply not in the retail service providers’ psyche.  I don’t think they mean to be this way.  They’re just not conscious of what needs to be done and how they have to be done.  You walk into a store, and the sales people look away when their eyes meet yours.   Very rarely do they bother to say greet you.  You can be queueing up to pay and see cashiers talking to each other over their tills and delaying the lines.  You see lazy unattentive sales attendants who do not know their products.  You get very fast “no” and “I’m sorry, we don’t have that here” answers, instead of — “let me check if we have that somewhere in the backroom” or “let me check in our other stores if I can get that for you.”  You will also see the sales staff blocking the very cramped merchandise aisles chatting away while the customer pretends not to be annoyed.  Worse, some stores seem to have staff who “size-you-up” on entry and if they think you cannot afford, they just turn away.  I know I’m sweeping with my statements, but seriously these are not uncommon.  So for now I am keeping to mostly window-shopping (except maybe bookstores and Boots), and there are days when I miss the American “can-do” spirit and positive go-get-’em attitude.

P.s., I did achieve what I set out to do and got shoes from another store.


10 thoughts on “Customer Service is an oxymoron in the UK

  1. I agree with you. You forgot to mention restaurants though. They’re usually the worst. Except, yesterday the Gent and I went for lunch and they delivered a dish that I hadn’t ordered (it was close, but not the same). The waiter then took it back, they brought the right one, took my dish and the dessert off the bill! It was nice and very refreshing!

  2. Yeah, welcome to the UK! My slap-in-the-face customer service experience happened when I was trying to hook up my internet. It was the first month I was in the UK and certainly put a bitter taste in my mouth. Fortunately, customer service is a bit better in Ireland.

    M&S is a good place to use the loo too!

    1. Hi Kim: Yes, I love M&S’s service!
      It’s funny how simple things like clean, available, restrooms makes a difference to one’s perception of how the retailers value your custom, right?

  3. I think the whole customer service lack here has something to do with the “stiff upper lip” phenomenon more generally. People don’t complain about things. It’s all “keep calm and carry on” and if you dare speak up, you’re a whiny American. Or maybe that’s just me. But the longer I’ve lived here, the more convinced I am that the lack of good customer service is merely a symptom of the deeper cultural psyche.

    1. Very true! There was a restaurant we went to in Leigh (Edinburgh), and my hubby sat down and said “let’s see if their portions are “back to normal” now”. Apparently, the last time he went there with his colleagues he found that the portions (at least for the dish he always orders) had apparently shrunk. As Fate would have it, it was still as small (hahaa) and we left the place with him grumbling and swearing we’re never coming back. I told him he could’ve asked the food attendant if this was just seasonal (it was mussels) or suggested a bigger portion with a price adjustment, etc. BUt no, he kept quiet and we are not going back (I think). So the place doesn’t know he is not happy. And meantime, we ticked one place of our list of regulars. :(

  4. Try Belgium. That’ll make you glad for the courteous finesse with which you are treated in British stores!

    The “not meeting your eyes” thing, by the way, is because British people HATE feeling pressured in shops. We like to feel free to browse without feeling obliged to purchase anything. I think this dates back decades to the time when if you went into a shop, you pretty much HAD to buy something before you left (which I think was something to do with shops really struggling after the war, and everyone wanting to help them out, but I don’t know exactly). So to you, a sales assistant coming up and saying “can I help you with anything today?” feels welcoming. To a Brit, it feels like someone is asking “what are you going to buy here?” It’s that old British obligation thing.

    I can remember when, as a child, sales assistants would deliberately come up and hover around, and make you feel uncomfortable. It was a relief to be in one of the larger stores where they tended to leave you alone. In smaller stores, if you tried anything on, it was tantamount to committing yourself to buying something. The role of the sales assistant at that point would be to help you to decide which item you would buy, not whether you would buy. I think a lot of things you notice today have their roots in past times, when practices were very different.

    I’m not saying it’s healthy, or right, or anything. Just trying to help you make sense of our weird British ways.

  5. Hi Miss Chicago,

    Regina here, for

    I would like to personally invite you to list your blog on our Expat Women Blog Directory ( so that other women can read about and learn from your expat experiences.

    Many thanks in advance for your contribution and keep up your great blog!


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