I once worked for an American company in London and my boss used to make fairly frequent trips back to the Head Office in Boston, sometimes flying, but often by transatlantic liner.
After a few journeys on a variety of ships, he settled for the QE2.
Although he said that the liner France had wonderful decor and cuisine, he found the crew members extremely condescending, as if they were doing him a favour by being there.
He didn’t like Americans either (although he was American himself) because he said they were over-familiar.
The British, on the other hand, were efficient without being officious and friendly without being overly so.
They, apparently, had got the customer service issue exactly right. He preferred flying with British Airways for the self-same reason.
I have written in a previous article about the atrocious attitude to tourists of many Parisians working in the tourist industry.
I think the French authorities must have read my comments because they have apparently realised that customer service actually matters and they are currently conducting a campaign to improve the skills of their workforce – I can only wish them luck with that one!
I remember attending a conference at what was then Euro-Disney (now Disneyland Paris) with a group of travel and tourism students and the human resources director telling them that one of her biggest problems was getting the French staff to smile and be nice to visitors!
Customer service is a very difficult thing to get right.
When I lived in London, I used to shop at a dress shop on Oxford Street which has long since disappeared.
The sales assistants used to be lined up just inside the door along with a pretty ferocious-looking supervisor.
As you entered the shop, you were allocated an assistant who stuck to you like glue as you browsed the racks.
I expect the poor girls were given targets which had to be met and were perhaps penalised if a customer left without making a purchase.
Had it not been for the fact that they sold wonderful clothes at very affordable prices, I wouldn’t have used the shop because I, probably like many of you, prefer to be left alone to browse in peace, but with the knowledge that there is someone around to help if required.
It’s the same with restaurants and hotels.
I sometimes think that all the effort goes into the kitchen – or rather what comes out of it – and little thought is paid to front of house.
We used to eat at a restaurant in Wetherby which has changed hands several times since.
It had a very talented young man in charge of front of house. He was friendly, remembered your name and generally made you feel very welcome.
He was also extremely adept at dealing with difficult customers.
A few weeks ago, we ate in a restaurant in Portsmouth which is part of a relatively new chain owned by - or at least it bears the name of - a very well-known TV chef.
As there was no-one to be seen when we arrived, we sat at a table on the terrace.
Some minutes later, a waitress approached and asked if we had been seated there by ‘the host’.
We said that we had no idea what she was talking about and were told in no uncertain terms that, on arrival, you had to see ‘the host’ who would allocate you a table!
As we showed no signs of moving, she reluctantly agreed that we could stay where we were.
We subsequently watched with amusement as one couple refused to accept the table allocated by ‘the host’.
As there are plenty of other options for eating in that area, I don’t expect we will be patronising this particular restaurant again.
I was concerned to learn at a recent meeting of the Welcome to Wetherby team that our tourist office has had complaints from tourists this year about poor customer service in the town.
It wasn’t a total surprise because some time ago, a very experienced and well-known retail consultant came to Wetherby to offer a free retail surgery to local businesses.
Prior to that, she had carried out a mystery shop in eight businesses.
In seven of them, the customer service she apparently experienced left a lot to be desired.
Her comments ranged from sales assistants gossiping on the phone while she was kept waiting to their having little knowledge of their stock and being unable to answer queries.
As I said earlier, it’s not easy to strike the right balance, but if we are to build up a reputation as a welcoming town for tourists and visitors, excellent customer service has to be one of our priorities.