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I am pleased to introduce you to Mike Bird from mikeandthecustomer.com. This guest post from Mike is a must-read for anyone interested in customer service–especially how it translates across cultures.

Virgin Atlantic

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” – Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost

I have led customer service transformation projects all over the World, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is this: the customer experience of service is not the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

So if you try (as many companies do) to take a customer service strategy which worked in the USA and move it to your UK operation, thinking that the same things which worked in America will work in the UK, then I’m sorry: you will be entering a world of pain. 

I want to save you some of this pain. So here are some of the things to watch for, if you ever find yourself taking customer service thinking from the US to the UK. 

  • British people usually do not want a stranger to wish them a nice day. It is not part of normal conversation and to many British ears, it sounds fake and insincere.
  • British people normally do want to talk to someone to help sort out their problem.  But they don’t want to have a conversation about anything other than their problem. Discussion of how they feel, their health or their families is a distraction and an intrusion.
  • British people do not express enthusiasm easily, except at sporting events.  Even then, it will be qualified. “What a great goal!”  “Yes, but he should have scored earlier.” If your business is aiming to measure customer advocacy (such as through Net Promoter Score, or some such), such reluctance can make getting good NPS scores hard.
  • British people love to complain about companies, but they hate complaining to companies.  Britons normally try to avoid conversational conflict, which is why UK conversation is so punctuated by words like “…sorry…” and “…thank you…” It also means that they avoid complaining unless they feel a real need to do so.
    It is quite normal, for example, even after quite dreadful service, for a British person to apologise for making a complaint. So an organisation that gets only a few complaints, should not assume that everything is good–-these complaints could be the tip of a substantial iceberg.
  • By the same token, Britons use “I’m sorry,” in many different ways, situations and meanings.  And if you hear this combination “I’m sorry, but with the greatest respect…,” be very careful. It usually means the opposite.

Of course, these are hopeless generalisations, but they do have a truth at the core:  British people, like all customers, want to receive customer service which fixes their problems promptly–with emotional honesty and respect, on their terms.

And, of course, for companies like Virgin Atlantic or first direct Bank or Hiscox Insurance that do get customer service right in the UK, the rewards can be massive.

So is it harder to get customer service right in the UK or the US?  In my experience, it is equally hard on both sides of the pond; it is just that the challenges, in many ways, are different.

Mike is Customer Strategist with MikeAndTheCustomer.com where he helps companies turnaround their customer experience. Find more fresh thinking and practical advice about the customer at www.MikeAndTheCustomer.com or follow Mike on Twitter @Bird_Mike

Just for fun: What British People Say, Versus What They Mean