Mark Bradley Don't feel too sorry for the retailers, they've only got themselves to blame

ACCORDING to many UK retailers, the impending increase of VAT to 20 per cent spells crisis for the high street – hence the even greater hypre surrounding the new Year sales.

But, if my experiences of customer service in 2010 are in anyway representative, our businesses need more than the "wake up call" of a VAT increase to shake them out of their complacent, arrogant torpor.

I've written before about the "cultural blindness" that blights service in the UK. One the one hand, we have companies led by individuals who pay lip service to customers, proclaiming high percentages of "satisfied" customers and conveniently ignoring the fact that mere satisfaction is no indicator of future re-purchase or recommendation. And there are many other service "blind spots".

For example, we have formed an instinctive semantic connection between the words "customer service department" and the word "complaints", thereby damaging the attraction of a career helping customers.

I once asked a question of a supermarket assistant, who responded by telling me that she didn't "do" customer service and that the desk I needed was "over there".

It's well known that it costs up to 10 times more to recruit a new customer than to keep an existing one, so you'd imagine that the prospect of tightening margins might somehow invert the current approach to one where existing customers actually mattered. You'd be wrong.

I have an ongoing problem with a smart phone, but because I failed to report the problem within the first 28 days of purchase (it hadn't occurred up to that point), all they can do is take it off me and give me a primitive phone (calls and texts only) as a short-term replacement. However, I need email on the move, so I've had no other option but to hang on to the faulty phone.

On each occasion I've gone into the store hoping that they might offer a replacement, I mention that I've been with them for 10 years. To describe their reaction as "complete disinterest" wouldn't do justice to the indifference I encounter. I'm therefore in the market for a new phone supplier.

Last Christmas, my wife gave me a watch. It cost a four-figure sum, so when it began to advance at twice the speed of sound in the summer, I took it in, expecting it to be professionally repaired. They told me it would take two to three weeks to repair, but not only did it eventually take two months, but I had to do all the chasing. No one pro-actively got in touch to warn me of the delays.

Worst of all was the experience my wife had buying a new car. When the registration documents came through, they were for the wrong car. That was in early September and three months later not only has nothing been done about this by the dealership, but not one of our calls or emails has ever been returned.

If ever there was evidence of the British attitude of "once it's sold, you no longer need to bother", this was it.

The thought of me exposing their cynical manipulation of customer satisfaction research to the media is the one positive outcome I cling to. They obviously believe that it's all about the car and, to a greater extent, it probably is, but we'll be doing everything we can to avoid giving that particular dealership any business in future.

In October, we booked a meal in a restaurant famed for its steaks. As is often the case, they took my number and, for those nave readers among you, this is purely to ensure we turn up and not for any customer benefit, as the ensuing tale will prove.

We were greeted at the door, sat down and given menus. Of the dozen or so main dishes for which the chain is famed, only two were available (and none of the steaks). This was due to them "underestimating the number of people who would call in during half term". Why hadn't they used my number to let us know, so we could re-book?

Each of the above stories has a dnouement, as I (with an untypical demonstration of customer intolerance) took up my concerns with management. What was surprising was that the level of interest in my concern was in inverse proportion to the amount of money involved in each purchase.

The restaurant's area manager was in touch quickly (especially after my first email generated the response that it was a named supplier's fault – and made no further comment) and dealt transparently and effectively with our concerns.

The jewellers' response was, if a little less hurried, largely effective too (although the tone of voice of the store manager left me feeling that I'd been responsible for them getting a "telling off") but the actions of the car dealership have only served to remind me that we don't matter.

Perhaps UK retailers are playing on our renown for high tolerance of poor customer service. But I hope they aren't, because with the advent of social networking and sites like "trip advisor", the next generation of shoppers are much more militant and intolerant than any previous generation.

So, dear readers, when you read about the impending VAT increase, don't be tempted to take any protestations from retailers seriously. The fact is, if their margins are going to be reduced and people are going to lose their jobs, they only have themselves to blame.

Mark Bradley is a writer and consultant and director of The Fan Experience Company (www.thefanexperiencecompany.com)

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