Apathy – whose fault is it?


My wonderful wife is the first to point out that I am not necessarily the best customer. Doing what I do for a living, I fully acknowledge that I am very conscious of the experiences I have as a customer – wherever that happens to be. Sometimes this leads to me ‘harping on’ about how wonderful organisations and their staff are. Sometimes this leads to me vociferously pointing out what is wrong! All poor Naomi wants is to eat or shop in peace!!

So when Naomi went to London last Friday for a break with Caitie (one of our daughters), in the back of my mind I knew that I would be able to ‘rant and rave’ to my heart’s content for two whole days (although we must recognise that Jack and Ciara – our two other children – would have to put up with it instead!).

Identifying; spotting; noticing; recognising; appreciating; good and bad customer experiences is not something I intentionally go out of my way to do – it just happens. Having focussed on the importance of doing the right things for customers for such a long time, it is now part of my make up! I can go for days and sometimes weeks without ‘noticing’ anything that warrants comment – in other words, I can go for periods having experiences that are neither exceptional, nor sub standard – they just do what I expect. That in itself is not such a bad thing. However, there are other times when it seems as though every experience I has is significant – and not always for the right reason.

The weekend that has just passed was one of those ‘times’. I had a number of experiences that genuinely surprised me. They surprised me because there was a common theme to all of them. It is that common theme that is the subject of this blog.

What do the following brands all have in common?:

 0 halfords  0 morrisons1

They are all very well recognised brands in the UK. They are also all brands that I had an experience with over the weekend. They are all brands that delivered experiences that I have and will remember for a while. I will remember the experiences for one reason – all four interactions were delivered by disinterested, disengaged, APATHETIC staff – at least that is the impression they all gave me. Let me talk you through the experiences.

1. Holiday Inn – I am cheating slightly here as this experience was last week, rather than the weekend, but it was an experience that set up the apathy theme perfectly. I stayed in the Holiday Inn in Walsall – a hotel that sits right on the M6. Being late in the day, and being lazy, I decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant. I approached a member of the waiting staff who was standing by the till at the entrance to the restaurant. He made no attempt to look up from what he was doing to greet me. When I enquired as to whether or not the restaurant was open, he replied ‘I suppose so’. I was really taken aback. This guy could not have been more apathetic if he tried. He genuinely looked at me as if he could not care less. His colleagues were no better – throughout my meal, all of the waiting staff seemed to have some kind of magnetic attraction to the till and each other – congregating in a way that made delivering a plate of food to a customer seem like a real inconvenience. The food was actually quite good – the kitchen staff were greatly let down by the waiting staff. APATHY – 9, CUSTOMER 0

2. Halfords – My little boy Jack mastered riding his bike without stabilisers on Friday. However, Naomi and I noticed that the handlebars on his bike needed to be raised. For some reason I could not find a suitable tool to raise them – so, a visit to a brand new Halfords store beckoned. The store in Chester has only been open a week. It is bright and shiny with a great array of products. I quickly found what I wanted – within two minutes of entering the store. Regrettably it took me ten minutes to get out! I could not find a member of staff who wanted to take my money!! The first member of staff I found (next to a till I might add) was on the phone. He pointed down (I was upstairs in the bike shop) – basically telling me to go downstairs to pay. Should a member of staff (who I now understand was the manager) be taking a phone call by the till? So I went downstairs to be greeted by another member of staff at the main till on the ground floor. This chap was marking up stock. He spotted me coming from ten feet away. The look he gave me was one of ‘for Pete’s sake, can you not go somewhere else?’. I actually felt guilty for disturbing him. He told me that I needed to pay for my item upstairs. Rather than argue with him, I went back upstairs (who needs to go to the gym for a workout?). This time,  there was  not a soul at the till – not a member of staff in sight. My temperature was starting to rise at this point. I stood there for a couple of minutes before making the decision to re-visit my friend on the till downstairs……only when I got there, he had disappeared as well!!! It did cross my mind at this stage to walk out without paying. The staff obviously could not care less about taking my money, so why should I care about giving it to them. After another couple of minutes, the manager appeared down the stairs – he looked at me with a quizzing look – ‘is no-one helping you?’ he asked. That was plainly obvious. However, rather than going behind the till and taking my money himself, he sought out ‘my friend’. As ‘Mr Friendly’ got to the till, he very loudly said ‘anything wrong with the till upstairs’ to the manager. The manager either did not hear him, or chose to ignore him. I on the other hand was left rueing my decision to give my hard-earned money to a company who had employed people who appeared to care so little about their customers. APATHY – 10, CUSTOMER 0

3. Next – The Halfords experience should have sent me home with my tail between my legs. I should have committed to not going anywhere for the rest of the weekend!! I did not make that commitment. Instead, I decided to visit Next to buy some new work shoes – something I had been meaning to do for a while. I was greeted at the door (as you always are at Next) by a nice lady holding a clipboard. I always feel as though they are about to sell me something (which they probably are), so I hurriedly shepherded Jack and Ciara past her and in to the men’s section of the store. Like Halfords, I very quickly found what I wanted. Unlike buying a tool for a bike though, before I could make the decision to buy, I needed to try the shoes on – herein was the problem. Once again, I could not find anyone to help me. It looked like all the staff had been ‘beamed up by Scotty’ (apart from the lady with the clipboard). When a lady did appear, she ‘hollered’ at me from the other side of the shop to say she would be with me ‘in a minute’. Why do you feel as though you are inconveniencing someone when they say that to you? The lady in question arrived back before I had made the decision to leave. I asked her for the size and style of shoes I wanted to try. As she was walking off, I decided to try another style – this threw her a bit – ‘you want to try on two pairs?’ she said. She made me feel as though this was a highly unusual request. I was not asking to try on a spacesuit for a trip to the moon! As she was walking to the storeroom, another customer (yes, they can accommodate more than one in the store), dared to ask her for help. Her response – ‘I am helping a customer at the moment – I’ll be back in a minute’. I did eventually buy one of the pairs of shoes I tried on – because the product and price were right. If this had been a visit to a restaurant, the lady that ‘served’ me would not be getting a tip! APATHY – 9, CUSTOMER 0

4. Morrisons – My next visit was to Morrisons – one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets. I did not have to do a big weekly shop – I just needed a few bits and pieces – Milk, Bread and a great big Pumpkin (for Jack, Ciara and I to carve that afternoon). Once again (there is a theme building here), we found what we wanted very quickly. We worked our way to the tills. Ciara had insisted on holding the Pumpkin, and was huffing and puffing behind Jack and I. We approached a till that had a small queue and Ciara put the Pumpkin on the belt. ‘I’m closing’ said a voice from somewhere in the ether. As I looked around to see where the voice was coming from, it came again – ‘I’m closing’. I realised that the assistant on the till was looking at me with a look of defiance.  Now there are a couple of issues I have with this scenario. There was absolutely nothing to tell me that the till was about to close. No nice sign politely requesting that I find another till – only other customers in front of me. But it was the way the assistant spoke to me that bothered me most. I almost thought she was going to say ‘nah nah nee nah nah!!’. The lady just gave me the impression she could not care less. Her going on a break was far more important than any customer. Do not get me wrong – I completely understand that hard-working staff need a  break – it was the way she spoke to me that is the problem. APATHY – 8, CUSTOMER 0

Four experiences. Four different experiences with a small number of people who represent some of the biggest brands in the UK. Four brands who employ thousands of people. I recognise that the people I met are a very small minority of the hard-working men and women who represent these brands on a daily basis. However, how representative are they of the behaviour that is displayed to customers across the country? The levels of APATHY I experienced are, in my humble opinion, never acceptable – under any circumstances. The question is why did I see it so many times in such a short period?

Is it down to the four people I met – they are just not cut out to be in customer facing roles? I do not believe it is down to that. The old cliché of ‘no-one ever comes to work to do a bad job’ is accurate in this case. Although our interactions were brief, these people did not appear to be intentionally lacklustre and uncaring.

Is it down to circumstances? For example, is a lack of staff causing employees to be incapable of having the time to be empathetic to their customers? In two of my four examples there is an argument that  this might be a cause. In both Halfords and Next, there was a distinct lack of people (staff not customers). However, just because you are stretched and do not have much support, it is still no excuse to ‘not care’ (or at least display that attitude to a customer).

Is it down to training? Could it be that these people have not be trained how to behave and act in front of customers? It is difficult for me to cite this as a cause – I am not party to when or how they were trained. Knowing the sheer size and scale of these organisations, I would be surprised if they were not given the training required to represent their brands.

I do not feel any of these possible causes are the reason for the APATHY I experienced.  I believe that ‘leadership’, or lack of it, has a lot to do with it. I’ll give you an example of why. I ‘tweeted’ about my Holiday Inn experience (something I do from time to time if I am riled enough). I got a response from InterContinental Hotels Group very quickly. They told me that the food and beverages manager from the hotel would contact me imminently. It was very impressive. A few minutes later, the phone rang in my hotel room. I had a great conversation with the manager. He was horrified. He told me that he spends his evenings at ‘the pass’ to ensure that food gets out to customers promptly and accurately. Our conversation confirmed that he did not really know what his team were getting up to ‘front of house’. Now I could be hard on him and say that his management skills are lacking. However, I genuinely think he was doing what he thought was right, and trusting his staff to do the same.  In his quest to get the food right, he had neglected to effectively lead and manage another stage of his customer journey.

The next morning, the staff in the restaurant were ‘exceptionally attentive’. They were the same staff – only recognisable in the way they looked – not the way they behaved. They did not look irritated or ‘put out’. They looked attentive. They looked as if they cared. They needed leadership, and when they got it, the difference was immense. Let’s hope that they continue to be led effectively going forward.

We must never forget that our people are the backbone of our organisations. Without them we would not have a customer experience. People need to be looked after. They need to nurtured. They need to be developed. They need to be led. They need to be appreciated. The people I met at the weekend would almost certainly NOT be able to put a tick next to all of these things.

I learned a long time ago that unless your people are fully engaged with your brand to the point that they are advocates of it, it is very difficult to create a strong customer focussed culture. If your staff do not care about your brand, what hope is there for your customers?

So ask yourself two very important questions – do your people care about your brand? Do your people care about your customers? I will remember my experiences for the wrong reasons. How many of your customers will do the same and look elsewhere for the pair of shoes they want?

People say that online shopping is growing so rapidly because it so convenient. Maybe it has something to do with not having to deal with uncaring humans as well!!

As always, I am very grateful for any comments you may have about this or any of my blogs.

10 thoughts on “Apathy – whose fault is it?

  1. i buy online more and more. never thought too much about customer service but in my subconcious the comments above could certainly be the reason online shopping is so successful for me. companies on line do not want negative feedback and are very happy to please, why not have feedback from customers for all businesses, with mandatory comments near entrances to premises?
    ian, would you consider writing a book for the public to help and guide them to get satisfaction and how to go about getting the service they want?

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  2. I quite agree about the need for strong, effective and visible leadership to get staff to perform at their best. Lately when I get a poor experience like this I just vote with my feet and go somewhere else. Next time I see you I can share an absolute horror of a story about Barclays Woolwich mortgages…I haven’t had such a poor customer experience in the last 10 years. I kid you not!

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    • Thankyou Lesley, Viv and Mum! Viv – would love to hear of your experience – it might inspire another blog – unless you fancy doing a guest blog!! Mum – not sure if I am ready to do a book yet – but never say never!

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  3. I know that this is an older post, but for what it’s worth would like to post my thoughts. I, like you Ian, have had very similar interactions with all of the brands on your list. Whats strikes me is not the lack of leadership but the lack of continuity in the recruitment and initial training for the staff members. We have to assume that no organisation intends to frustrate or disappoint it’s customers, yet time and time again this happens.
    If employers took the time to complete a proper review of their recruitment policies and employ people ‘who want to do the right thing’ instead of being told to, then the retail world would be a better place.
    Rewarding service and not sales would be a start for most companies, however most seem to fail to make the link that the former will promote the latter.
    As a foot note, I refuse to shop in Halfords anymore, after being pointed to where I might find some fuses, funnily enough by 2 guys hanging around at the till. Left promptly and visted my local VW garage, who provided me 2 fuses, I only needed 1, free of charge. I don’t even own a VW….. #doingtherightthing

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    • I agree Gordon. If businesses looked at Richard Branson as a benchmark, he has made it an unwritten rule to only recruit leaders that have the same values as him. If this principle is applied all the way down the line, organisations would stand a much better chance. The best recent example of a business that works like this is Zappos – a well known example, but a case study that should be heeded by others who want to do the right thing.

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  4. I’m with you on this one Ian! I too am a very difficult customer – I don’t feel that my standards are impossible, but I do expect a certain level of ‘service’. However, I’m perhaps a little more vocal than you and have no qualms in offering my (often unsolicited) opinion to a manager, if there’s one available. I find it depresssing that I am made to feel like I’ve ruined a shop assistant’s day by asking for help. Bring on the revolution!

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  5. Ian, following on from the recent Mary Portas update, I felt compelled to comment on this.
    I am regularly moaned at by my family for complaining about “stuff” that has happened to me during the day, but it matters, particularly if you do nothing about it. Another form of Apathy.
    I have become a regular complainer because I feel that if I am spending my hard earned cash, I expect good service and good attention, which, if forthcoming, will often outweigh additional cost.
    Current saga is an ongoing battle with the DVLA over the transfer of a personalised number plate, and their lack of care in the process.
    They will be getting a letter when it is eventually resolved, and it will make me feel better.

    Great article Ian.

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    • Thank you so much for the feedback Simon – we are members of a growing club who recognise the importance of holding organisations to account. Would you be interested in talking to a TV production company about your on-going DVLA issue?

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