Rule Britannia? Not when it comes to customer service

In some ways it's comforting to know the inefficiency I've experienced at the hands of, say, the division of motor vehicles or New Jersey Transit, isn't a uniquely American experience. Far from it. 

Images Last night, for example, after a six-plus hour flight to London's Heathrow Airport, my fellow passengers and I were subjected to an amazingly painful welcome to Britain's shores.  (This, mind you, after being greeted by countless placards of happy, smiling Brits).  Despite the fact that no fewer than three airplanes had arrived at the same time, British Passport Control decided to assign just one clerk to check paperwork. And, the clerk in question seemed to fancy himself something of an investigative journalist. As hordes of hungry, tired, unwashed travelers grumbled and checked their watches and PDAs, the clerk would harangue travelers with incessant questions, demand additional paperwork and sometimes just disappear completely for five or 10 minutes to do god knows what. The whole scene reminded one of a traffic jam on Long Island's infamous Belt Parkway (note: the Belt is the U.S. highway system's version of the Tower of London).

To further compound matters, there was absolutely no explanation why only one passport control agent was on duty to process the 300-person strong throng. Oh, there was one other, semi-official looking official strolling the area, but he merely hummed to himself and smiled at what must have resembled a pack of refugees fleeing from the latest Middle Eastern conflict.

I was more than a little concerned because, as the delay extended beyond an hour, I worried my waiting driver would bolt, assuming I'd either skipped the flight entirely or taken a cab instead. He later told me my arriving flight had been removed from the message board and that there'd been no communication whatsoever made to the friends, families and drivers waiting for the stalled passengers. Good show, governor (not).

Finally, at about the 75-minute mark, two other passport control agents slowly strolled towards their stations, sat down, chatted amiably with one another for a while, gradually activated their computers and, wonder of wonder, motioned to the huddled masses to approach their stations. The lines eventually began moving and, 90 minutes after first arriving at passport control, I was finally cleared.

The first thing I did was to head to the currency exchange booth. 'Sorry, sir,' the attendant informed me. 'We've just closed for the evening.' It was the perfect coup de grace.

I have a simple solution for solving what, in my mind, is a serious potential image problem for the U.K.'s tourism trade. Pluck the passport control agents out of their jobs for a day and make THEM experience the service. As a former CEO of mine was famous for saying, 'I'll bet that'll light a fire under their asses.'

On the plus side of the ledger, Britain's surly, inefficient and insensitive passport control agents would find immediate gigs in America should they choose to cross the pond in search of better-paying jobs. Personally, I thought the nasty, surly passport agent would make for a superb conductor on any NJ Transit train.

There's no secret formula for fixing shoddy customer service. We're helping brands accomplish it in the States by suggesting marketers experience their customer experience first-hand. It works wonders.

Sadly, though, what unites the British passport control workers with their American peers is their employer: the public sector. Far too few public sector workers are incentivized to be either efficient or courteous. Instead, they simply clock in and clock out.

I know it may not play well in state capitals such as Madison or Trenton, but here's a vote for making public sector workers experience what their customers endure. It'll not only improve productivity, it'll enhance their countries' images and reputation. And, as I said, I have a solution. And, oh, how I'd love to engineer a role reversal and place that passport control agent at the rear of a 300-person line. I'd like to see how he likes waiting 90 minutes before I deign to review his papers. 'So, who's next in line? Hurry up sir, please, my shift's about to end.

15 thoughts on “Rule Britannia? Not when it comes to customer service

  1. Good stuff, Ghost. There are definitely private sector customer service nightmares. Comcast comes immediately to mind. Competition is what will change poor customer service in the private sector. If my competitor is delighting customers and taking them away from me, I’ll incentivize my front-line employees. The bottom line here is literally the bottom line.

  2. I doubt any airport’s passport control is world class, Sue. My intent was to make two points:
    1) The disconnect between the brand promise made by the cheery, uplifting UK adverts and placards greeting one as he deplanes at Heathrow vs. the horrific, actual customer experience at passport control.
    2) The sad fact that government workers worldwide care very little, if at all, about the customer experience. In fact, public sector customer service is an oxymoron.

  3. And beyond incentives, I would also recommend the introduction of weekly assignment-sheet meetings. That should straighten out any inattentive employee in a jiffy.

  4. I must say that there are a lot of employees — in both public and private sector — who aren’t paid to care. To be sure, the cashier at the grocery store makes it abundantly clear that she’ll be making the same wage, regardless of whether I’m happy enough to come back to the store or not. Her motto seems to be, “I’m going to be here for the next eight hours — and I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t, either.”
    The problem in the public (and many positions in the private) sector is a lack of incentive. Privatizing doesn’t necessarily solve this, either. I deal with a lot of government regulators, and I find the only power they possess is in the seemingly arbitrary decision whether to enforce the law or ignore it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience, sometimes it’s a matter of principle — but it’s almost always about power. What we need to do is reconfigure the system to build in incentives. Taking it private will likely lead to similar (but different) issues as the business mindset looks to maximize profits, which, depending on the situation, can be harmful in and of itself.

  5. I have to ask if you think our NY JFK TSA is any better. I have traveled to London frequently in the past and have never had an experience like yours. In NY though, it’s pretty much every time.

  6. Great anecdotes. The one common denominator is government service. Public sector employees aren’t paid to care. And, that’s why they treat one and all like yesterday’s newspaper. I say we privatize the entire system and hold passport control agents accountable.

  7. Superb first-hand account, Aaiello. Passport control agents are frustrated high school bullies who have been given a second chance in life. They may be paid next to nothing, but they can make a well-healed Wall Streeter grovel for hours if they so choose. That’s heady stuff for a 12th grade graduate.

  8. I’ll take ‘papers please’ any day of the week. At least, the next step would be quick, if not merciful.

  9. A smart and savvy recommendation in these lean times of ours, Lunch. Sadly, William and Kate are so far removed from the plight of the average man that I’m sure their security forces would shoot Ronald McDonald on sight if he tried crashing their wedding.

  10. Trust me, Julie. It’s a Walter Mitty-type craving (not that most Repman readers have any clue who Walter Mitty actually was). I’d love to see these government workers spend just one day trying to cope with the gross inefficiencies they and their peers engage in.

  11. The same thing has happened to me in Houston, New York and worst of all (in the US) Boston. I think it’s the same for any organization where the people served are not customers (who have options) but are the ‘general public’, who just need to be dealt with (and have no alternative, such as with NJ Transit, London Underground and the Mass Pike).
    Having said that about US airports, the worst ever story was my-mother-in law who waited three hours at Heathrow T4. One American lady who got out before her called the police because she thought her elderly and slightly senile husband had wandered off into London. When he got out he was effing and blinding like he wanted to be on the first plan back to America.
    Apparently, upon arrival in China you have the option to grade your experience with the immigration official. You press one of three faces – one smiley, one neutral and one grumpy. Who knows what happens to the immigration official with the most grumpy faces each month.

  12. The Brits are good at–as they say–queuing, aren’t they? Little wonder. I do recall similarly long lines at the airport in Manchester when I used to travel there on business. But for lousy customer service, I recall returning to the US via Chicago’s O’Hare air port (the REAL Tower of London IMHO). As I stood in line at customs on my home soil, the customs officials were opening up new lines. As one customs official approached his station, he gestured with his arm for me to come to his station. Someone in a neighboring line saw his gesture and thought it was for him. As we both took a few steps and we each saw the other moving to the station, we hesitated for a moment to sort out which one of us was really going to move forward. After perhaps a second of hesitation, the customs official bellowed, “Come ON people–this isn’t rocket science!” What a nice welcome home after a nine hour flight! Even worse–I knew that if I complained I’d likely be detained (those were the heady days of color-coded terror alert statuses, and I’ve been teased before about my swarthy complexion). I found the most pleasant and efficient customs officers in Germany. All smiles, multilingual, and willing to tolerate my pidgin-German. Got me in and out in no time!

  13. Truly brutal, Rep. You do realize that they are planning a pretty big wedding over there though, right?
    Maybe you should find the Prince and tell him about the deals to be had in Hong Kong McDonald’s?

  14. Wow — I am truly shocked. I thought the Brits had a great reputation for being efficient. How wrong I was! I think your role-reversal suggestion is brilliant. It should be done more often here in the States.