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.
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.