Culture clashes, high pressure sales and worldwide courtesy

When promoting the please and thanks web site recently, an American businessman commented that, after living in the UK for over 10 years, he was still struck by the lack of politeness and common courtesy here.

This is very sad when you consider that years ago we were recognised internationally for our courteous behaviour. It reinforces the need for a concerted courtesy campaign to re-introduce appreciation and courtesy into UK business.

But let’s break the habit of constantly beating ourselves up and pretending that everything is always better everywhere else. We have rich and valuable traditions and culture and it is possible to take the positive elements from these and build on them to create a better modern business environment.

And let’s remember that everything is not always better everywhere else. Americans are often regarded as the epitome of politeness, yet some high pressure sales techniques practised in the US (and elsewhere), while overtly courteous, can be extremely offensive. I know because I have had recent experience of them.

I am not suggesting either that such sales techniques are typical of US businesses or that they are not used by UK businesses, but want to redress any impression that the situation is perfect elsewhere, but hopeless in the UK. There are good and bad practices everywhere.

Yet cultural differences do complicate matters. One of the most misunderstood issues in the UK is that of customer service. Happy, smiley faces and saccharine greetings may work well in America, but they do not work so well in the UK. Likewise, just because sales people or customer service staff in the UK are not constantly grinning and simpering, it does not mean they are rude or grumpy. What is unacceptable anywhere in the world is company representatives who are genuinely rude, such as shop assistants who ignore customers while gossiping with friends.

That’s why, to improve service in the UK, we must look at what UK customers want, not force them to put up with what it is thought they should have.

With experience of monitoring customer service in a major UK airline in the 1980s, I am amazed at how thinking and performance in the area of customer service has regressed in many large businesses operating in this country. This is reflected in general conversation where most people see little distinction between one organisation and its competitors. The common feeling is often: they’re all as bad as each other.

This is even true of organisations which ostensibly listen to their customers. I am always willing to participate in customer surveys, yet it astounds me that surveys rarely lead to any discernible improvement in an organisation’s service. Why don’t they save the money they spend on surveys and put this into actual service improvements?

Which brings us back to where we started.

The standard of courtesy is not good enough in UK business. UK business needs to extend its practice of common courtesy. We can always learn from other cultures, but we must not ignore our own. We must look deep into our history to see how we were able to be polite many years ago and what we can learn from our past to use in our present.

Polite behaviour is in the best interests of everyone from private individuals to large commercial organisations. It does not hinder commercial success, but can boost it.

I’m looking forward to a time when an American businessman can tell me, unprompted, how he is impressed with the politeness and courtesy he has encountered from doing business in the UK.

I’m looking forward to more courteous businesses – in every part of the world.

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