You may run but you can't hide: the smile is everywhere. Good old rude British service has been replaced by something even worse: bogus corporate charm. Hester Lacey is your writer. Have a good read...
Never mind if it's Monday morning, ladies 'n' gennelmen, thank you for your company today. I hope you enjoyed your journey with us, and have a nice day, all of you!" The commuters shuffling by, sunk in post- weekend gloom, respond with indifference to the train driver's warm and friendly message. There are few smiles of recognition, or murmurs of: "Hey, you have a nice day too, now!"

Perhaps they have been rendered immune by the great onslaughts of charm that now make going to the bank, or phoning the building society, or ringing for an insurance quote such a treacly experience. Because nowadays, from the bank manager to the milkman, everyone just lurves their clients and wants to be their friend. Everyone wants to be on first-name terms, and oozes solicitousness and concern and great dollops of oily friendliness, more often than not in ersatz American, with a "How may I help you?" here and a "Have a good day, now!" there.

But some of those on the receiving end of this deluge of sweetness are becoming suspicious. Could it be that this lip-service to superhuman levels of customer care in fact conceals the same old depths of indifference that always used to characterise service in Britain? Such antics don't cut much ice in this cold-hearted country.

For one thing, they make it more difficult to complain. "I rang an insurance company and spoke to someone who introduced herself as Sarah," says Mark Taylor, who wanted an insurance quote for his car. "The estimate she sent was totally cocked up, and I had a particular query I wanted to raise. But when I rang back, it turned out that they had about 20 different Sarahs all working different shifts. There was no way of tracing my particular one. So I had to start again. This time it was a Gina, so I suppose the odds were more on my side that they wouldn't have a whole squadron of Ginas working round the clock," he added, optimistically.

Sometimes, the slick modern crust of charm is very thin, over a deep chasm of pure old-fashioned cheek. "I had a complicated query I had been pursuing with the Abbey National," says a frustrated mortgagee. "I eventually got hold of someone who was very sympathetic. 'Oh, I'm so sorry you've had to go through all this, madam,' he said. 'I'll fax the documents over right away.' I asked him for his full name, because I'd spoken to so many Steves and Tims and Lizzes that I was losing track. Then I scurried to the fax machine - but hours later, nothing had come through. So I called back, and said 'Could I speak to Euan Carr, please?' but the telephonist said there was no member of staff by that name. I just don't understand," she wailed. "Why would anyone bother to make up a name like that?" Why indeed? And as she ponders, Euan Carr (say it slowly) with his colleagues Mike Hunt, Eric Hunt and their mentor Mr R Soles, are sniggering at the back of the office.

It seems that nowhere is safe. "I knew things had gone far enough," says Bernadette Mason, unhappy shopper, "when I went into the fishmongers' and the girl said 'My name is Brenda, our fish of the day is the mackerel, and how may I help you?' What is wrong with 'Good morning', for heaven's sake?"

Serving staff come in for a disproportionate (or perhaps proportionate) amount of hatred. A normally mild-mannered accountant, Martin Wakeley, says: "It's waiters and waitresses I want to punch. When they come over and trill 'My name is Tinkerbell and I'm your waitress for the evening' it makes me want to retch. In an ideal world they would hand out menus in silence. Even smirking would be frowned on."

The line between a charm offensive and offensive charm is a thin one. "The problem for companies is that they have all used a basic American model - formulas like 'hellomyname'sTracyhowmay Ihelpyou' - I call it 'the Tracy problem'," says Dr Guy Fielding of the Department of Communication Studies at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. "Seemingly sensible companies have copied each other in using the same basic structures, and they are sending out all the wrong signals. In conversation, the opening exchanges give a lot of information about the nature of the relationship between the speakers. Many companies ignore such subtleties, so they end up giving out the wrong messages."

Such wrong messages are terribly Eighties. "This very ritualised style came over from the States about 10 years ago," says Tom Brannan, Chairman of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

In America, where 45 per cent of workers are employed in service industries, consumers have been putting up with it since the beginning of the last decade. But why are we supposed to like such an approach? "Using first names is meant to lend humanity," explains Tom Brannan, "while the use of a surname is distancing rather than friendly. But of course, there is inevitably an element of formula to any human interaction; saying 'This is Tom, how may I help you?' is no more ritualised than saying 'Good morning'."

A style that would be fine in New York is less appropriate for Tunbridge Wells, suggests Drusilla Beyfus, author of Modern Manners (Mandarin). "This kind of forced mateyness sits much better on Americans, it's part of their general buoyancy, but it just doesn't sit well on the lugubrious British face," she says. "It's not nearly as irritating from genuine Americans, you just accept it - and they really believe in it much more than we do. Over here, you're utterly convinced that when your dry cleaner says 'Have a nice day' she's hoping you'll trip over as soon as you get out of the shop. A friendly tone is much better than automaton phrases, but they are better than taking no interest in the customer."

"There are so many formulaic American packages," says the Rev Ian Gregory of the Polite Society. "Why we can't come up with our own I don't know. It's better than surly indifference, but we need to relax a bit and not treat courtesy as a package."

It's hard to get companies to give a self-critique of their presentation. Most will only sniff that they are "committed to improving and maintaining the quality of services," or some such line. But some are beginning to address the issue of corporate manners, says Joan Sillis, managing director of Teleconomy, consultants in the management of telephone systems.

"Across the board, you do have horrible experiences. But in general, standards are going up. Training staff to a pattern is really insulting to them, in general we deplore it - and it is being laughed at now. Formulas have been used, wrongly, to replace the right tone of voice - if the tone is right, you simply don't need them. It is being recognised that the key is not to 'train' staff but to educate them to be interactive.

"The nub is to know what callers want. The first thing is speedy service - they won't forgive you if they have to wait. And they want to find a spokesperson for the company who is friendly, human, and offers a communicative response." (Teleconomy's shining examples of customer-friendly companies that will not put you on hold for hours, play plinky music at you, reroute you into endless voice mail, or ask you to have a nice day, include Marks & Spencer, Scottish Power, Arthur Andersen and United Biscuits.)

Finally, however hard you train (or educate) your staff, there will still always be the occasional hopeless case. Phoning a camera company, an employee of the photographic magazine Amateur Photographer (known in the trade as AP) was asked to identify himself. "It's Joel from AP," he explained.

"Just a moment, Mr Fromaipey, I'll try the line for you," chirruped the operator. He didn't get through.

OFFENSIVE CHARMERS

On the telephone, callers hate ...

Gabbled greetings. "Good morning" will suffice (friendly if possible).

Use of first names only; it's confusing and often inappropriate. First name, surname and job title is reassuringly efficient.

Being left on hold in total silence. Or listening to music. Or listening to recorded information. Or being asked to "bear with" someone. If queries cannot be dealt with immediately, offer to phone back.

Being dealt with abruptly. "One word responses are a disaster," says Joan Sillis of Teleconomy. "Don't say 'sorry?', say 'I'm sorry, could you repeat that?'"

In person, clients hate ...

Being asked "How may I help you?" by someone filing their nails /covering the phone with one hand /glancing up from a magazine.

Misplaced matey-ness: when their bank manager starts chummily calling them by their first name.

Being told to "Have a nice day" by someone who obviously couldn't care less if they were knocked down by a bus in the next five minutes.

Comments