'THE THING is, you can be polite and rude at the same time,' a young shop assistant, who shall be known as Debbie, was explaining earnestly outside the staff entrance of one of Oxford Street's department stores. 'It's really easy to piss off the customer without actually saying anything wrong or putting your job on the line.'

Sometimes, when you've been put on hold by the bank for 12 minutes listened to a tape of 'See the Conquering Hero' before being cut off; when you've run for a bus which set off the second before you raised your foot to get on; when you've definitely caught the eye of the sales assistant who then continues to discuss contraceptive methods with her friend, you can try to convince yourself it has happened by chance. But actually we all know what is really going on - a nationwide pitched battle with the customers on one side, the employees who are supposed to be serving them on the other, and rudeness as the weapon.

'Some customers just treat you like you're nothing,' said Debbie. 'They don't even give you common courtesy. They don't smile, or say hello. And if the management has tried to inspire you to take pride in the stuff you're selling, and you get customers just throwing it around, it's really annoying.'

'When you take a job dealing with the public there's a hell of a lot of things you have to swallow,' said Eddie Adams, 59, a British Rail employee at Euston station, as he surveyed the scurrying commuters.

'You have to close the ticket barriers a minute or two before the train leaves, for safety. People get mad and lash out at you when it's their fault for not allowing enough time to get there. I get called a black bastard. I get people asking me for information then not believing me.' Adams found the public even worse when he worked as a bus conductor. 'Some people, especially the drivers, get vindictive about it. I remember once working with this driver who drove for three miles without stopping at a single bus stop, even though the passengers were jamming their fingers on the bell. I've known drivers watch someone running for the bus then set off just before they got there. It was one of their ways of getting back at the public.'

Miranda Jenkins, now a television producer, remembers the tactics used for dealing with the enemy when she had a holiday job at Harrods. 'You would spot one coming towards you and quickly hide behind some clothes, possibly throwing the clothes onto the floor and pretending to do stocktaking. We used to turn this terrible music up really loud to try to deter them from coming close. If you got a really nasty customer you would go and open the curtains in their changing room at just the wrong moment.'

Has it always been this way? The tendency is to look back to some mythical golden age when serving staff behaved like the attendant in the ladies' cloakroom still does at Claridge's: scurrying round calling you Madam, running basins of steaming soapy water and trying to dry Madam's hands for her. Did the golden age of service ever exist?

'There's no doubt that there has been a considerable deterioration in the way people are looked after ever since the war,' says the Rev Ian Gregory of the Polite Society, which was founded in 1986 as a response. 'The use of computers, the vast range of services and products that have to be dealt with, and the move away from small shops has had something to do with it. But it goes deeper than that. Before the war, ordinary people were prepared to accept living in mean circumstances. They were deferential towards perceived standards of polite behaviour exemplified by the church, the aristocracy and members of Parliament.

'Since the 1960s people have felt liberated from the shackles of authority, and everyone feels entitled to a good life. Customers are more demanding as a result, and on the other side of the counter people resent being in service.'

Gregory sees this as a peculiarly British thing. 'Whereas in France, being a waiter is seen as a noble profession, here people think it's the lowest of the low.'

The chef Antony Worrall- Thompson says Australians and Americans make up 50 per cent of the staff in his two London restaurants for just this reason. 'The British don't like being servile and they think the world owes them a living,' he says. 'Australians and Americans know how to serve and they know how to smile.'

What makes the British Service Wars particularly noticeable at the moment is the contrast between reality and the mass of tragically deluded advertising, which attempts to convince the customer that their bank clerk/salesperson genuinely wants to to listen to, care about and understand them.

'The emphasis on 'customer care' has been one of the main changes in business in the last five years,' says John Nicholson, a business psychologist whose company advises 90 of Britain's top corporations. 'In every industry there's less and less to choose between the products. It's service that makes the difference.' Quite so - real service, but not the advertising of imaginary service. This only eggs the customer on to demand more and get more bolshie when it doesn't come.

Ever-hopeful company chiefs, trying to make their staff match up to the image, are pouring millions of pounds into 'customer care' training. There has been a 'charm school' for plumbers started by the Yorkshire Water company, one for dustbinmen in Darlington and bouncers in Newcastle, and similar courses for civil servants, customs officials, bank employees, policemen, and, most recently, traffic wardens.

So why do things seem to be getting worse not better? Like everything else these days, this can be blamed on the recession. As Simon Lang of the Henley Centre for Business Research points out, customers are taking more care over their purchases, so companies are trying to get more out of their staff in terms of service - but at the same time as cutting back on staff numbers. Ian Gregory describes a desperate phone call from one employee in a big corporation. 'He said he was being urged almost hysterically to be nice to the customers, but there were fewer and fewer staff and it was all he could do just to keep up with the basics of the work.'

According to John Nicholson, the majority of training courses are a waste of time, anyway. They vary hugely, ranging from little group chats with the manager, to vast company 'Challenges' and 'Initiatives' involving flip-charts, videos, even residential courses. 'Three-quarters to two-thirds of them fail: they're aimed at the wrong people, run by the wrong people, done in the wrong way, or are too ambitious. Often it's not so much a training scheme a company needs as a complete change in management style.' Nicholson won't even touch customer care schemes associated with clearing banks, which he clearly considers beyond help. Lloyds Bank Regional Training Manager Mick Comben puts his finger on the key problem. 'You can do all the super training in the world but it doesn't necessarily mean people are going to do what they've been told. In they end you are dealing with human beings.'

And those human beings are dealing with other human beings in the form of customers - who don't go through training programmes on how to behave. Ian Gregory - who has a card on his wall saying 'The customer is always right - fickle, stupid, misguided, ignorant, bombastic - but right' - sees the present-day British public as 'a pig which will shout, bang on the desk, spit and swear at the person on the other side'. Gregory considers the answer is public awareness programmes, more along the lines of 'The customer should behave nicely' than 'The customer is always right'. He points to the example of Singapore which for the last 12 years has been running periodic 'courtesy months' to ease the strains in a population crammed onto an overcrowded island.

It is true that for a dissatisfied customer here, getting on one's high horse and being stroppy often seems the only way to get a response. Back at the Oxford Street staff entrance, Debbie took a dim view. 'That's fatal,' she said. 'What you should do if you want to get your way is to be really polite, explain nicely and smile. Anyone who smiles is going to get better treatment automatically.'

Nellie Webster, who lives in a small village in Yorkshire, relates an experience which seems to prove Debbie's point. 'We arrived at the airport to go on holiday and found that all the flights had been disrupted and it was like the Tower of Babel - everyone was screaming at the staff and barging to the front of the queue. My husband waited his turn quietly then said politely to the man: 'You must be having a horrible time - could you just tell me how long it's likely to be?' And the man said: 'Sir, you're the first person who's shown any courtesy at all today - you're on the next flight out.' We couldn't believe it.'

A freak gap in hostilities, perhaps. On the other hand, it might make an awfully good TV commercial.

(Photograph omitted)

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