Consumers smile on better service

AFTER the effort that has been put in over recent years, it is gratifying that the service provided by British companies is winning the approval of those who should know - one of the largest mystery shopping groups in the country. But the Front Line Survey, planned to be the first in an annual series, leaves no room for complacency.

The Grass Roots Group suspects that the national average rating of 76 per cent is well above what would have been recorded if the exercise had been carried out a decade ago. But it points out that a quarter of all staff who have contact with customers cannot even raise a smile and that certain sectors, such as newsagents and music shops, appear to have particularly serious problems.

Among the better performers are staff in the formerly publicly owned electricity and gas showrooms (some of whom are facing changes to their terms and conditions of employment to make them more efficient). There are few sectors that do not have room for improvement. Besides the music shops and newsagents, department stores, supermarkets, estate and travel agents, fast-food restaurants and pubs all score badly.

The first assessment method is the "service rating", based on marks out of 10 awarded by the shopper to reflect his or her opinion of the overall standard.

The "performance index" is more objective, calculated according to points allocated for each action or attribute in an outlet in a given sector. For example, the shopper might give four points for a smile, a maximum six for the condition of the lavatories and two for the dress of the staff member who served her.

Some attributes, such as smiling at customers, making eye contact and being helpful and friendly, are regarded as important across all sectors. But others may be more important in one sector than another. For instance, the state of lavatories is important in pubs and petrol stations, but not in newsagents. And the scoring system takes account of such differences.

David Evans, chairman and chief executive of Grass Roots, accepts that in isolation the data is not very meaningful. "But it marks the first stake in the ground in what will be our annual measurement of British service." He said the aim was to discover "whether the appallingly low standard of service prevalent in the early 1980s, when we first started to research, had changed". The findings suggest there has been an improvement. But one stereotype survives: staff in the North are more friendly that those in the South.