Customers getting service without a smile for customers

Shopping survey finds `serious deficiencies' in attitude of retail staf f `Stores seem to have lost the edge that justifies premium prices'
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Staff in shops are not smiling enough, according to a new report. Even businesses that have built their reputations on good public relations are treating their customers rudely and gloomily.

A survey of 2,500 businesses by over 100 "shoppers", trained to observe levels of friendliness and "eye contact" as well as general service, found that a quarter of all staff in shops fail to smile at their customers.

Among the worst offenders are fast-food outlets such as McDonalds and Burger King, and department stores, ranging from John Lewis and the Co-op to Marks and Spencer and Woolworths.

The Front Line Survey, from the Grass Roots market research group, claims to be the first attempt to assess levels of service in shops across the country. It found there were "serious deficiencies" in businesses including supermarkets, newsagents such asW H Smith and John Menzies, department stores and fast-food outlets .

However, businesses traditionally viewed as giving customers a poor service did well in the survey. These include gas and electricity showrooms, banks and post offices.

David Evans, chairman of Grass Roots, said there was a "big job" to be done by management in several market sectors. "Overall UK plc didn't do too badly and we suspect it is a lot better than it was 10 years ago. But there is no room for complacency whena quarter of all customer-contact staff cannot raise a smile."

Despite their "have a nice day" image and "hamburger university" training, McDonalds and Burger King were below average on friendliness and service and often delivered the wrong food, the survey found.

Almost 20 per cent of staff forgot some orders, 15 per cent delivered food that had not been ordered, and 25 per cent did not bother to repeat the order to ensure it had been taken correctly.

There was a "serious shortage" of smiles and eye contact in supermarkets. Only 55 per cent of staff gave customers an "appropriate welcome" and 26 per cent did not meet the customer's eyes .

Newsagents were rated at the bottom of assessments for friendliness, helpfulness and politeness. The chance of being greeted when making a purchase was only 50-50, and in 15 per cent of cases there was no "thank you". Only 54 per cent of staff smiled, compared to a national average of 75 per cent.

Pubs leave more than one- third of customers feeling unwelcome, the survey says. Service was fast and smiling above average, but 23 per cent of customers felt they were not genuinely thanked for their custom.

Department stores, once a byword for exemplary service, are now "blackspots." The main problem for customers was getting staff to acknowledge their presence.

One-third of staff were chatting among themselves and nearly one-third of shoppers had to search for an assistant after five minutes' waiting. One researcher noted: "Staff were bored and didn't seem pleased when I didn't make a purchase."

Such stores seems to have "lost the professional edge that justifies the premium prices many demand". Even at Marks and Spencer, "you do not get served, you get efficiently processed". However, one stereotype supported by the research was the greater friendliness of staff in the North compared with those in the South.

The report also found that bank workers have improved their customer skills and, despite the pressure they work under, are attentive and efficient. British Rail customers rarely had to queue for a ticket for more than five minutes and timetable information was readily forthcoming.

Electricity showroom staff fared best in the survey - the researchers found them friendly, willing to explain, and able to inspire confidence.

A McDonalds' spokeswoman described the results as very surprising. "We will be looking at it, but we pride ourselves on our friendliness and efficiency towards customers. Our own surveys reveal nothing like this."

Leading article, page 17