When a customer in the UK is facing a service sector employee, he or she is usually facing 150 years of social class resentment, a loss of pride in manual labour and no sense that the company that person is working for has any care for employee well being or duty to the customer or society as a whole.   Consequently, it is hard to inspire employees with a strong, positive customer service culture in the UK.

There are some exceptions to this.  The most well known exception is the John Lewis Partnership, which includes the John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarket chain.  As the name implies, the company is a partnership, which means that all 69,000 employees are also owners of the company, and are known as “Partners” rather than “employees” or “staff”.  The founder, John Spedan Lewis’ vision was of employee co-ownership with “the happiness of Partners as the ultimate purpose”.   Partners share in the profit of the company through bonuses – in 2007 this was 18% of total salary, for every person regardless of their position in the company.   Five out of thirteen board directors are elected by the staff.

I am sure this company structure explains their ability to maintain high customer service standards and I would like to think it also explains why the company has weathered the current recession pretty well.  The Partners do not feel demeaned by serving people, they believe in what the company is doing and feel they are equal in social status to the customers.

It is this inferiority complex that people in UK service sector jobs have that poisons the customer service they provide.  If the customer is able to show that they do not hold themselves superior to the person providing the service, then it is possible to get friendly, if not always competent, service in the UK.

I noticed that when I discussed customer service in the UK with a group of Japanese residents recently, it was the youngest residents, who had been waiters or shop assistants in Japan and in the UK, who felt the most positive about British customer service culture, as they felt they were treated better by British customers than they had been in Japan when they had done similar jobs.

In Japan, historical Confucian influences mean that there is more acceptance of unequal power relationships and different status in society, without there being any implication that the person with the lower status is somehow a worse human being, worthy of contempt.  It can mean that the person with the lower status is not treated in a very friendly or equal way, however, and is expected to be deferential and respectful.

Along with deference and respect , Confucianism also emphasises performing the correct rituals and observing etiquette, and this has a visibly positive impact on the conduct of customer service. This emphasis on etiquette links up with a “monozukuri” of customer service in Japan which seems to be lacking in the UK.

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