Britain may be the second most popular country in the world, according to the recent BBC World Service Country Rating Poll, but when it comes to delivering a warm, hospitable welcome, we rank just 14th.
In 2008 a survey conducted by sector skills council People 1st found that 65 per cent of hospitality businesses felt customer service standards needed improving, highlighting an apparent skills gap in the industry.
Now with inbound and domestic tourism set to boom over the next couple of years, thanks in part to the Royal Wedding and 2012 Olympic Games, the need to improve service standards has never been more urgent.
“We’re very concerned about this as there are lots of events coming up and lots of reasons why we need to be improving,” says Linda Roberts, master trainer for People 1st’s WorldHost programme.
“We could do a lot better compared to other countries and we need to do something about that to make all visitors, both domestic and international, feel welcome.”
The reason Britain is perceived to deliver bad service, claims Fred Sirieix, general manager of Galvin at Windows, is that there is no culture of hospitality in food service in the UK.
“People don’t think of hospitality service as a career and as a result Britain hasn’t established it as an art,” he says. “Westminster Kingsway College, one of the best in the country, has only five or six people learning front of house. A lot of colleges don’t even have front of house courses because young people just want to be chefs.
“We need government to step in and help out, and the education system needs to change. We need to make sure the perception of the industry alters so young people know that they can get into hospitality and have a very nice career.
“Saying that, I’m not sure British service is all bad; it’s more of a general thing and not specific to Britain. Good service is people wanting to give a piece of themselves, to be nice to others, to engage in eye contact and smile. It’s very simple yet very few people do it.”
It’s a given that delivering excellent service will have a positive impact on your business, but how much does a negative experience damage your reputation?
A survey of UK consumers undertaken by the Mystery Dining Company (TMDC) found that 53 per cent of diners almost always choose where to eat based on a past customer service experience.
“It’s all too easy to tell people about a bad experience than a good one,” adds Roberts. “Dissatisfied customers tell nine to ten people on average about their experience, who go on to tell another lot of people. But if they have a good experience they only tell five.”
According to TMDC, 100 per cent of operators acknowledge that word of mouth recommendations make a “genuine difference” to their business.
Speed, intuitiveness and interaction
So what is it about service that generates a bad experience for a customer, and how can Britain improve its standard?
“Things our mystery diners tend to mark down on are poor service in terms of attention given, the way that staff interact with diners, speed of service and the intuitiveness of staff,” says Sally Whelan, director of TMDC.
“If you go in on a busy lunchtime with just an hour lunch break, you need a waiter who can adapt their service style to suit the time of day and customer needs. You’d expect an experienced staff member to be able to judge those situations, and it can be annoying for a diner if they’re not honing in on that.”
The TMDC survey placed food and service as the most common cause for complaints, despite operators believing speed was the biggest issue. This highlights a gap in perception between what the diner is experiencing and what the operator is interpreting.
“The key to improving service is to speak to your customers about their experience,” continues Whelan. “It helps build loyalty as people like to think their opinions and thoughts are listened to. If you’re running a business you can become too close to it and you need to make sure you’re speaking to your customer to understand your operation from their perspective.”
Every Monday this month BigHospitality will be unveiling advice and tips from the UK’s leading operators to help you improve your service standards.
Next week Stefan Chomka, features editor of Restaurant magazine, spends a day front of house at Galvin at Windows, to discover how Sirieix and his team deliver great service.