by Johnny Ireland
Retail. I just love retail. I have been fortunate to have spent thirty years of my career with three fabulous retail companies, each with a passion for its customer and the desire to make the customer feel special, whether in store or online.
I was destined to spend my life working with customers. At 11 years of age I took up my first paper round, delivering newspapers at 6am. They had to be delivered by 6.45am to accommodate those people who liked to take their newspapers to work with them. Does anyone have newspapers delivered anymore? After school, I was back at 4pm to deliver the evening news and for some, the more important TV guide, highlighting that evening’s offering on the three (yes, just three) available channels.
When I was 15, I decided to upscale my customer service offering and became a milkman. Well, I worked for a milkman at weekends starting at 5.30am on Saturdays and Sundays and during every school holiday. I delivered bottles of milk to hundreds of homes and I loved every minute of it. On Friday nights, I got to meet my customers face to face when I collected the cash for that week’s milk deliveries. Those exchanges took place between 5pm and 7pm every Friday. No earlier, no later. Any earlier, they would still be at work. Any later they would be out on their weekly night out. I learnt a lot from those Friday night encounters.
“Can you hide the milk in the shade please so the sun doesn’t warm the bottles?”
“Can you place a top on each bottle to stop the birds pecking the milk?”
“We are on holiday next week, would you keep an eye on the house and let the neighbour know if anything doesn’t seem right?”
It was all about the customers and making them feel special.
On leaving school I went to work in the local Unemployment Benefit Office, now known as the Department for Work and Pensions. My job? To write giro cheques (apologies to those under the age of 30 who will be unfamiliar with this terminology) and issue them to those unfortunate enough to be out of work. I spoke to my customers on a daily basis, individuals twice or three times my age who had found themselves without work due to no fault of their own. Unemployment in the early 80s was a huge problem. The car industry in particular suffered. Many highly skilled and talented individuals lost their jobs and their income. They feared for their future, worried how they would support their families.
My job was simple: write the giro cheque for the value required and issue it to the gentleman or lady who would be collecting it at an agreed time. I must not be late. I must not make the customer wait any longer than necessary. That job taught me a lot about humanity, about compassion, empathy and understanding. For some, I was the only person they got to speak to outside of their immediate family each fortnight. They looked forward to seeing me. I felt special, and I wanted to make them feel special too.
Possibly the highlight of my career to date is the two years I spent with one of the world’s most famous coffee companies. You know the one, they ask for your name when you arrive at the counter and write it on the cup. Many competitors ridicule this approach. However, those who buy coffee from this particular company love it. It makes them feel special. It’s part of the ‘10-foot rule’. Basically, if a customer is within 10 feet of you, they should be engaged. They should be made to feel special. Deliver their order quickly, ensure the product is of a high quality, and wish them a good day. It’s basic customer service. Simple.
As a customer myself, and knowing this rule, I demand to be made to feel special. I once spent 11 hours in an airport waiting for a flight to Birmingham. It was a 2pm flight with an initial delay of one hour. After three hours an announcement was made to say that technical difficulties had delayed the plane. After six hours, a €5 voucher was offered for a ‘meal’. After ten hours, the lights in the airport started to go out and the night cleaning teams arrived. I eventually found a member of the airline staff and asked what the technical problem was. She informed me there was no plane before admitting: “I was told not to tell anyone…”
The plane eventually arrived and we were allowed to board. There was no catering service so no food or drink. To add to the misery, we were diverted to Luton. My car, along with many others, was in Birmingham. A coach eventually got me back to my car 14 hours late. An apology was never forthcoming. I felt far from special.
I had an equally frustrating experience on a train. I use trains a lot. The rail system in Europe is so efficient. The trains are always on time and always clean. The staff are happy, the buffet car is open. In fact, it’s a joy to travel. Sadly, I can’t say the same about UK trains. I was once told by an extremely grumpy train employee: “Make sure you sit in the back carriage as the front goes to a different station”. After 30 minutes of sitting in the dark, cold carriage at the rear of the train, I got off, only to be told they’d decided to take the first three carriages only.
“When is the next train?”
Cue a long and very expensive taxi journey home. Apology? Not a chance! It was my fault, I should have read the TV monitor on the station platform. I felt far from special.
Forgive me, but I’m on a roll now…
My local car wash, pre Covid, was £5. It’s now £8. For that reason, I rarely visit. However, on this particular day I had no time to wash the car myself and with visitors arriving, I thought it best to treat the old motor. On completion of the wash – which no longer includes a chamois leather dry – I handed over £10.
“I keep the change?” asked the operative.
“Other than wash the car, which you’re paid to do, have you done anything else to make me feel special today?”
A £2 coin was thrown through the window. I felt far from special (and I won’t return).
Hotels. I’m fortunate that my present company affords me the opportunity to stay in hotels whilst I am travelling for work. However, the customer service at some of these establishments is shocking. The most recent example occurred at 10.30pm in a hotel south of the border. The trees in the atrium were adorned with fairy lights. Faux candles glistened on each table. It looked beautiful. The background music was mellow. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the relaxed ambience. And then? A waiter removed the candles from each table, the music was turned off and the twinkly lights went out. I asked why he was turning everything off.
“The management says it forces people to go to bed so they don’t have to pay us overtime after 11.00pm.”
Is it me, or is it just not possible to be made to feel special anymore?