Reviews, Opinions and Outsoucing Customer Service

I was hunting for a new restaurant to take some friends to the other day. An interesting candidate popped up, but reading the reviews I was left confused. Here’s a heavily edit sample.

First, the stuff on the plate: “the food was delicious”, “Food is rather traditional”, “The food was less than average”

And the folks that bring the stuff on the plate: “the staff were unnecessarily formal and trying far too hard”, “the staff have been trained to be gratingly ‘friendly’ in the most excrutiatingly artificial way”, “the service friendly and unobtrusive”

For a second restaurant, I found the following:

Food: “Food was good”, “food here is, dare I say it, a little more refined”, “the highlight was indeed the food”, “really tasty, original menu”, “The food was first rate” … sounds very promising, until … “all taste was eradicated by ginger and lemongrass and the accompanying chipirons were undercooked”, “dinner was a warmed up lamb dish and rather tasteless”, “standard run of the mill Soho restaurant” and “sadly we only saw a glimpse of the michelin star in the food,”

And, for the service: “Service is fine bit surely much more than fine is to be expected”, “Service was attentive enough without being annoying”, “Service was ok, but mostly not very interested in their customers”, “service wasn’t what you would expect”, “Service was generally weak” and then the culmination … “Service was just rubbish”

This is one of the joys of the internet of course. You want an opinion? Take your pick, there are 1001 your disposal. There is, after all, an opinion in all of us – of course, not all of us share ours with everyone (plainly, by writing this blog I don’t fit that category). The variation appears not unlike the description of witnesses at a crime scene who tell the investigating officer “he was short”, “he was tall”, “average height”, “heavy set” and “quite skinny” and so on. More than anything, they perhaps say that everyone arrives at a restaurant with an expectation that is drawn, probably, from very few data points and, most likely, no data at all, just a sense of what, say, “a soho” or a “michelin starred” restaurant must be like.

All this got me thinking about great “service experiences” and, in the last 9 months or so of working in London again, I think I’d be hard pressed to beat Pret A Manger. Has anyone had a bad experience there? And I don’t mean eating a prawn (sorry, crayfish) sandwich despite being allergic to shellfish.

Their “locations” (restaurant seems too big a word, cafe sounds an injustice, outlet too retail) are always busy with a constant stream of customers throughout the day, with the inevitable peak between twelve and one thirty or so. There are 150 stores in the UK and they turn over £150 million a year – and I’m guessing they have perhaps 3,000 staff overall. Not bad for a 20 year old business in one of the most competitive sectors in the economy.

Every visit is smooth. Staff are friendly and knowledgeable – despite what must be an enormous turnover given the vast variety of nationalities represented at the counter (does anyone else try and guess which country someone comes from by looking at their name badges, proudly displayed on their baseball hats? No? Thought not). I imagine Pret to be a place that those looking for a few weeks or a few months of work go to as they pay for a trip around the world, pay their way through college or, perhaps, as they start out in their working life and want to see what’s out there – the training period is 10 days (probably more than most first-timers get?). You also have to “fit” – one in seven applicants gets a job. At the same time, for those who want to stay with the company, they’re committed to developing you and offering wider opportunities. Mystery shoppers keep everyone on their toes and, if service is good, staff are rewarded with bonuses (Pret say that 80% of staff get that bonus every week). Pret is a company with no marketing or PR department and one that doesn’t run advertisements, except for posters in its own windows. Sathnam Sangera, from the FT, worked there for a day – which is perhaps a little PR-like.

So what would happen, do you think, if we gave the Pret management team the job of running customer service operations in the public or private sector? If we took those contracts away from Big Company A who know just as much about service as the next Big Company B (which is perhaps to say not as much as they should) – and here I define BCA and BCB as the stodgy, large bank balanced, able to pay liquidated damages-types – and gave it a small, innovative, leading-edge company that believes in itself?

Sure it would be a near impossible scaling up of operation at the highest end but, my point is, if the average call centre operation has far fewer than 500 people (and, in many cases far, far fewer), what would happen if you injected the Pret delivery style into a different evnrionment? Could an organisation from such a different background teach the big public sector behemoths how to run their service business? Running call centres is a very tough business – I’ve watched it up close for some of the last couple of years, sitting in on calls, listening to irate customers (occasionally even listening to customers delighted with the service offered). If I worked at Pret A Manager I’d also spend at least one full week a year working at the front line – which is not something I imagine we could say for most managers in customer-facing organisations.

The prankster in me thinks of the opportunity to rebrand government services – Pret A Payer (Tax), Pret A Donner (tax credits, pensions), Pret a Changer (transformation teams) and so on. But I can also that more than a few cynics might go for Pas Pret A Donner – an do forgive the destruction of a beautiful language there.

There’s no easy way to create a great customer experience but it seems to me that Pret has succeeded in a business where expectations and opinions would normally lead you to count against it. Isn’t that just like the public sector problem?

P.S. If anyone has read this far and is wondering if I went to either of the restaurants above, I went to the second, Arbutus, where I had a stunningly good meal in a boisterous, loud & buzzy restaurant with wooden floors, small tables, bad art on the wall and, probably the best innovation I have seen in a restaurant in recent years, a wine list that lets you select any wine to be served in a small carafe – whether it’s £100 a bottle or £20 a bottle. Service is what I expect in a place like that – it’s busy with high table turnover and the staff are running around a lot sometimes taking their time to get back to you, but I really don’t mind pouring my wine myself (in fact, I probably prefer it – it lets me set the pace) and I don’t mind gaps between courses (I’m almost never in a race to get out of a restaurant – I rarely go to eat before I go somewhere else). So, visit the place and see if you have a different experience.

5 thoughts on “Reviews, Opinions and Outsoucing Customer Service

  1. Tax == Pret a prendre, je pense.IanEssay coming soon when I\’ve worked out what the question is.

  2. I think you\’d be stunned by Chez Bruce on Wandsworth Common, though it\’s quite steep these days.For a more cheerful meal, Willie Gunns on Garratt Lane\’s also a classic (by Earlsfield station if it\’s still there.) Also the award winnnig Thai restaraunt, opposite Keble street (also on Garratt Lane.)The best meal I\’ve had in town was in that Japanese on Charlotte street, though there\’s also a brilliant little Italian, round the back of Piccadily circus, and there\’s always the Italian Kitchen in Holborn. Ian

  3. ah. pret a prendre it is, i should have thought back to my \”give and\” posts.i\’ve been to chez bruce a few times – it\’s 5 mins from where i live. i was there last weekend. it\’s good, not great.charlotte street is a good place – lots of buzzy restaurants. do you mean roka as the place you went to? i prefer zuma but roka is good too.

  4. God I love Chez Bruce, it\’s only five minutes from my old house too.Somehow I\’m sure you don\’t live at my end of Trinity Road though.Anyway, on a different note, I think building a call centre in an existing organisation is a lot harder than building it in a greenfield operation, like Pret-a-Manger.In some of the great monolithics I\’ve BPRd I\’ve found the only way to do this is to form a new development core, and refocus the whole business onto it. Call centres are worthless unless they can see all the information, and joining up several hundred year old systems is impossible IMHO.So lets take as a case the big company, BCA. I\’ll invent some busness front person for BCA, let\’s call her Stephanie, and she\’s out on a Trade Delegation out in Russian or somewhere, trying to find out how much coal the Russians have got in order that she can satisfy her future UK order book. So Stephanie forms a memorandum of understanding for a big order of Coal shipments or something, to hundreds of distributors in the UK. She then bogs off to somewhere else, touting for more business, and making new friends, and before you know it, some order doesn\’t end up at some coal merchant on Borough High Street. This is because it\’s not turned up on the boat.If she\’s not put all the contract details into the same system that the shipping company does, and the merchant orders on, then the call centre\’s had it, because you get chinese whispers across the system boundaries.Basically, as far as call centres go, they\’ve only worked for me, when there a tightly integrated single backend. (Whether or not it\’s one physical system. Their just has to be one reference point for the data.)Ian

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