Who’s going to get your business?

Are we Brits content to queue, or should we expect better service?

I'm free!

It’s long been a standing joke that British people love their queues, but is it that we’re just polite and await our turn, or because we’re not confident enough to challenge the staff serving us?

I’m not talking of those times, for example, on Saturday afternoons in a supermarket, when every available till is being utilized, and you expect to queue. It’s packed, and a business can only do so much. No, I’m talking of the times we queue when it’s down to pure bad management of staff, or staff who just are unaware there’s a queue or are just damn lazy.

You may think I’m being unreasonable – waiting five minutes surely isn’t a problem? Well, no, of course not, if the only members of staff in sight are clearly working as hard as they can. What I object to, as I was finding frequently at a local supermarket petrol garage, is that – although there are two tills – there would be one person serving, while two more staff members stood on the (tiny) shop floor, stacking shelves and having a cosy little chat about Muriel’s bunions. Or some such.

You have to know where I come from I guess – I’ve been in customer service for over thirty years. Even before leaving school I worked in a sweet shop. And if I was refilling a shelf and my colleagues were all busy, I’d immediately stop what I was doing if another customer came in. As Chief Cashier in a bank, if my cashiers were all serving and another person stepped through the door, I’d push aside my administration work and serve. If I was in the back office working but was named cover for the till, I’d get my arse over there as soon as there were more customers waiting than there were cashiers. I never had to be asked. On the busy day when we had a queue (Friday) it still moved quickly, since our fantastic Admin Manager would get every till manned – and open the Enquiry desk too.

It isn’t rocket science. 

Going back to the petrol garage. There’s frequently a queue out to the roundabout, because the pumps are all engaged with their users queuing to pay.

Is it too much to expect the staff to look out of the window and think: Hm, the forecourt is practically empty – now would be a good time to stock some shelves? Or, wow, the forecourt is filling up – we’re going to have a steady stream of people paying, therefore I should man the till. Is it?

Is it too much to ask that the girl on the shop floor in another shop (who looks over at the counter where one person is serving, sees the queue but carries on stacking a shelf already so stacked there’s a danger the packets will fall off) doesn’t wait to be asked? She only came over when the cashier serving finally rang a bell for her. And then asked: Do you want me to come on?

No, we’re all just standing here for a laugh, actually. Nothing better to do at all. Grrrrr.

My customer service expectations were honed back in the day, obviously. Banks, sadly, have lost that personal touch; it’s all about box-ticking these days. During a later stint in the bank, when service centres had taken over, I was scheduled for a break from the telephone. It was lunchtime, the busiest part of the day. So I offered to delay my break and help get the queue down. But no, you have to stick to the schedule. Sorry, customers, but some suit in an office – who’s probably never spoken to a customer in his life – has decreed that I must have my break at this particular time. So you’ll just have to wait. Even though the whole point of those hours spent scheduling was to ensure there was always enough staff covering the phones *sighs* It seems to escape some suits that their reason for being is to serve the people who pay their wages. There’s a whole section of large organisations whose staff exist purely to manage the staff managing the staff who have nothing to do with the core business.

Go figure.

The most successful businesses these days get it: Retaining your customers is as important as gaining new ones, and being flexible enough to react to your customers’ needs is paramount to retaining them. I know one small shop owner who gets out onto the shop floor with his iPad, so people can pay via his ebay account. As he says, the fewer people you serve, the less you sell.

I’m now using the big brand petrol garage nearby. I may pay 2p a litre more but I’ve never had to queue – and the shelves are always full. 

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