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putting customers first takes more than just calling them customers


At one time there was great trouble throughout the land. The people were not getting their just desserts, but this had gone on for so long that they had ceased to complain and they had become stoic in their acceptance.

It came at first as a whisper, as the first stirring of a breeze breaks the calm when a hurricane is due and, like a hurricane the word was to sweep through the land uprooting the trees of resistance in its path. And the name of this hurricane was Customer First, although it was to have as many names as it had priests, for each was to brand it according to their own ways (and fee scales).

And Lo! The people did become customers; not just those in the shops and retail premises, but no longer they that travelled by train, ship, ‘plane or bus would be called passengers. No longer would those who occupied premises, whether domestic or for their trade, be called tenants. No longer would those in ill health and needing to see the physician be called patients. No longer (yes, yes, all right; we get the picture – ed).

From that day hence they would all be customers and all would be well. Their time of strife would be over and they could rest easy for, when they handed over their hard earned coin, all would be well and they would be treated in the manner to which they should.

And so the priests, gurus, mentors, consultants and trainers did prosper, their pockets full of their client’s gold, and there was great rejoicing throughout the land. Those who proclaimed the way of the Customer grew rich and, in some cases, famous. Those who had sought their help (he’s off again. Enough! – ed).

Ok, let’s cut the pseudo biblical stuff, leave this fantasy world behind and consider ours. Are you getting better service because your train operator calls you a customer? Or anywhere else where you have become “a customer”? I doubt it. Sure there have been improvements in some places, yes, but that is because people have been better trained, not because of a name change. You might argue that the name change brought about a change of thinking, but I would suggest that such influence was limited. When I travel in someone else’s vehicle I am a passenger; when I have treatment at the medic’s I am a patient and so on. I find inappropriate use of customer patronising, how about you?

Maybe I am in a minority on this (that would be good, I might have rights), and I know I am being a bit obtuse here, but the point of this missive is that you have to mean it to make a difference. Just calling something by a different name doesn’t, on its own, make a change. For me it is the equivalent of the old dodgy car dealer’s “change the plates and give it a re-spray”, and is about as salubrious.

My train of thought here came from having been pulled up for referring to the people who were renting premises as tenants. “They’re customers” I was told, but then the attitude towards them would not have been out of place for the inmates of a labour camp. Calling them customers made no difference to the way they were seen or treated, so why bother with the pretence. OK, this is an extreme example, but does calling me a customer improve my rail service? No, but what would make a difference is changing the service I get for my money. That’s the challenge.

Welcome to the UK (well Heathrow T3 and Sainsbury’s)

October 18, 2010 1 comment

Over the last 24 hours I have passed through three airports, in order, Tampa International (main concourse and hub F), Miami International (concourse D) and London Heathrow (Terminal 3). The difference in attitude between the first two and the latter in terms of their people and, to a degree, the facilities is significant.

Tampa is one of my favourite airports. It wasn’t the first American airport I passed through, that was Atlanta during its rebuilding in advance of the ’96 Olympics. I saw little of it, just enough to start running through Airplane gags with my daughter as we waited for our connection to Tampa. We aquaplaned into Tampa as it was getting dark, and I decided that I was too tired to face an hour’s drive in a strange car on strange roads. Despite the late hour the information lady at the airport was very helpful in getting us a hotel for the night, and that impressed me.

Over the 18 or so years since I’ve flown in and out of Tampa a lot and have grown to love it. It isn’t too big, but it is well provided for and the people there are great. You get free Wi-Fi  and there are all sorts of little touches with the decor and services that make it a pleasure to travel through it.

Miami’s Terminal D is almost complete and is a pleasure to transit through. As an airport Miami is a very busy place and, like Heathrow, very multi cultural. It has a vibrant buzz about it but, despite some of the passengers being ignorant, the people running the place aren’t. It is a joy to have the courtesy bus driver get off and help you on and off with your bags, to have porters there to get you to the check in desk (OK, it’s a buck a bag, but so what?). Everything is geared around service, from the concession coffee bar to the executive lounge.

So, after eight and a half hours or so on a triple seven it’s welcome to Heathrow, and what a welcome. They’re remodelling, so fair enough, but the first issue comes with the exit from immigration. You now emerge into baggage re-claim by carrousel one instead of down the other end. So where are all the baggage carts? Down the other end. Enquiring of one of the group of workers earns a shrug before they resume their conversation and sterling efforts to stop the wall falling over (at least I think that must have been why they were leaning on it).

My female colleague wants to use the ladies restroom. She emerges nearly 10 minutes later looking somewhat ashen – I don’t ask. We collect our bags and emerge out into the open to catch the bus out to the long stay car park. The area is festooned with No Smoking signs, but they are hard to see through the clouds of tobacco smoke – why is this not being policed? There is a smoking area for them to use, but no, they have to share with the rest of us. Waiting for the bus is no pleasure in that environment. Fortunately the nice people at Business Parking save the day to some degree, as always cheerful and efficient.

On the way home I stop off at Sainsbury’s to pick up a rotisserie chicken. There’s no sign of an assistant so I ask the lady at the adjacent meat counter if she can help. “I don’t do that section” she says and resumes tidying her display, ignoring my needs. Oh well; welcome home John.

Another postcard from America


I first discovered America through TV, then later through the movies. It was 1993, by which time I had turned 40, before I finally got here. On that first trip we arrived in Tampa in one of its legendary thunderstorms. We’d been en route for a long time and, with a delay in getting our bags due to the storm, I decided to drop anchor for the night. The next morning the sun was shining and we headed off from the airport across the bay and up US19.

Everything was instantly familiar in so many ways; the traffic lights swaying in the breeze, the roadside motels, many of the names of various retail and food outlets. “It’s just like in the movies and on TV” said a voice from the back seat. Blindingly obvious really, but it was, and much more so than, say, when we’d been to France or some of the other European countries.

Since that first trip I’ve been here more times than I can remember. We’ve been to many parts on both coasts and have owned a home here for several years. One of the things that we try to do is to get amongst the people rather than stick to the tourist haunts. That has led to a number of experiences that would each take up a 600 word blog, but the point is that you need to reach out to people, to listen to them and to ask them about their lives if you want to grow yourself.

Trying new things is fun anyway. I still have a list of things that I want to experience over here, but it has been a great joy to try some of the things that I’d read about or heard about. I’ve done this wherever I’ve been, here in the UK or abroad, and it has always paid off for me. Sure sometimes I’ve tried a  local dish and not enjoyed. I can recall the huge disappointment of trying pastrami on rye in New York, for example, I just didn’t like it, but that has to be balanced against the Cuban sandwich in Miami, the chowder in Boston, the Cioppino in San Francisco and many more.

Sporting events are huge over here. At one time we used to rent a villa over on the gulf coast of Florida and I became quite a follower of the local high school football team. They would draw half as many again more fans for their home games than Swindon Town could manage in what was then the second division of the football league back home. And this was a school team. This week I was talking to some USF students about their upcoming came against Syracuse. As it turned out the Bulls lost, but the attendance was over 41000. Eat your hearts own premier league. Motor sport has long been a passion for me and I’ve been able to attend several races over here, including the Daytona 500 (Indy is still on the to do list), but the scale is again vast compared to back home. Over the last three years or so I’ve started to get my head around baseball enough to at least follow most of what is going on.

These things are all so much fun. They are family events and the organisers make them work for the fans. And the fans are just fans; who they are where they live or work doesn’t matter. At the track or the game they are fans and they get to enjoy the event for the spectacle that it is.

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Home thoughts from abroad; a postcard from America


Oh to be in England, now September’s here? Not really, no.

I’m taking a few minutes of quiet time in between business and the essential hospitality that goes with it, at least it does more so here in the USA that maybe back home. Shortly I will be back on show when my host’s guests start to arrive and we get down to some serious socializing and, it has to be said, networking.

So, home thoughts from abroad? For me this is more home than home in the sense of where I live. Yes I know that I am British, and I am proud of that, but I am more at home here in the US than I am back in Wiltshire and, if I had the chance, I’d set up home here for good.

For me there is a lot about America that we have seen wiped out in the UK. People do care about each other here and there is a much greater sense of community spirit. In many ways it is like the England that I grew up in in the 1950s and 1960s. Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, but I am nostalgic for a time when people were far less self centred; my Monday Musing last week talked of the Musketeer’s motto of “One for all and all for one”. So much of what I see back home is more like one for all and every one for themselves.

Here there is a much simpler attitude in most people, and it shows up in the way that I am being looked after. The whole concept of me being over here and staying alone in a hotel is an anathema to the people that I’m meeting, so a range of hospitality gets lined up for me to meet families and friends.  This isn’t expense account stuff either; it is a genuine desire to welcome a stranger and look after them.

Back home people often mock the “have a nice day” culture, but here it is, in most cases, genuine. This morning I went for a walk down a couple of blocks to buy a newspaper. I’d not got far before I fell into step with someone heading the same way. By the time we got to the news stand I knew his name, what he did, the names of his wife and his children and how they were doing at school and he’d had broadly equivalent information from me. When I used to commute into London by train there would be the same herd of us heading off to the station each morning for the run into Liverpool Street, but in three years of doing that I got to talk to two other people. Everyone else just kept their heads down and ignored those around them.

The Americans bring this warmth into much of business, whether that be BtoB or BtoC. In most cases there is a real need to give the customer service that goes a bit further and that’s great. It makes doing business a pleasure. Sure they are hard negotiators, and yes there are sharks, but doing a deal here is a very different experience to doing one back home.

Maybe some of this is just because it is a change for me. It’s nearly a year since I was last over and it could just be the grass being greener on this side of the hill. Maybe I would find it less attractive if I was here full time. Maybe not, and I have to come home soon anyway.

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Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?

September 20, 2010 3 comments

In a few days time I will walk down another jetway, shuffle along the queue to face an immigration official and face that perennial question; “Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?” Now I learned years ago that you don’t get smart with immigration, but the answer for me is almost always “Both”.

I’ve been very lucky over the years in that my various jobs have taken me all over the UK, to nine other European countries and to the USA. I’ve met so many people and seen so many sights that it truly has been a privilege.

I don’t enjoy the travelling as much as I used to. Driving has lost much of its lustre with Labour’s hatred of the motorist showing through in so many ways over their umpteen years in power together with the complete lack of any driving standards. Osama bin Liner and his crew screwed up flying and airports and as for the trains; the method of privatisation ruined them. If I have a choice I’ll drive because at least I can chose my own route, but my next big trip has to be by air because of the distances involved, not to mention the impracticality of crossing the Atlantic in a car.

This time I am fortunate enough to be flying business across the pond and first on the internal flights so I will, at least, be somewhat pampered en route, but it is the destinations rather than the journey that interest me.

I like places, but it is always the people that make the places more often than not. Yes, architecture and scenery have their own power and I am comfortable enough with my own company and a view on occasions, but it is the people who inhabit the buildings and spaces that generally provide interest. How many conversations have I had with strangers over the last forty years or so? I have no idea, but, whether they were the business contacts I had travelled to meet or just someone I ran into, I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by them, their lives and the conversations we have shared.

There is so much pleasure to be had from finding out about people and the way that they live. I may not always agree with their views on life, business, politics or whatever, but so what? I’ve always been in the school of tolerance of other people’s right to express themselves (which is why I stand firm against political correctness). In any case, how can you ever hope to understand if you don’t expose yourself to alternative points of view? Of course I have had my fair share of bores and bigots, but you learn to deal with them. The joy is in sharing and coming away from each encounter richer in your knowledge of the way life is lived in those parts.

So who will I meet on this trip? I’m going to run into someone in the departure lounge, be sat next to someone on the ‘plane and then there are the various airports and hotels on the trip. American hospitality is second to none and I reckon I’ll have talked to at least 300 people that I’ve never met before by the time I get home.

Those that travel on business often complain that it isn’t the jolly that those who don’t travel on business view it as. I would argue that it is what you make it. Yes it can be a chore if you let it be, but you don’t have to. Business or pleasure? Always both.

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let the train take the strain, or is the car better by far?


Recently I had a meeting near London Bridge, but which way to travel? I go up to town about 15 times a year on average these days, and I’ve had bad luck with trains to and from Swindon one way and another in recent years.

An additional issue is that the cost is very high if I can’t book well in advance, and I try to keep costs down regardless of whether it is I or my client who is paying. A spontaneous run up to The Smoke from Swindon will cost about £120 including the car park for example. Another problem is the latter; car parking is a bit hit and miss if I’m not there reasonably early and, if I get there and can’t park, I’ve driven 15 minutes in the wrong direction and have therefore wasted about half an hour by the time I get to the M4 heading East to try an alternative.

Over time I’ve developed options for driving part way, usually to Reading where there is covered parking next to the station, a connecting walkway to the platforms plus extra train options from other routes that converge there. Nett journey time from my house to Paddington is about the same as going from Swindon, but the rail and car park charge is so much less that, even allowing for a mileage charge at HMRC rates, I can still do the run for about £35 less that by rail from  Swindon.

Another option is to drive to Basingstoke. The extra mileage cancels out the slightly cheaper rail fare making it on a par with the run to Reading, but the traffic is easier and the cross country drive via my home town of Newbury is pleasant. The trains take me into Waterloo, so it is an easy walk from there to London Bridge, or across the river into central London if I’m going to, say, the IoD or Whitehall.

So I favour this hybrid journey of road and rail combined. Certainly it is less effective in terms of my green leanings, but it provides me with a cheaper and less stressful journey and, for the part I do in the car, is far more comfortable. Trains these days I find appallingly uncomfortable, and yes, I do understand that my size has something to do with that, but, whilst I accept responsibility for my girth, I can’t do a lot about my skeletal height and width. Train seating these days is clearly designed for dwarves and midgets and the lack of anywhere decent to park my carcass takes a lot of the pleasure away from what used to be a treat.

I loved taking the train, especially in the 80’s when I travelled around a lot of the UK by British Rail. And also trains in Denmark, Germany, France and the USA.

Even in my various spells of commuting into the City during the 60s into the 80s there was a bit more space and the seats were tall enough for me to have somewhere to rest my head, but then some idiot design team came in and refurbished all the carriages with small seats, plastic and strip lighting and the world of rail travel went on a downward spiral for me.

Now we have these ultra modern trains with their garish and lurid colour schemes that offer a period of torture rather than the pleasures of old. Yes, they are usually clean and reliable, but are they what we need to attract people onto public transport, especially given the, often extortionate, cost?

Such is progress.

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Bowen’s 1st Law of Public Transport


If the service before the one you are now waiting for had been as late running as the one you are waiting for is, you’d be on your way by now.

This is an old adage, coined 30 odd years ago when I used to travel by bus a lot. This blog entry was prompted when I had a trip by train to London. Knowing that there were 3 trains at about 10 minute intervals at that time of the morning I headed for the station. The first train had just hove into view as I locked my car, but pulled out bang on time as I walked up the steps to the platform. The next train was shown as 25 minutes late and that had pushed the one behind back as well. If the first one had been just 1 minute late I would have been on it. Such is life.