London 2012 – A Welcome Challenge for UK Customer Service

Customer service challenges

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 What has 11m legs and a never ending list of demands? The expected daily visitors at this year’s London Olympics, of course!

Lloyds TSB estimate that the Olympic Games will generate £10bn in revenue for the British economy and visibility of our small island will skyrocket with an anticipated £4bn people watching the opening ceremony alone. The government hopes the Games will bolster the tourism and service industry, not only in terms of revenue but also in reputation, and seeks to galvanise business leaders and service industry workers into action and put paid to the perception that the British welcome is colder than its winters…

So, is the UK up to the challenge? The nation’s favourite blusterer, Mayor Boris Johnson, launched a Visitor Charter to encourage businesses to pledge fair pricing and practice during the Games, an enterprise that might induce the scoffing from some sceptics especially since, at time of writing, only 62 businesses, from Madame Tussauds to curry houses, have subscribed. Only a fool would expect to holiday in London at this time on a shoestring (even though a 2011 Mercer report ranked the capital as a mere 18th in its list of the world’s most expensive cities), but opportunistic greed is still evident in the findings from a report commissioned by Tessa Jowell, the Shadow Olympics Secretary, stating that hotel prices are anticipated to rise by an average of 315%. In addition, greedy landlords are routinely evicting tenants in order to gouge tourists to the tune of 15 times normal rental rates, with additional “penalty clauses” for extended stays.

Whether these bums on seats and heads on pillows belong to oligarchs or Joe Public, what can this barrage of visitors expect from the UK and its service provision? A survey by the People 1st Training Company found that 73% of business leaders have their doubts about the quality of UK customer service and only 14% think our approach to hospitality is a selling point. Grim assertions indeed especially as 86% of those interviewed admitted to making no business preparations for the Games yet a similar figure acknowledged the positive potential of doing so! (Do the maths…)

A Government Report revealed that the UK ranked sixth out of fifty countries in international tourist arrivals in 2009, ‘though one of the lowest scores in reasons for visitors to come to the UK was the anticipated welcome. With accessibility to global tourism sites such as Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu increasing, it’s time to up our game. If we are able to convince the world of the UK’s charms it can help us become a desirable location to tourists from growth markets such as China, Brazil, Russia and India. And let’s not forget the Cultural Olympiad featuring a plethora of post-modernistic entertainment from Damien Hirst to performances of 38 plays by Shakespeare. at the Globe from 38 different nations, in the same number of languages.

Sue Gill, head of skills and training at Tourism South East, told Personnel Today that all staff working in the service industry need to be coached in cultural diversity and preferably in an additional language, and employers should encourage staff to enrol in customer service courses and take part in best practice forums. A European Commission survey in 2001 found 65.9% of UK respondents only spoke their native tongue – by far the highest proportion among the EU countries polled. And though English is known as a second language by one third of the EU population, this does not take into account visitors from outside the EU, of which there will be many in 2012. In our global community, negotiating cultural boundaries and obstacles in a sensitive manner is of upmost importance – particularly when protecting brands and ensuring great customer experience. Linguistically we might not be chasing the tails of pentaglot Nick Clegg (look it up..) but we have some advantage due to the sheer number and variety of regional accents we are used to deciphering. Putting guidelines in place such as identifying colleagues with language skills, training staff on basic phrases such as “please hold/wait for a moment while I…etc” in a few of the most widely spoken languages and ultimately encouraging staff to exercise patience and courtesy can help dissipate cultural or language barriers considerably. Why not make use of some of the many online translation tools available, or consider offering chat, email or other print-based customer support alternatives.

The UK’s cultural diversity is one of the Government’s key selling points for optimising the economic benefits from the Games. In order to achieve this, improve global perceptions of the UK, and for visitors to be engaged and gain an appreciation of UK culture, those providing services must be culturally aware and able to meet the disparate needs of their clientele. Why not initiate a two-way cultural awareness education program across the industry enabling all parties involved to enjoy and benefit from the 2010 experience? Exhibiting empathy, suspending judgment and learning as much as possible about the cultural norms and values helps avoid misunderstandings and creates a fluid customer service transaction. But this should not be at the expense of exhibiting our own cultural identity. Surely the whole purpose of overseas travel is to see and experience different ways of life, so it is vital to strike the right balance between local and global culture. And as with many such vexations customer research and ethnographic insight strategies could be the answer.

There has been much discussion about the physical legacy of the Games; what will happen to all those arenas, O2 can’t take them ALL over, surely!? But this is a great opportunity for our businesses and services to truly shine and to improve the perception of London, and the UK, as a tourist destination. The UK can’t rely on its traditional draws of heritage and culture to sustain tourism and must look to up its game in the areas that lack in quality such as welcome and value for money. Tourism chiefs are hoping for an extra four million visitors to the UK in the next four years as a result of the Games, so our re-energised welcome needs to be sustained and integrated.

Visitors to the Games are hoping for a holistically seamless and satisfying experience, from transportation to accommodation, gastronomic to aesthetic. In Sydney, urban legend goes that premier John Howard sought to arrange the city’s traffic lights to go green as the 2000 Olympic Committee traversed the city. The veracity of this is, of course, doubtful and the possibility of such tactics working in our choked, miasmic capital, non-existent. But it is entirely within the realm of possibility for the UK to prove the naysayers wrong and show that the UK’s customer service is second to none and our welcome is warm and inviting – even if the weather is not.

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