Customer Service

Issue 15 | June 2010

Production Team

- Daniele Fiandaca

Why do some businesses still get customer services so wrong?

Over the last three months I have had more time to notice things and the one thing that has really surprised me is the fact that there are still some business providing shocking customer service.

In a world where information is shared so quickly and reputation is everything, I am amazed that any organisation can still think it can get away with bad customer service.

When I was 18, I worked as a part-time manager at my Dad's restaurant, The Jam, and had a Saturday job for over two years at Blazer, the now defunct men's clothing store. I think I was extremely lucky in that I learned very early in my career the importance of treating customers well.

What I learned in the rag trade

I remember the sign in the Blazer staff room which stated in bold capital letters, THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT.

Clearly we all know this is not always true and certainly in my time on the agency side part of the job was to help clients understand this.But, when you are operating in a service industry, it is always a good place to start.

One business that could learn from this old maxim is Fitness First.

My unhappy experience all started when Time Out provide an offer of a free pass for one week to your local Fitness First.

I had been to a Fitness First gym before and had not been overly impressed (I remembered it as being quite tatty) but thought why not? So I signed up and the free pass arrived in my inbox.

A week later I got a call from the manager of the Fitness First Islington Branch, who started the conversation by saying ?I understand you have expressed an interest in joining the Islington Gym …'

I explained that this was not the case, that I had simply signed up for the Time Out promotion and that I must have mentioned that Islington was my local gym.

At that point he told me (no apology whatsoever) that, actually, Islington was not participating in the offer and I should phone up Fitness First to find out who was.

So I did.

The first time I called and explained the circumstances, the person on the phone simply put the phone down.

Beverly said no

When I re-rang, I talked to someone called Beverly, who I asked to connect me to a manager. She refused to put me through to the manager, saying that she was instructed to try and sort the problem out herself and only then, if I was still unhappy, would she put me through to a manager.

I told here I was ringing about the Time Out 5-day offer and her response was, ?What 5-day offer?’.

She then looked into it and came back to say that it did specify in the promotion that the offer was down to local terms and conditions and it was within Islington's right to not take part.

I asked where the nearest ?participating' Fitness First to me was. She said the nearest alternative to Islington was Old Street but she could not tell me if they were participating in the scheme and I would have to call them myself. If they said they were not participating then I would have to call her back to find out what other gym might be near. I would have to call that gym myself to find out if they were participating etc etc etc.

Hopefully you can appreciate the madness in this. Anyway, at this point in the conversation I asked to speak to a manager as I was definitely not happy.

Beverly’s response was ‘No’ and that was that.

Life is short and I was going to let the whole thing rest at that but out of curiosity I had a look at the Fitness First website.

It soon became very clear that this was a business that simply did not want to speak to its customers.

Contact us – by post

If you visit the site and go to the contact section, the first suggested form of communication is a letter. How wonderfully 1990’s.  And there is no e-mail feature.

There is a general telephone number but at no point does it even mention a customer services contact. In addition if you click onto Head Office there are no details whatsoever about who the senior managers are. However they do not seem so shy when it might relate to getting some press coverage and I quickly found out who their spokespeople are.

Personally I just cannot see how a business like this can survive. Compare Fitness First to one of their competitors, Virgin Active. Go to their homepage and click on the ‘talk to us’ button and you get given various options, including to talk to the MD.

Unfortunately, Fitness First is not the only business which has given me less than adequate service recently and I am sure that the inherent culture of a business leads to much of the behaviour of its staff.

Taking an example at the other extreme, while Zappos is often heralded as a case-study in the power of effective social marketing, I believe the company’s success actually emanates from its inherent customer-centric culture. Quite simply Zappos aims to wow their customers at every possible moment.

So, while there have been some disasters, I have also experienced quite a few instances of fantastic customer service recently (see below).

However, I do wonder how much is driven by element of imperfect information. The fact is, when someone makes me jump through hoops to confirm that I lost something in the post (don’t you trust me?), it is probably because there are some people who do actually try to con the system.

In addition, there is no doubt that customers can be bloody difficult. (Note to self.) And I am not sure whether I would like to be at the other end of a phone fielding calls from irate customers all day long.

How would you rate as a customer?

So, what would happen if we, as customers, could become part of a system whereby businesses and their customer-services team could rate us in terms of what kind of customer we are?

By opening up this information, would we find that those people who are great customers are treated far better?

And would we find that people, when complaining, act far more reasonably in the knowledge that if they go too far they are likely to be marked down?

Personally I would welcome a customer ranking system and can’t help thinking  it is something that maybe a credit card company could be developing.

Irrespective of all that, in this world of readily accessible information it is clear that customer services is becoming more important than ever. As a marketer there is no doubt that increasingly your priority must be product and customer service . Only when these are sorted can you start worrying about your advertising strategy.

Nice Customer Service Examples


If you ever get to visit Amsterdam, you must visit this shop for an example of ‘Best in Class’ retail experience. As soon as you walk in you are offered something to drink and made to feel at home. The staff are as passionate about the product as the owner would be and when you are finally handed your jeans, personally gift wrapped, you find that you have bought an experience rather than just something to wear to work. It kind of helps that the jeans are beautifully crafted and look cool.

First Direct

I have been using First Direct since its inception and I must be one of the few people who has never ever complained about their bank, despite the fact that it has no presence on the high street.

However, it was exactly for the reason that they have no stores that I believe First Direct has been so successful. Because you were never going to talk to anyone from the bank face to face, they realised that talking to them down the telephone needed to be a really great experience. As well as regularly beating the competition in terms of customer satisfaction every year, they have also been brave enough to collate all comments in relation to their brand in one place – First Direct Live.

I have been a member of Lovefilm for over 5 years (renting 220 titles) and can swear by it.

However, it was still nice to receive a free rental from Lovefilm this Easter and it was great to get a free rental on my 5-year anniversary with them. They have also been innovative in their advertising – they recently put together a deal with Baileys whereby Bailey's offer extra free rentals to Lovefilm members in return for putting together their own Bailey's Time rental list.

The offer was, if you are interested in testing out Lovefilm, click here and claim your free bottle of Baileys.

Urban Spaces

On the 3rd anniversary of us moving into our flat, Urban Spaces, the estate agent, wrote us a handwritten card to say congratulations on on our three years there and hoping that we were still enjoying our home. No call to action just a friendly hello.


Zappos aims to wow each and every customer. They do this by creating an environment in which their employees love what they do. This is so important to the company that they offer a payoff  to staff who decide to leave after successfully completing their probationary period (thus ensuring that those who stay have truly ?bought' into the business and its philosophy).

They were the first brand I saw who didn’t just collate what people were saying about them on Twitter but also added the feature of seeing what their employees were saying too.

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