British customer service has improved – or is it just the technology?

I asked two Japanese expatriates who were both on their second stint in the UK what had changed since their last stay in the UK 10 or so years’ ago.  To my surprise, both said that they thought customer service had improved.

My initial response was that this was probably due to the big increase in people from Eastern Europe who are working as waiters, shop assistants and so on, with far more enthusiasm and efficiency than had been normal in the UK in the past.

But on discussing this further, and thinking about my own recent experiences, I realise the improvement they were talking about has more to do with technology than the cultural mindset of service sector employees.  One of the Japanese expatriates said “when you arrange for someone to come to your house to repair something, they arrive when they say they will”.  This used not to be the case – you could take a whole day off work waiting for someone and not even get a phone call explaining the delay.

When I recently bought a washing machine, I purchased it online and chose a time slot and a day for it to be delivered.  I was surprised to see that they would deliver up until 21:00 in the evening. Then followed a series of emails and text messages from the store to remind me and offer me a chance to change the slot if I wanted.  It’s common to receive further texts during the day of delivery, narrowing the time slot down to within one hour.  The delivery and trades people have some kind of handheld GPS device which helps them map their journeys from customer to customer and they can be tracked and assisted by support staff in their company offices.

Then, this week, I realised another item I had bought from Amazon had not arrived, so I went online, clicked the “call me” button and within 1 second someone (I suspect from an Indian call centre) called my mobile phone and immediately arranged for a replacement to be sent the next day.

I realise this kind of service is available in other countries, but it does seem according to various surveys that the British are the biggest online shoppers in the world.  According to McKinsey, although internet penetration is higher in the US that Europeans, Europeans are much more likely to prefer a digital channel for buying or using banking services than Americans.

Services now account for 80% of the UK economy, so it’s no surprise I suppose that the UK has got better at delivering them.  For Japanese companies, despite Brexit, the British service sector still represents an investment opportunity – both to gain technology and to reach other virtual markets in the rest of the world. It is noticeable that recent acquisitions or investments into the UK from Japan have largely been in the technology-based services sector– from Softbank acquiring ARM, through to Aioi Nissay Dowa acquiring InsuretheBox.

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