Wednesday 23 July 2008

Legendary customer service

14st 0lb, which is not a bad result given the amount of comfort eating I did when I got back home yesterday, and the 4.4 units of alcohol I consumed; 1,292; the county town of Northumberland.

I had to drive to Alnwick at lunchtime, for the car repair that I had rescheduled from Saturday, so thought I would take the opportunity to walk into the town centre and try eating at a recently opened hotel. Its food had received a predictably glowing review in the local paper, but this was immediately contradicted in almost every particular by an entertainingly vitriolic reader’s letter, engendering a lively debate. My hopes were actually reasonably high, as I knew the owner of old as a first class chef. We had talked about his move and I felt sure that he had told me he was going to keep the cosy old bar, and he proved to have been true to his word in that the name of it was still displayed above the door. Everything else, though, had been swept away, and replaced with the bleached wood I associate with a trendy London bistro of the 1990s. On reflection, it also reminded me of the new (in 1994) opera house at Glyndebourne, albeit with a rather lower musical content.

And I had plenty of time to reflect, as I stood at the bar watching one young lady battling with another customer’s credit card, while her colleague kept her back firmly turned to me as she focused on totting up a column of figures. Finally she turned around to reveal the glum face of a classic red-headed termagant, spoiling for a fight. In the circumstances it was something of a relief that she continued to ignore me for as long as she felt she could, before grudgingly enquiring if she could help. I asked whether I could get food there, and she confirmed, in a short and snappish sort of way, that I could. I then pushed my luck by further asking whether it was the same menu at the bar as in the empty Bistro I had just inspected at the rear of the premises. She confirmed that it was, with a look that carried the (just) unspoken subtext, “What a f***ing stupid question!” She then slapped a menu rather rudely down in front of me, obscuring the typed list of daily specials which I therefore only noticed after I had ordered. I requested a pint of beer and a packet of pork scratchings, and she threw down the latter and started pulling the former before getting distracted by attempting to help her colleague produce a VAT receipt requested by the other customer; a task which eventually proved far beyond their combined intelligence.

Returning some thirsty minutes later, she enquired rather sharply, “What can I get you?” To which I replied, “Well, you could get me my beer for a start.” She fixed me with a look that would have turned many men to stone, and would certainly have won her the part if the local amateur dramatic society had been holding auditions for the lead role in The Taming of the Shrew. She said coldly that it was “just settling” and firmly pointed to the menu in front of me. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, in the light of experience to date, but something drove me to ask a further question, namely whether I might eat on the terrace I had spotted outside. Her response was “So long as it’s all paid for at once” which was so off-putting that I really don’t know what stopped me telling to put her beer and food somewhere which did not share the terrace’s advantage of being bathed in sunshine. But, most uncharacteristically, I persevered and ordered a starter of a warm black pudding and bacon salad, and a main course of baked salmon with new potatoes.

Reader, they were utterly delicious; the best pub food I have eaten in ages, and the young women who brought it out to me at least wore happy smiles, even if they did insist on payment in advance before they would bring me another pint.

Located as it is bang on a busy street, it does not require much on an effort of imagination to visualize the sort of experiences that might have led a pub to want cash up front from diners sitting outside. But surely there must be a more customer-friendly way of dealing with the problem than the one they have adopted here, which effectively makes one feel like a criminal? From the point of view of the staff, it also pretty much guarantees that they won’t get a tip: how likely is anyone to add a service charge before they have had any service? I suppose they did my diet a favour in that I left without the pudding and coffee I would undoubtedly have bought if someone had bothered to come outside and ask whether I wanted them. But I heard dark mutterings about their treatment from a couple of tourists on the next table, so I know that for once my reaction is not just an illustration of my over-sensitivity.

It’s such a shame that we have some of the best locally produced ingredients anywhere, and many excellent cooks, combined with such a totally hopeless lack of aptitude for service. Just to demonstrate that it is not peculiar to the hospitality sector, I wandered further into town and visited the local branch of Britain’s leading chemists, where three female assistants were far more interested in talking to each other than in serving me. One finally dragged herself away, apologizing to her colleagues for the interruption, and I explained that I could not find what I was looking for on the shelves. She marched out, grabbed what I’d told her I wanted, and thrust it into my hand with a curt “1.49”. I said that I’d like more than one and she waved her hand in their general direction. When I brought two of them to the counter and said that I would also like a bottle of surgical spirit her exasperation knew almost no bounds.

“It’s out on the shelves.”


“Over there.” She waved a hand, like the late Queen Elizabeth in the back of a landau. “Third shelf. About half way along.”

God forbid that she should actually help the customer by getting it. I found it eventually. They did not deserve to sell it. But I felt little confidence that I would fare any better if I took my custom elsewhere. Indeed, on the evidence of my personal experience this afternoon, the only businesses in the town which are trying to pay the slightest heed to conventional principles of customer service (smile and pretend to take a polite interest) are Barclays Bank and Sainsbury’s, which isn’t really in the town at all.

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