Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Upselling: how upsetting!

I’m terribly pleased to see that customer service is on people’s minds at the moment; with Michel Roux’s Service underway on the BBC, and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper starting on Channel 4 this week, it’s clear that we’re finally squaring up to Britain’s abysmal service culture and saying “now look here, this isn’t good enough”.

We have put up for far too long with the “there you go” waiter and the “if it’s not on the shop floor, we don’t have it” gum-chewing shop assistant, and we’ve somehow come to accept that on most occasions the person paid to help customers doesn’t see any particular need to stop talking to her colleague to speak to us, or even make eye contact.

And at the other end of the scale, we’ve allowed obnoxiously over-familiar techniques to become standard: the ‘server’ who bounds up to your table and says “hey guys!” as though he’s known you all his life; the shouty and impatient  baristas barking “next, please!” and “eat in or take away?”, trained to get city lunchers out of the way as soon as possible; and the aggressive and manipulative practice of flogging you more things than you ordered, that crude and hateful sales technique known as ‘upselling’.

“Any coffee for you?” asks the barista, breezily, as you stand ready to pay for the sandwich you’ve selected from the chiller and brought up to the counter. “Err, no, thank you, just the sandwich, please,” you reply, aggrieved, wondering why she couldn’t have just waited for you to order the coffee if you wanted it. “Any cookies or crisps with that?” Pause, while you sigh, yet more aggrieved. “No, as I said, it’ll just be the sandwich today. Thank you.” And it feels as though you’re holding up a shield to deflect all the gratuitous muffins, crisps and chocolatey extras being shoved in your face and heaped on top of your order. And you pay and leave with the uncomfortable feeling of having been brazenly manipulated, wondering when on earth it became acceptable to be so openly money-grabbing.

“It irks me because it’s just so insultingly obvious. Do they think they’re Derren Brown all of a sudden?”

The waiter’s once-simple task of listening to a table of customers make their order has turned into an elaborate upselling opportunity. “Any side salads with that? Fries? More drinks?” No, no, and no. I have no problem with a waiter asking a broader, polite question to round off the order, such as “will that be all?” A question of that ilk is useful; it lets the customer know that there’s no rush, there’s still an opportunity to add something else before the order is closed. It’s the offering of specific extras that irks me: salads, fries, muffins. It’s rude because it’s presumptuous; the waiter or barista shouldn’t presume that a muffin is the ideal side order to accompany your sandwich. What if you’re allergic, or simply cake-averse? Gently asking “is there anything else you’d like?” is entirely appropriate, but wading in with suggested bonus items – and let’s get real; it’s so that you’ll spend more, not because they care about creating the perfect meal for you – is intrusive and rude.

It irks me also because it’s just so insultingly obvious. Restaurants and cafes must have a very low regard for their customers if they think we’re going to be taken in by such a blatantly manipulative sales technique. Do they think they’re Derren Brown all of a sudden? That we’ll hear “any muffins with that?” and mysteriously not be able to control our urge to buy a muffin we didn’t know we wanted?  

I’d have thought that the first rule of retail and customer service would be to presume a certain level of intelligence in your customer. It’s charm, flattery and politeness that do the work in encouraging a customer to spend more, not crude retail techniques that she can see straight through. Sadly, customer service in Britain is largely utterly charmless, rude and insulting, and upselling is one of the worst features. It’s got to the point where I’m considering pre-empting it as soon as I get to the counter, sticking my hand up and saying “hold the muffins! I just want this sandwich! This. Sandwich. Alone!” Read more by Maddie.

Best wishes to Michel Roux Jr. and to Mary Portas, both of whom are flying the flag for better customer service – and were right behind their missions.