Customer service in the U.S. and Britain

The British seem to think the U.K.’s hopeless at customer service but that the U.S. has mastered the art. Even Wild Thing, when a British web site has chewed her up and spat her out unserved and turning the air blue, is prone to believing this.

Me? I’m not convinced.

Just before we left the U.S., For Your Convenience signs had started appearing in stores. Business letters threw the phrase around as if it would banish all complaints. These say things like “For your convenience, this store will be closed on Saturday.” “For your convenience, your water will be turned off between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. next Wednesday.”

Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it for you. Now that’s customer service.

Irrelevant photo: Evening at Trebarwith Strand. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Evening at Trebarwith Strand. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

But we don’t have to travel to the U.S. to find an example. All Wild Thing and I had to do was sit at our kitchen table and get chewed up by our U.S. passport renewal forms. I’m not sure we’re exactly customers in this relationship, but we do get charged for the privilege so I think it’s a fair example. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between government bureaucracy and corporate bureaucracy. They’re equally impenetrable, although they tend to set off different political resonances in people.

I wrote a bit about this experience already, [] but the part that needs repeating came up in the post’s comments section, and (you do have a life, don’t you?) you may not have memorized every word of it: The only way the embassy will accept renewal forms is if you send them with a private carrier. And not just any private carrier, it has to be one specific private carrier. You can’t send them through the mail, even though it’s perfectly reliable; you can’t use a different private carrier; you can’t do it online, even though you fill out the form there; you can’t drop them off in person, even if you live next door; and you can’t wrap them around a rock and throw them through the window, no matter how tempting the idea gets. You can only use that one service.

Is it run by somebody’s cousin or spouse or campaign donor? Call me a cynic (or a New Yorker, which at heart I always will be and which is more or less the same thing), but I can’t help thinking it must be.

How does this square with the American religious belief that competition is good because it drives the price down and the quality of service up? Well, as it turns out we only worship at that church when it suits us, and in this case it doesn’t. Monopoly is more efficient today, so shut up and arrange for a pickup, and if the system burns extra fuel and adds to global warming because the carrier doesn’t normally operate in your village, that’s more efficient too.


I will admit that the web site worked flawlessly. It was a little intimidating, but even I couldn’t screw it up, and I’ve seldom met a form I couldn’t fill out wrong.  But when I printed out my completed form, it came with four pages of instructions that ended with a paperwork reduction act statement, which I can’t resist the temptation to quote in full:

“Public reporting burden for this collection of information is estimated to average 40 minutes per response, including the time required for searching existing data sources, gathering the necessary data, providing the information and/or documentation required, and reviewing the final collection. You do not have to supply this information unless this collection displays a currently valid OMB control number. If you have comments on the accuracy or burden estimate and/or recommendations for reducing it, please send them to…” and a mailing address follows.

As a way of reducing paperwork, I just love this: an extra paragraph, addressed, as far as I can make out, to the public, although there’s no way your average member of the public can understand it—and I say that as someone who used to copy edit a low-budget hunting and fishing magazine, which gave me samurai-level training in turning murky prose into something approaching human language. The first sentence means, “It should take you 40 minutes to fill this out and gather the information you need.” After that, you’re on your own. What’s an OMB number and how would I know if the collection displays a valid one? What collection are we talking about exactly? What information don’t I have to supply and how do I renew my passport if I don’t supply it? And why—why, why, why—would I care that their time estimate is unrealistic? It is, since we had to submit photos in a format that’s not commonly used in Britain, but even if we lived in the U.S. it would take time to get photos printed in the right format. What, though, would make me want to tell them all that? What would change if I did?

Nothing and nothing.

But then the paragraph isn’t written with an eye toward getting anyone to do anything. It’s an extra paragraph written because someone was told to reduce paperwork, so here that someone is, proving that it’s been done. Yes! More paper in the name of less! That’s what I call customer service.

By the way, since we filled the forms out online, there’s no real need to print off the instructions—we could just as easily read or ignore them online. But once you hit Print, out they tumble, reducing the world’s paperwork by adding four extra pages.

33 thoughts on “Customer service in the U.S. and Britain

  1. Well, I kind of know what you mean. But I do see a difference between the government (which IS a monopoly, so you can see why they might think that’s a good idea) and the private sector. When you go into a Starbucks, every single employee in the place knows that if you have a complaint or delay, they can—immediately and without waiting to ask permission—pony up a sincere apology accompanied by a free drink coupon. I’m not sure the IRS would have the same approach. “Oh, our bad. So sorry. Have a free refund on us.” Still, I must say that as an expat with a constant stream of tax questions, I’ve talked to employees at the IRS on a pretty regular basis, and they are unfailingly helpful and friendly and often even funny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t want to argue that a government is the same as a corporation, but once a bureaucracy of any sort wraps its tentacles around me I don’t see much difference. Especially, for some reason, the utility companies.


  2. I also wrote a similar blog post on customer service. Check it out. As for the US embassy here-they are a special kind of challenging. I could write a book on it. Happy 2016 BTW!


  3. “Intimidating” is the perfect description for offical sites. Just thinking of the hoops all governments put you through for ID stuff is exhausting. Did you get the renewal? Anyway, customer service in the UK can’t be that bad. Here in Italy it’s non-existent, the US is great in comparison: I just now got a total refund from a California winery that despite email assurances, didn’t deliver a “champagne” bottle to friends in Chicago in time for New Year’s. So they both delivered it on Jan 4th, and refunded me, plus nice, courteous, lovely apologies. I thought I was dreaming :). Would anything like that happen in the UK?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure. The department store John Lewis has a reputation for great post-sales service, but that’s about all I can think of to add to the discussion. If anyone reading the comments wants to chime in, please do.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s an example of “Jobsworth” mentality, so often seen in large corporate organisations and government departments the world over. As in, “it’s more than my job’s worth to do anything other than what I’ve been told to do”. In this case, as you say, the Jobsworth “was told to reduce paperwork, so here that someone [Jobsworth] is, proving that it’s been done.”
    There’s no focus on customer service here, or even attempting to ensure that the recipients of this gobbledygook would understand it, because the Jobsworth doesn’t have customer service in their remit. Their main aim is to not get kicked in the a*s by their boss, who in turn is trying to avoid being kicked by his boss, and so on up the chain. over the last fifteen years or so, this has been made worse by the rise and rise of meaningless management speak, which all employees of big organisations have to learn in order to appear to know what they’re doing. Which of course they don’t, because neither they or their bosses know what the management speak really means (some bosses think they do, but they’re just deluding themselves).

    I’ve always thought that US bureaucracy was pretty good at gobbledygook and impenetrable management speak (I seem to remember that Bill Bryson documented some good examples), but the UK government and local governments are catching up fast, and most multinationals are already there. As an ex technical writer I despair of it most of the time, and I’m sure you, as an ex copy editor, do to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve gone past despair into hysteria. When I worked at the hunting and fishing magazine, I started a collection of truly terrible sentences, which–thanks for making me think of this–I should post some day. I’ve always thought it deserved more publicity than it got in my file drawer.

      That’s assuming, of course, that I can still find it.


  5. Customer service in Britain has to be better than it is here. Your timing is perfect with this post, because this has been the (lack of) customer service week from Hell in this part of the U.S. For your convenience, I won’t write a blog post in your comment box – but I’ll credit you as providing the incentive if I write the post :)


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  7. The IRS friendly? I never can get one on the phone to talk with. Twice I tried to end my disability but after 2 years it hasn’t been done. The one rep yelled at me and said why would I do that? uh, because I’m working! Then they will come back 5 years from now and want their money back. Can I wait 5 years to pay my taxes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, god, yes: Your call is important to us. How could I not have mentioned that? Your call is so important to us that we only have one underpaid, overworked person answering phones and he or she has no power to do anything useful for you but can we open a can of bad music while you wait?

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. Kaiser Permanente attaches four printed pages of advertising — usually about flu shots and what to do if you are dissatisfied with their doctors (which is “stick it”, but that only takes one line) and there is NO way you can get away from it.

    Customer service is a joke in the USA in 99% of the cases. And do not get me going on my love affair with my Mac pro. We are breaking up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terrible news about your breakup. Or is that good news? I don’t know. Never fall in love with technology.

      When the U.K. government was embarking on its disastrous reorganization of the National Health Service, it held up the Kaiser Permanante model as The one to follow. As an American and the partner of someone who used to work in managed care, I didn’t think it boded well.


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