In search of service

Every couple of years, my family enjoys a short stay at The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where we enjoy the sort of old-school ambience and service that is something of a rarity at UK coastal hotels. It is no surprise that an episode (The Body in the Library) of Miss Marple was filmed at the hotel, involving Joanna Lumley lounging around in what was probably The Presidential Suite. 

The Grand Hotel, Eastbourne

During check-in (not for The Presidential Suite) on our recent visit, we were asked if we would require our beds to be turned down in the evenings. We declined on the basis that we don’t live in an episode of Miss Marple or Jeeves & Wooster, and from what I heard, most other people also deemed this activity to be unnecessary too.

The fact that this service was not undertaken automatically this year is maybe a result of staffing shortages and is part of a review of what services are essential to maintaining the high five-star standards at the hotel, and what are superfluous. Clearly, turning down beds is not one of the vital activities. This strategy appears to be working, because we found no fall in overall standards during our stay and we are already looking forward to returning to this haven on the south coast. 

Having to turn down my own bed was not such a hardship, but I’m getting the feeling that the definition of service in general is being overhauled – or mauled – because so much more of what we buy, whether it be goods or services, involves us, the customer, doing increasing parts of it ourselves. We are entering an increasingly self-service world where the provider offloads ever more of the work onto the customer.

This manifested itself in the worst possible way with the widely publicised case of Ryanair charging an elderly couple £110 for failing to check-in online and generating the relevant boarding passes ahead of their flight. They argued they had accidentally printed the return leg by mistake, but Ryanair characteristically held its ground and simply highlighted its rules – failure to check-in online incurs a fee of £55 per person. That’s the rules.

They are correct, of course, even though genuine mistakes can sometimes be made, and we all know that Ryanair and other low-cost airlines will continue to thrive through their competitive pricing. But this episode suggests service is effectively being dragged into the gutter. There is no humanity in this type of engagement. This is especially the case for people who are not online and don’t have access to email or a printer. 

We are clearly talking predominantly about older people, but it is too simplistic to say that it is only this grouping being persecuted for not being able to jump onboard the new DIY world of service. 

I suspect the issue affects a much broader base of people, judging by The Grocer 33 annual survey, which found customer service levels in supermarkets have fallen to a new record low, and the single reason for this is the soaring levels of queues at the manned checkouts because many have been replaced by self-service checkouts. Clearly, many people would like to be served by an actual person. This is what they call service.

For those who feel very strongly about it

This is supported by a survey from Zonal and CGA. Although it found a majority of customers now prefer to use technology in venues compared with a minority pre-pandemic, the bulk of this usage is pre-dining, involving the likes of booking and enquiries. In contrast, when people are actually in the venue, three-in-five prefer to place orders and settle bills face-to-face. Visitors to bars and restaurants enjoy an enhanced experience when dealing with actual people and not having to live their lives through a smartphone.

If I ever find a QR code on the table replacing the physical menu in The Grand’s Mirabelle restaurant, then that will be time to bring in Miss Marple to solve the case of The Body in the Hospitality Industry.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.