High Streets Initiative

What SMEs can learn from UK businesses with the worst customer service

Annie May Byrne Noonan | 6 September 2019 | 5 years ago

“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” Those words were said by Amazon founder and the world’s ‘richest man’, Jeff Bezos. So how does a business gain a solid and respectable reputation these days? Well, they can make a start by offering their customers a good standard of customer service.

Customer service in the UK: Where we’re at

Unsurprisingly, the type of service a customer receives from a business has a direct impact on how a brand is seen, whether for the better, or the worse. Looking at the UK retail sector, it’s clear that when times are tougher, (cue* the high street decline), the underperformance of big brands in terms of customer service is all the more obvious and heavily criticised.

And what shouldn’t they be? After all, they’re bound to receive more of a tough review from customers who, with all the easy-to-access amenities e-commerce offers, are less likely to make the trip to their local shopping centre, and especially so if the service they receive is poor.

Let’s find which high street brands are giving out the worst customer service, and what SMEs operating across the sectors can learn from their mistakes…


For visitors to the UK, WHSmith, the royal blue-themed high street purveyor of magazines, stationery and large bars of discounted chocolate might seem like an outdated and even superfluous brand considering how specialised retail providers have become in recent years.

But if ONLY its apparent outdatedness were its biggest problem.

The chain has taken the gong for the ‘worst customer service’ on the high street, with customers citing its high prices and “cramped and messy” stores as the reasons why. This comes as a result of the consumer group, Which? and its annual customer service survey where the brand gained a measly customer service score of 50%.

Sports Direct

Retail billionaire Mike Ashley’s cheap and cheerful sportswear shop didn’t fare too well on the survey either. Only scoring 54% on customer service, one customer even said the stores had an “oppressive atmosphere.”

“Customer service is at the forefront of our business. We aim to provide customers with an enjoyable experience both in-store and online and ensure all our products are safe and fit for purpose.” Sports Direct.com?

However, Sports Direct isn’t just languishing at the bottom of the high street survey, it also scored a dismal 55% customer service rating for its online site. So much for their customer service mission statement above.

Who fared better…

Online and telephone retail bank, First Direct came in the top place for customer service this year. Gaining a 94% customer service rate from respondents, consumers credited the good attitude of its staff and their ‘personal touch, ‘ as reasons for their first-place ranking. ‘Traditional’ homewares retailer, John Lewis also scored highly with an impressive satisfaction rate of 86%. Respondents attributed this successful score to the brand’s ‘friendly staff’, well-laid-out stores and good parking.

Where SMEs come in

What the survey shows is that it’s the unquantifiable elements of customer service that count, such as friendly, helpful and personable staff as well as neat and organised stores (in the case of retail businesses).

SMEs due to their smaller sizes can more easily streamline their quality of service, train staff closely and ramp-up the ‘personal touch’ to make visiting their stores a more enjoyable and ‘tailored to’ experience for customers.

These are things that ALL SMEs can adopt regardless of their sector. Implementing better customer service policies doesn’t have to cost the earth. It’s really down to incentive, a degree of will and the good communication of company mission(s) between the owner, senior staff and employees on the frontline.

But don’t take our word for it, take a look at these SMEs who believe it too…

“We are a Brighton based corporate events SME. We believe that (due to their smaller size), SMEs have the ability to offer better hands-on training to staff on how to handle situations with customers and ensure they are treated well.With larger brands there can be a detachment from lower to senior levels of staff. It’s also possible that someone who’s in training may not take the appropriate actions that properly represent the company.” Tom Bourlet, Marketing Manager Eventa

1. HadI Brooks, owner Rays Ice Cream

Customer service is absolutely critical and where SMEs can excel. Front line staff are generally much closer to an owner or another major stakeholder in the business and know the business well including the products and services they offer.

In an SME, staff are also likely working for a person(s) to whom it absolutely matters and not a salaried manager who gets paid regardless. In these cases, staff tend to be more valued and therefore more valuable and more committed to helping each customer.

Small businesses are also much closer to customer feedback whether that’s in-person, online or over social media, and able to act on it very quickly and they should.

The service is therefore far more personal, such as posting social media responses quickly and from someone in the business- not a third-party company or a bot. Here’s my advice in a nutshell:

  • don’t get complacent
  • Listen to your customers
  • Act on feedback and evidence that you have
  • Stay abreast of trends in your market

2. Lindsay Willott, CEO, Customer Thermometer

Some people buy with very little knowledge of your product and some with a lot. It’s impossible to pinpoint the buying moment? now, so a lot is about the service a potential customer receives.

Service needs to wrap around the whole process and experience of doing business with you. If you think like this, it’s a real forcefield around your company.

Our entire customer service, sales and marketing team are all now in one place. They are nicknamed The Ministry of Magic? and their role is to provide excellent service be that to people enquiring, people wanting to buy, or people who want to up or downgrade or refer.Their particular point in the buying cycle is not a factor in how well we serve them.

3. Ian Jones, founder and CEO, LoLo

The secret weapon(s) of any small business is the business owner and well-trained staff. The speed of the leader equals the speed of the team. Your staff follow your lead so make sure you are leading them correctly.

Generally, the business owner is passionate about their business and as such are motivated to help customers. Your staff will do what you do.

Business owners can learn a lot form big retails failures. Recognising a service failure and how it makes you feel on the receiving end should be enough of an education to make sure you and your staff don’t do the same.

Make your customer the priority, go out of your way to create emotional loyalty by doing more than expected. Big retail has rules and processes that limit how far staff can go to delight a customer. As a small business owner, you set the rules and expectations of your staff, set them high and allow your staff the flexibility to delight your customers.

4. Matt Connelly, Founder and CEO, I Hate Ironing

Smaller, independent high street businesses are often far greater at customer service than larger chains because they are embedded in the local community, know their customers and understand how important good customer service is for repeat business. Often it’s the knowledge of the customer that sets them apart and allows them to go the extra mile. Small business owners tend to take a lot of pride in delivering a service they can be proud of and are invested in the customer walking out of the shop happy.

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