Raising young people's awareness of customer care standards keeps service providers on their toes and at the same time acts as a powerful recruitment tool for a range of occupations. Judy Mackie reports
Last summer, Aberdeen schoolgirl Catherine Curran had a bad experience with a bus driver. "He was rude and sarcastic and treated me like dirt, for no reason at all.'' Fortunately, the Bankhead Academy pupil, who was in Secondary 5 at the time, knew exactly what to do about it.
"I stepped off the bus and went straight to the depot, where I asked to see an inspector. I told him what had happened and I filled in a complaints form. Next day, I had a phone call from one of the managerial staff, who apologised and said the matter was being looked into. It made me feel a lot better."
By coincidence, the incident occurred only days after Catherine had attended a course on customer care, piloted by Grampian Enterprise in conjunction with several secondary schools in north-east Scotland.
During the four-day Hospitality Programme, which was supported by local hotels and run by a hospitality training company, Catherine learned about good customer care, both as a consumer and as a role-playing service provider. So when the surly bus driver decided to vent his frustration on this particular pupil, she was confident about her rights.
"I complained and got satisfaction and was proud of myself for handling it so calmly," she says. " But if he'd shouted at me a week earlier, I would have been upset and humiliated and probably wouldn't have done anything about it."
Catherine's experience demonstrates the positive influence customer-care awareness can have on young people's attitudes and behaviour, which is one of the messages at the centre of another innovative campaign launched this week by Grampian Enterprise.
"Customer Care Aware'' aims to change attitudes towards service provision of all kinds, targeting business, local authorities, health services, education providers and the public. The campaign was triggered by the results of a Grampian Enterprise survey, which revealed low customer-care expectations in the area. It showed that 47 per cent of consumers either never or only occasionally complained about poor service; one in three service providers had no formal customer-care policy; and, of those who did, only 21 per cent attempted to make their customers aware of it.
Spearheading the initiative is Bruce Armitage, director of learning and skills at Grampian Enterprise, who says: "We have clear evidence that the service industry is the fastest-growing sector, and it is especially important that in Grampian we provide high standards of service. As an economically high-cost area, we must concentrate on competing on quality, rather than on price.
"That's the economic rationale. But from a purely social point of view, good service makes life a lot more pleasant for everyone."
Customer Care Aware will operate at various levels. Seminars and workshops will introduce the initiative to managers in business and education, and training packages and materials will be available for them to disseminate in their workplaces. A media campaign will be led by the local evening newspaper to encourage readers to share their experiences of customer care, and to encourage feedback to service providers.
But the initiative aims to raise awareness not only of customer care provision, but of the service industry as a whole. Isobel Maughan, manager of Grampian Enterprise Business Partnership, says: "We have known for some time that the service sector is where the majority of the jobs of the future will be. Unfortunately, it does not enjoy such a high-profile reputation as some of the other sectors and therefore many young people do not have aspirations towards pursuing a career within it.
Working closely with local schools, Grampian Enterprise hopes to reverse these attitudes, which have been caused by factors such as perceived low level of job satisfaction.
"If we can encourage youngsters to take pride in providing and receiving excellent service, we have a good chance of improving standards generally and raising the profile of what is becoming an increasingly important sector within the economy," says Isobel Maughan.
The encouragement started at secondary school level with the introduction last June of the Hospitality Programme, which was very popular with the young participants, some of whom expressed interest in working in retail and hotel management.
Isobel believes the programme's success was due to the interest - and good customer care - shown by three local hoteliers, who threw open their doors to the "trainees'' and gave them hands-on experience of hotel work. In addition, the consultancy firm, Hospitality Training, added a corporate flavour to the classroom experience.
One of the most useful exercises in customer-care awareness was a survey conducted by the pupils. They were given a small amount of money to spend, and sent out in pairs to gauge the attitudes of shop and restaurant staff towards young customers.
The results were a mixed bag of indignant complaints and surprised recommendations. (Customer-care expectations of young people are low, according to course participant Audrey Sinclair. "We're used to being told to get outside if there are more than two of us in a corner shop at once; the shopkeepers think we're all thieves,'' she says.) Ironically, given her subsequent experience on the bus, Catherine Curran had only praise for the seaside cafe she and her friend visited as part of the exercise. "They were friendly, the service was fast, and when they didn't have the ice cream we wanted, they suggested other kinds and waited while we made up our minds. There was no rush to get us out of there, either."
The survey, by encouraging the youngsters to think about their own experiences and expectations of customer care, set the tone for the rest of the programme, which had them playing customer and service-provider roles in different scenarios, including making and dealing with complaints.
This year, the course - which due to demand will be extended to five days - will be endorsed by the Customer Care Aware logo and certification, which Grampian Enterprise hopes service providers throughout the area will adopt as a sign of their commitment to improving standards of customer care. A CD-Rom is also in the pipeline for secondary schools in the north-east, which may be used within different contexts across the curriculum.
One pupil who wants to use her experiences in her future career is Catherine Curran. "I've decided to go into retail management, where good customer care is important," she says. "Now I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end, I'll make sure I always treat people as I would like to be treated myself."
For further information about the campaign or the CD-Rom, contact Zoe Corsi at Grampian Enterprise, tel: 01224 575100