Customer care? You've got to it hand it to India

17th December 2010 at 00:00

What exactly constitutes an apprenticeship these days? They don't exist in my field, and I've obviously not been paying enough attention to those areas where they do.

Until recently, I had a rather traditional picture of the apprentice. This involved a young man, a bag of tools and a seven-year stint, the first two of which involved nothing but making tea and sweeping floors. At the end of it all he would emerge, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, as a fully-fledged cooper or thatcher or wainwright.

But now I know better. Today the term "apprenticeship" seems to apply to any on-the-job training from rocket science to flipping burgers. It doesn't have to take seven years either. Almost any period seems suitable - six months or less in some cases.

Glancing down a list of possible "trades", my eyes fall on the apprenticeships being offered in customer and retail service. To you or me this would be serving in a shop, but don't knock it - it has its skills like anything else, as anyone who's ever been served up a portion of studied indifference along with their fish and chips will testify.

It seems a shame, though, that the customer service apprentice doesn't get the benefit of the year abroad that many of our undergraduates enjoy. If your course only lasts for six months, clearly it's not possible. But why not send them away anyway - for a month or a week - to see how others do it?

The US, with its strong customer service ethos, might seem the obvious choice. But should I ever become the apprenticeships tsar, I would ship them all off to . India. Because if what I saw on a recent visit to a department store in an Indian city is anything to go by, they would be treated not just to another system of shopping, but a whole new concept.

You are greeted at the door by a friendly, "Good morning Sir and Madam, what is it you are looking for?" "Madam" says she would like to see some shalwar kameezes, and we are instantly conducted to the appropriate counter. Out of nowhere, several assistants appear and start ripping open cellophane packets and draping the contents across the counter. You don't like this one? Well how about this? Or this? Or this?

"No, really, you don't need to . ". But too late. The package is open. As is the next one, and the next. Forget "just looking". Any idea of that went out the window at the first crackle of broken cellophane.

Our original "greeter" has not gone away, but a new "helper" now appears. He is clearly a person of some importance. He's wearing a jacket and tie for one thing. For another, when he says jump, everyone around jumps. "Are you being served?" he asks. Yes, he really does say it. When we assure him that we are, he attaches himself to us anyway.

Now the assistants work with a renewed zeal, sacrificing ever more packaging to find the elusive "right one". "I like that one," Madam says at last. As the purchase is being wrapped, she asks me quietly: "Weren't you thinking of looking at some shirts?"

Not quietly enough. "A shirt!" cries man-in-tie. "Sir wants a shirt." All protests are batted aside as we sweep across the floor and into the lift: the greeter, man-in-tie, two customers and an assistant, whose job it now is to follow on behind clutching the new purchase.

"Fourth floor, menswear," calls the lift attendant. Then the whole performance starts up again. New assistants, new packages, garments hurled this way and that. I know straight away that these are not the shirts I'm looking for. I also know that the possibility of leaving the store without a purchase of some sort being made now stands at nil.

In a state of near collapse, we are conducted to the door. Exhausted we may be, but we have learnt something. As would any young apprentice from back in Blighty. He might arrive as a chrysalis, but it's the fully formed butterfly that would be on the plane home.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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