Making a difference on the front-line

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

The scene is London Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 on a cold and drab winter’s day in late December. I’ve just staggered off the 12-and-a-half flight from Shanghai Pudong, where the weather was equally dank and miserable.

My mood is similarly grey. I’m tired, fed-up and just want to get a cab home. (Rarely for me) I barely stop to blink at the World Duty Free Arrivals store before pushing my trolley through to landside. The last thing I want to do is shop.

Nonetheless, I decide to buy a newspaper from WH Smith in the arrivals hall, despite dreading the familiar prospect of a queue in the often cramped little store. I grab my paper and a bottle of water; fortunately the queue isn’t too bad, just a couple of elderly people in front of me.

There’s only one assistant on duty at the counter, a young woman from south Asian extraction with an English accent. I’m immediately struck by the spontaneity and warmth of her smile as she serves the first customer, who looks like he could be a foreigner on his first visit here. She exchanges a quick but entirely genuine few words with him and wishes him well for the day ahead. He smiles back at her, obviously pleased to be so treated so nicely and perhaps thinking this England might be quite a friendly country.

Despite the pleasantries the transaction is handled with impeccable speed. My long-haul lethargy starts to clear as I watch her handle the next customer with equal courtesy and, dare I say it, an attitude verging on hospitality.

It’s my turn. “How are you today?” I ask. “I’m fine, thank you,” she replies with a smile that stretches all the way to Terminal 5, “how are you?”

We chat a little and I complete my transaction – it won’t do wonders for the WH Smith average spend but I am a satisified consumer. From outside the store I look back at this unknown young woman, cursing myself that I did not catch the name on her badge to mention in anything I later write. For some reason she catches me staring at her, which makes me feel guilty but just makes her smile again.

A part-timer working to make some money to pay for her studies? Or a full-time employee? It hardly matters. There’s no rocket science here of course, just a simple human truth about retailing. People, not just products, make the difference.

If I was WH Smith, I would find that young woman, salute her attitude to customer service, and role it out as a template across all the company’s stores. Except of course you cannot template customer service. Sometimes it is simply the human factor that makes the difference.

The sheer unexpected delight – and sadly these days it is unexpected – of genuine kind, caring and efficient service can make a profound difference to any kind of service organisation. It’s nice to know such people exist.