It’s considered a truism that customer service in the USA is far better than that found in the UK. I would say that this difference is often overstated, but then again…
My good friend over at the blog Puppetman, recently wrote a post about a well-known anachronistic umbrella shop in London: James Smith and Sons, in Holborn. It’s truly a place lost in time- old-fashioned canes, walking sticks, and of course umbrellas.
A few years ago, I found myself needing a particular type of umbrella- one with a handle that curved into a gentle, not a sharp or mostly-closed hook. It was to be a prop for a video shoot where someone would be hooking an umbrella on a lamp-post and spinning, a la Gene Kelly. Most lamp-posts are rather wide, and most umbrella handles aren’t open enough to latch on. I needed a special type of umbrella, so I went to the umbrella specialists.
Things go wrong at the umbrella shop:
When I arrived the store was surprisingly busy, and it took me a while to catch a clerk’s attention. When I did, I figured it was best to get straight to the point:
Me: “Good morning. I need an umbrella with a hook/handle that doesn’t quite curve too far around. It’s a prop for a film shoot.”
This was somehow the wrong thing to say, as the clerk gave me the kind of withering glare and up-turned nose that you see in comedy sketches about snooty waiters, but you never expect to encounter in real life.
Clerk (curtly): “Well I’m sure we don’t have anything of that sort here.”
I was a little confused. Here I was at the umbrella shop, surrounded by thousands of umbrellas, asking the umbrella man for an umbrella, and without hesitation, he was telling me that I was in the wrong place, asking for the wrong sort of thing.
Me: “…..er…. What about those umbrellas right there? Right behind you.”
Indeed, right behind the counter was a stack of umbrellas with the required type of handle. He slowly, and grudgingly turned around.
Clerk: “Well these…. I suppose.”
With that, he flung one of the umbrellas on the counter and stalked away for another customer, leaving me to ponder whether to buy a £150 umbrella from a shop that could barely tolerate my existence. I was taken aback- I had been polite, I had been specific, and I had been treated like I had walked in with my shirt off and asked for an umbrella-ella-ella, while randomly gyrating and screeching like Rihanna on an acid trip. I can only guess that, in this temple of umbrellas, I had offended by attempting to buy something without pausing to give due praise to the beauty and fine craftsmanship of their quality products. I didn’t really want an umbrella, I wanted a prop. And this lack of proper appreciation for umbrellas was a disgusting affront.
In the end I bought a £10 brolly from Boots and sawed off the end of the handle.
Someday I’m going to go back and ask for an umbrella “just like wot Mary Poppins ‘ad, so I can scratch me back better” and see if I can make the clerk’s head explode.