What can we learn from American Customer Service?

On 12th September Joanna and I flew out to New York to spend a week in the Big Apple for our 25th wedding anniversary. It’s a city we’ve always wanted to visit, so it seemed fitting that we go there to celebrate such a landmark occasion.


Of course, as well as spending time with Joanna exploring this great city, I was also secretly excited about spending a week immersed in the American service culture.


Was it really as good as everyone says? I’d been over to the States a few times before, the last time to Houston in 2008 for an Oil & Gas conference. The world has changed a lot since then.


We’d booked a service called Super Shuttle to take us from JFK to our hotel near Times Square. This wasn’t a good experience at all and in hindsight we’d have been far better just taking the train into the City. But you live and learn.


As many of you will know, I’m a big fan of the Hotel chain CitizenM, and true to form we had decided to stay with them for the week. It wasn’t the cheapest option, but we know what to expect with them and love the way they do things.


The staff were the same type of people as we’ve encountered in their hotels in Glasgow, London and Amsterdam – young, friendly, super-helpful, and very cool. If I had one complaint, then it would be the coffee. In Glasgow they serve roast from Dear Green and it’s always amazing. That wasn’t always the case in NYC. The coffee was average on several days. It left me wanting to get out for some decent coffee.


Don’t worry, I’m not going to write about every service experience we had whilst we were out there. We could be here a long time if I did that! No, I’m going to tell you about three experiences and then summarise what I learned. Here goes….


1. Empire State Building


We visited the Empire State Building on Friday morning around 10.30am. We’d pre-bought our tickets and had to join a short queue. Every member of staff was polite and helpful, and whenever we spoke, they seemed to love our Scottish accent! Most of the attractions we visited in New York offer free wifi, which was a god-send. All you had to do was give them your email address in exchange. Fair enough.


The exhibition itself on the 82nd floor was fascinating. Did you know that it took less than a year to build? Think about how long it took us to install tramlines in Edinburgh by comparison…


The day after we got back to the UK I got an email from the Empire State Building, asking me to complete a feedback questionnaire. In exchange, they offered me an exclusive wallpaper image of the building that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I completed the questionnaire, which had been well thought out, and received my image. Happy days!


2. Blue Bottle Coffee


Anyone who was at TCMA 2016 in June would have heard Ann Handley talk about Blue Bottle Coffee. I’d checked their website before we flew and found out that they had several stores across the Big Apple. On our second day we were in the Rockefeller Centre when I spotted their logo in a window. I can’t tell you how excited this made me!


We made our way over and entered their store, which was beautifully designed. Just the right amount of wood on show to be rustic, but not over the top. The staff reminded me of the guys at CitizenM – definitely the cool kids, incredibly friendly and helpful. We ordered our coffees and a muffin, and as we waited we browsed the books and mugs that are subtly positioned for you to see as you wait.


The attention to detail in the store was incredible, and it was a pleasure to watch Blue Bottle Coffee in operation.


3. New York Philharmonic


One of the highlights of our trip was going to see the film West Side Story on our actual anniversary. But not just any showing of the film. No, this was watching the film with the score performed by the world-renowned New York Philharmonic at their home in the Lincoln Centre. This is one of the best orchestras in the world!


We booked the tickets online a few weeks before we left. We then received two emails from them before the performance.


The first, on the weekend before we flew, attached the program notes for the performance. They were building our anticipation nicely.


The second email came the day before. This one said they’d noticed that this was our first time at one of their concerts, and that they’d like to give us a little gift. It told us to go to a certain booth on the night and introduce ourselves. How cool is that?!?


So on the evening, we did exactly that and collected our gift. We also noticed that they had several people wearing ‘Guide’ sashes on the night, so we spoke to a couple. Their role was simply to help people, answer any questions they may have, and make sure everyone had a wonderful time. Amazing!




A lot of the time we hear about the service culture in the US and think ‘yeah, that wouldn’t work over here’. And sometimes that’s true – we’ve got to WANT to deliver great service first. However here are three things I observed that we can and SHOULD be doing in our businesses here in the UK.


1. Care about the customer experience deeply. That doesn’t mean getting your staff to say ‘have a nice day’. No, it’s about thinking about every interaction that your customers will have with you and making them special. You don’t have to exceed expectations, just make it easy and pleasant for people to deal with you.


2. Pay attention to the details. For once, CitizenM didn’t get this right every time. The coffee just wasn’t as good as it usually is, so I felt a little let down. Blue Bottle Coffee got this just right. So much of what happens in their stores is subtle – the way the signage is crafted, how they display the mugs and books for sale, and it all adds to the overall experience. They know that all of these things add up and build loyalty.


3. Fair Exchange. I liked what the Empire State Building did with their wifi. Make it easy for people to use, and ask for an email address in exchange. Then follow up, ask for feedback, and again offer something in return. Over here, we often get asked for feedback, however instead of being given something in return we’re told that we’ll be entered into a prize draw. We know we’ll never win, so we don’t bother.


There were so many lessons from spending a week in New York, and I’ll talk about more of those in the weeks ahead, however these three are all actionable in our businesses TODAY.


What are you going to do now that will make you stand out in a sea of complacency??


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Claire Brotherton
September 26, 2016 at 11:55 am

Sounds like a fantastic trip! Congrats on your silver wedding anniversary.

Great to hear that Blue Bottle Coffee lived up to expectations.

I love the story abut the NY Philharmonic. That’s a great way to inspire loyalty and encourage you to recommend them.

Will remember your tips if I get the chance to visit the Big Apple!

September 26, 2016 at 6:49 pm
– In reply to: Claire Brotherton

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Claire. If you do ever go the NYC, then please let me know – I have a long list of things that you should see / do!

Kelly Baader
September 27, 2016 at 5:35 am

What an awesome trip it sounds, and happy anniversary to you, Ashton!
And I love how you described each encounter of customer service. I felt for CitenzenM, as a former hotel executive in luxury brands, I couldn’t help to think of what it could be (so many different factors) to cause that “average” experience, i.e. relationship with coffee vendor that month, pressure from head office to use certain brands instead, or simply the staff members didn’t brew it right that day, etc.) Maybe I should give a try when next time I go to London:) Thanks again for the wonderful post!

Gary Hand
September 27, 2016 at 6:08 am

Nice read Ali. Many Congrats on your wedding anniversary. Currently in Orlando as I write this and could relate to the theme of the article. Found the west side story experience of your article the most interesting and I will defently be taking home not just your experiences/points but also my own experience here and bring it to my own business. We have a lot to learn from over the pond, usually the first place I go eat in Scotland and I don’t get a refil of my drink it hits me 😉

September 27, 2016 at 10:06 am

Hey Ali – yay! You managed to experience Blue Bottle Coffee. Feeling a little jealous!!

Thanks for sharing (again), you’ve just given me an idea from Empire State Building experience. Looking forward to hearing more of your stories from the trip.

September 27, 2016 at 6:12 pm
– In reply to: Vicky

Blue Bottle was very good Vicky. Nothing extra-special, just a solid attention to detail. It’s the little things….

September 27, 2016 at 6:13 pm
– In reply to: Gary Hand

Haha, spot on Gaz! Yeah, the West Side Story experience was very good, and very well executed. Everyone we met there seemed to be really enjoying their jobs – that’s always a good sign! We need to catch up soon.

September 27, 2016 at 6:15 pm
– In reply to: Kelly Baader

Hey Kelly, thanks for taking the time to read. I’ve stayed at their hotels around the world and it’s the first time I’ve had anything not quite spot on. My feeling was that staff were rushed, or not properly trained. I’ll allow them this once 🙂

Norman Lamont
September 29, 2016 at 9:45 am

When we went there a few years ago, we were also struck by the friendly customer service, just about everywhere. It seemed to me that it wasn’t just that they’d been trained to do this or say that, but that people working in shops, cafes and bars actually wanted to help. They seemed as though they were outgoing, cheerful, interested people. Having seen corporate training here, I couldn’t believe this was the product of training, and thought it must be the outcome of recruitment – they put people into these roles who simply are outgoing, cheerful and interested.
Reflecting on that now, it sounds unlikely – these wouldn’t have been well paid jobs (maybe tips only), they must have a high turnover of staff, and these people must have down days like everyone else. But again maybe they look at the customer as a person and think ‘it’s not his fault I’m down’ and try to help. I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem the same here in Scotland.

October 6, 2016 at 4:34 pm
– In reply to: Norman Lamont

There’s definitely a cultural effect Norman – American society is just more attuned to pleasant service, particularly in the Cities. I’ve been in London this week (still there as I type this) and I have to say I’ve only had a couple of good service experiences all week.