By Daniel Strieff Reporter
updated 1/14/2005 1:58:24 PM ET 2005-01-14T18:58:24

For Aleda Roth, the implications were obvious. A regular visitor to Britain for a decade and a half and an expert in operations management, it's her business.

Roth, like many a North American visitor to London, was struck by the fact that Britons just didn't seem to expect good service.

“Americans view it as a right, I would say almost a responsibility, to complain, to provide feedback about services. But British customers are generally more tolerant” about poor service, she said in a telephone interview.

Roth, a professor at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the co-author of a study on Britain's hospitality industry.

“London may get people for the first time — visitors who want to see Westminster Abbey or Parliament or other sites — but you also want to bring them back. And that’s where good service becomes important,” she said.

Catching up
But now it seems London is catching up with its English-speaking counterparts.

In a bid to boost flagging service standards, London is funding courses starting this month that aim to improve hospitality with a $6.4 million four-year program.

Participants in the scheme will learn how to improve everything from champagne pouring to meat carving, spoken English to cigar selection.

The Economist magazine has described the new skills as “American-style” service standards.

“There are some good areas of performance now but we need to ensure that all levels of the profession are high because obviously this is an important part of the economy, and London faces quite a lot of competition as a business destination,” said Vincent Burke, of the London Development Agency, which is sponsoring the scheme.

Research conducted by the LDA this autumn found that London’s hotels, restaurants and pubs need to improve customer service.

“Everybody recognizes that tourism is a significant part of the economy here, not just the cooking in a hotel, but going out and having a meal, going to a pub, going to a club, shopping, whatever,” said Damian Nolan, operations director at London's Asian and Oriental School of Catering, which took part in a pilot program funded by the LDA.

“Standards always need to be improved and you need to have courses and programs that react to the market demand and help create innovation,” Nolan added.

The ‘stiff-upper-lip syndrome’
Last spring, a study co-authored by Roth suggested that Britons' famous stiff upper lip — credited with everything from Londoners’ resilience during the Blitz to the butt of innumerable Monty Python jokes — could actually be reinforcing poor service standards.

"Because U.K. hotels, in contrast to their U.S. counterparts, do not capture and use complaint data systematically, they lack an important input for setting effective service strategies and designs," Roth said.

The study found that customers are crucial in the development of service quality.

Specifically, the researchers found that emotional restraint meant that Britons typically provide less feedback than their American counterparts when services don’t meet expectations. Consequently, a significant portion of customer comment regarding poor service goes unnoted.

"Our research shows that creating value for customers is often neglected by U.K. managers; they tend to manage by intuition rather than fact," Roth said.

"Service represents a significant percentage of GDP in both the U.S. and the U.K. and I don’t see that changing anytime soon," she said.

Critical time for London
The timing of the initiative is no accident. Several blows have been inflicted on Britain in recent years, from foot-and-mouth disease to terrorism and the falling value of the dollar.

The stakes are high. London is a finalist to be host city in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Putting a friendly face on everyday service could be crucial to impressing the selectors, who make their final decision in August.

Two-way investment between the United States and Britain is worth more than $460 billion and two-way trade is valued at around $73 billion, according to the British-American Business Council. The organization says that business relationship is the largest between any two nations.

International business travelers to Britain on average outspend leisure visitors by more than $100 per day, according to VisitBritain.

But London remains an overwhelmingly popular place to do business. The city has been voted Europe’s best city for business for the 15th year running by European Cities Monitor, a ranking partly decided by availability of qualified staff and access to foreign markets.

An increasingly ‘sexy’ industry
For Nolan of the Asian and Oriental School of Catering, the implications are clear. As a manager at the school and the restaurant it runs, Zen Satori, he is intimately familiar with the need to bring customers back.

“The quality of your output is only as good as the quality of your input,” he said, comparing service to the necessity of making a good meal through using quality ingredients.

“It’s the same with people. If, historically, hospitality is seen as more of a more subservient industry than going into IT or being a reporter or working in the financial sector or whatever, the standards won’t be as high,” he said.

As Nolan put it, improving standards isn't just about better training. It requires a significant shift in thinking.

“You take Soho or Covent Garden, and you talk to a waiter or waitress, and you say, ‘Do you enjoy your job?’ and they say, ‘Well, actually I’m an actor, I’m just filling in at the moment and I’m waiting for my next part.’ They’re waiting for the next big part to come along, whereas they could be using their skills [in the hospitality industry],” Nolan said.

“You know, everybody wants to be famous. … Everybody wants to be something else. But it’s only emerging now as a sort of sexy industry, to be a restaurateur, to be a Jamie Oliver or whatever. It gets a lot people into dreaming,” he said.

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