What Australian Tourism Could Learn From the US

24 May

The Age has an article up today titled What Australian Tourism Could Learn From the US.

In a somewhat unfair comparison, the service level in Las Vegas is used as a yardstick (meterstick?) against which to measure Australian hospitality.

I’ve been to Las Vegas and the service is indeed top notch, though you definitely pay for it, either through excessively high tips or overpriced goods and services in general. You would not get that same level of service in other parts of the country, but you also wouldn’t pay as much for it.

That said, American service IS among the best in the world. Having been around the globe a few times, I feel expertly qualified to say this. Other countries definitely could learn a bit from Americans in this regard. But I’m not sure Australia is at the top of the list for that sort of education.

I don’t find Australian service to be exceptionally poor. Staff in shops and restaurants do not generally pay you as much attention as they would in America. Personally, I enjoy shopping in Australia more than America because I’m not accosted by half a dozen sales staff greeting me and asking me repeatedly if I need help. Sometimes I just want to browse in peace and leave the store unnoticed. Australians won’t necessarily greet you when you enter their shop or bid you farewell. They won’t usually offer to help you find anything, but if you ask for help, they cheerfully give it and they will almost always thank you for your purchase.

In a restaurant, the lack of service can be more annoying, as I have often found myself looking around desperately for a server to bring me more water or even just to come take my order. On the other hand, it’s nice not to be bothered repeatedly throughout the meal, having my conversation constantly interrupted by a disingenuous “Is everything okay?” from the server. And on the rare occasion when I’ve had to make a complaint, the problem was rectified promptly and courteously.

I’ve yet to stay in an Australian hotel. I prefer to stay at family run bed & breakfasts, which I’ve always found to be pleasant and welcoming experiences. I have my doubts about hotel chains, since I’m pretty familiar with chain hotels around the world and I know that even in an American chain hotel, you’re not likely to get quite the same standard as you would in America, both in terms of service and comfort.

And when it comes to the holy grail of the service industry- airline travel- no airline in America has anything on Qantas, especially for long-haul flights. In that, America could learn a bit from Australians. Fly Qantas to the US and you’ll make your connecting flight domestically on American Airlines. The difference is like night and day.

People do often say that Australia needs to improve its level of service and be friendlier and more attentive. Those people are usually Americans who haven’t traveled very much or Australians who haven’t traveled very much.

To anyone complaining about Australian service, I say, go to the United Kingdom and see just how good you have it.

I remember being absolutely appalled by the outright rudeness and disrespect from service professionals in the UK. There, the attitude is that a business is in business for its own convenience and customers are a nuisance. Not only will you never be greeted, you will also never be thanked for your business. If you ask for help, you will rarely get it. If you complain, you will be screamed at or insulted. I think it must be the only country in the world where you can walk into a store with a £50 note in your hand and no one wants to take your money.

Having worked in retail for many years and also having owned my own retail business, I could never imagine treating a customer so badly as I saw people routinely being treated in the UK. Sometimes I just wanted to smack the shopkeepers on the head and say, “You idiot! You’re in a terrible economic recession! You need me more than I need you!”

So while I won’t disagree that there is room for improvement in the service sector of Australia, it’s not so bad as some people make it out to be and would never enter my mind if someone asked me where the worst service in the world is. Just because I’ve never encountered Zappos-level customer service in Australia doesn’t mean I feel a need to gripe about it.

6 Responses to “What Australian Tourism Could Learn From the US”

  1. julienleyre May 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    Interesting post – and beautifully written as always :-). As someone coming from Paris, the idea that anyone could complain about Australian friendliness in retail or hospitality seems out of this earth. Although now that I think of it, Americans were in the same league – with the notable exception of LA airport staff.

    What did strike me, when compared to Paris, is that Australians in retail, hospitality or customer service are really smiling, friendly and human, but sometimes really incompetent and slow. It’s happened to me that I sat in a Paris cafe for 30 minutes, then left, without anyone bothering to take my order. But I’ve also seen one waiter do more efficient work than four Australians would.

    • housewifedownunder May 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Thank you!

      Yes, I recall the French are not especially good at friendly service, either. I didn’t ever stay too long there, usually just passing through, so my service experience in France is limited mainly to retail (especially gas stations!), cafes, and the odd hotel. But I would also agree with you that when the French do give service at all, they are often very efficient workers.

      In some ways, though, I don’t think it would feel like France if they were too friendly. After all, they have to keep up their worldwide reputation for snootiness. :-p

      In some ways, it really just depends where you are and what the culture is like. That said, there’s never any excuse for outright rudeness to customers like I have seen in some places. Being ignored is not the same as being abused.

  2. Cosette May 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    I agree. Restaurant service is generally adequate, but not excellent. I found shopping a pleasant experience. Besides, I think customer service in the States is slipping. Some companies remain outstanding, but just the thought of dealing with certain others makes me cringe.

  3. Russell May 27, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    housewifedownunder,

    You might be interested in some cultural context–please note, I’m not making value judgements here.
    We don’t have a tipping culture in Australia which might explain the lower service standards, usually workers are paid an adequate wage–I might be wrong, but I assume that service workers in the US rely on tips to supplement their incomes, which certainly provides an incentive. For older generations of Australians (like me), the egalitarian ethos militates against ‘attentive’ service and reliance on tips seems like semi-slavery.

    That said, if Australians want a viable tourist industry, we will have to improve, to what extent we can, is the question.

    • housewifedownunder May 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Russell. 🙂

      In America, generally only waiters and waitresses rely on tips for the majority of their income, as well as people like taxi drivers. Tip jars are popping up in places like cafes and such now, too, but that would just be loose change and those workers do have to be paid at least minimum wage, whereas employees who are expected to make most of their money in tips can be paid well below minimum wage. Certainly store clerks or hotel employees and the like do not make tips, but I think on the whole they are friendlier, even if in an “in your face” kind of way. That said, I’m not complaining about Australian service at all. I thought I made that clear, but maybe it did not come across that way. One of my most popular posts is actually one on tipping that I think better illustrates my thoughts on the subject.

      • Russell May 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

        housewifedownunder,

        I realise you were not complaining about Australian service in general.

        Your comments on tipping are very interesting– I certainly don’t agree with those Australians who refuse to tip when overseas, which results in a national reputation for stinginess. Years ago, my wife and I experienced the worst ‘service’ ever, in a Buenos
        Aires hotel when the staff discovered we were Australians. Probably the only fact they knew about Australians is that most of us don’t tip.

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