Craig Dearden-Phillips: A lesson from my local bike shop - great service makes you stand out

Showing personal concern at all times really matters, writes our columnist - especially in charities

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

How often does remarkable service happen to you? For me, it's hardly ever, and I spend a good part of my time on trains, in cafes and in reception areas.

The service I get usually comes in one of three types. The first is incompetent. This is when, in a branch of a national bike retailer, I am asked four times in succession by an assortment of sleepy-eyed teenagers whether I want help.

The second is passive-aggressive. This is the brusque supermarket till-attendant who is holding a conversation with her colleague while perfunctorily serving me.

The third is a kind of vapid, rehearsed enthusiasm that is clearly the result of training. I get this every time I buy a chain-store cappuccino.

So when good service happens, my heart flies like a kite. The last time was the other week at my local bike shop. At first, they left me alone to look around. Then a friendly, but not over-the-top guy asked whether I'd like to try a few bikes to see what might fit me best. I tried four. After I did a few laps around the block on each, he told me I looked happiest on Bike A. Bike A was the cheapest. At no point did I feel any pressure to buy. They then took an hour to fit out the bike to my measurements. I left elated - and about a grand poorer.

So what can the third sector learn from all this? I would suggest two important lessons. One is that, even in a charity, a service mentality really matters. This isn't about drilling people with scripts; it's about showing high levels of personal concern at all times.

This really works. My local bike shop is successful, despite being in the wrong place and having a fairly narrow range of products. Nothing is too much trouble. You feel that you are welcome and that you matter.

Charities that can impart this feeling to their users, their donors and even the people who come into their buildings will do much better than their competitors.

The other lesson is that fabulous service should come relatively naturally to people in the sector.

We are proud and passionate about what we do; widget-makers we are not. Like the guys in the bike shop, many of us have turned a passion into a career. This is the raw material of great service. The problem is that senior management at most charities think great service - the stuff that enhances every single contact people have with you - is something just for hotels, shops and bike showrooms.

But this will need to change. These are tough times. Much of what our organisations do is commoditised and risks being lost to the private sector. We in the third sector have to differentiate ourselves.

Fabulous service isn't free, but it's an incredible benefit for the investment. People remember good service and love you for it. So don't be a supermarket. Be my local bike shop, and I will give you my money forever.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at

Craig Dearden-Phillips, managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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