• Zep Bellavia

Supporting the City of Service - but is the customer always right?

I am proud to support the South Wales

Argus’ City of Service campaign personally, professionally and in my role as chairman of the Newport Now Business Improvement District.

One of the easiest ways for any business to improve its trading is to build a reputation for great customer service – and that is certainly the case for anyone working in the legal sector.

The best legal practitioners put client service at the heart of everything they do. I have always trained my staff to treat clients as they would like to be treated.

Large and multi-site businesses often provide customer service training for their staff based around the organisation's particular ethos and standards.

But I’d argue that customer service is even more important for smaller businesses as so much of their trade is dependent on word of mouth, recommendations and – increasingly – social media reviews. It is great that the new City of Service initiative will provide free specialised training in customer service and online management for local businesses.

‘The customer is always right’ is a slogan popularised by pioneering retailers like Harry Selfridge and it is at the heart of excellent customer service.

But what happens if the customer isn’t right? We know much about the legal protections enjoyed by customers and consumers but what about service providers?

In some areas – the licensed trade, for example – the rules around refusal of service are clear.

Pubs can quite rightly refuse to serve people they believe to be drunk or under-age.

In the legal sector, there are also justifiable reasons for refusing to provide a service.

You might be too busy to do justice to your new instructions; you might not be qualified to provide a particular service; or you might have ethical reasons for refusal. Indeed, a client may not be able to afford to instruct you properly.

For any business, there are legal reasons why you cannot refuse service or entry to your premises, mostly based on potential discrimination.

You cannot refuse to serve someone because of their age, sexual orientation, race, disability, gender, religion or beliefs.

However – and here’s where things can get confusing for any business – freedom of expression under human rights legislation includes the right not to ‘express an opinion which one does not hold’.

For example, while you could not refuse to print a T-shirt for a customer because of their race or religion you could if the message they wanted printed on the clothing represented an opinion with which you profoundly disagreed.

So customer service can get complicated and the customer is not always right, only nearly always! But even a refusal to deliver a service can be done in such a way as to meet good customer service standards.

Recognising Newport as a City of Service can only be a good thing for businesses in the area.

The better the standard of customer service you provide, the more your business will prosper.

Zep Bellavia is Managing Director of Newport-based solicitors and accountants Bellavia & Associates.

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