By Sharon Glancy, Director of the People 1st Training Company

The tickets have now been purchased and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is inching ever closer. It’s anticipated that up to half a million visitors will arrive in Britain, offering an outstanding opportunity to showcase the UK. From an economic perspective, many businesses will profit and SMEs need to ensure they get just as many opportunities to benefit as larger businesses.

All eyes will be on Britain and it is not too strong to say that London 2012 will be deemed a success or failure on the strength of how well we welcome and look after our international guests.

Good customer service makes business sense

It is imperative for businesses that want to make the most of the estimated £2 billion generated from visitors during the Olympics, to invest in the people who will be on the front line, hosting our visitors and acting as ambassadors for the rest of the country. Our research has shown that 68% of businesses in the UK which implemented customer service training said generating repeat business was a key benefit while 18% said they saw increased sales.

Anecdotally we know that SME’s are stealing a march on larger companies by being more likely to offer good customer service. Smaller businesses often have the advantage of getting to know their customers very well and have the local knowledge to provide a more personal touch.

However, the bigger picture in the UK is that our customer service needs attention. While we may have the cultural and historical attractions that appeal to visitors, we lack service with a smile. Our recent poll of the general public revealed that 73% agree that Britain needs to improve customer service ahead of the Olympics and just 14% think Britain’s hospitality and how we welcome guests is the aspect that will most ensure we are a good host to international visitors during London 2012.

The UK is ranked a disappointing 14th in the international customer service rankings and 13th for its perceived ‘Welcome’ by the annual Nation Brand Index Survey. And our State of the Nation 2010 research report highlighted that 65% of businesses were reporting skills gaps and that stated staff lacked necessary customer service skills.

A new standard for customer service training

As the sector skills council for the hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism industries, we are already doing something to address the standard of customer service training in the UK. We have launched a campaign to train 200,000 hospitality and tourism staff ahead of the London 2012 using a customer service training programme developed by the Canadian province of British Columbia and used successfully at the Vancouver Winter Olympics to train 39,000 volunteers and tourism staff last year.

With the support of VisitEngland, we have adapted the WorldHost training programme for use in the UK and we are now working with businesses to engage their staff with customer service training.

Feedback from SME businesses that have experienced WorldHost training has been positive. Andrew Webb, owner of Seafront Apartments who attended the training in North Tyneside, said he got a lot out of it and was looking forward to putting it into practice with his prospective customers.

Catering for those with disabilities

In addition to its customer service training, there are additional learning modules including serving customers with disabilities, service across cultures and the ambassador workshop, particularly aimed at volunteers assisting visitors to our country.

Businesses shouldn’t lose sight of serving those with disabilities. Over ten million people are classified as having a disability in the UK — equivalent to 20 percent of businesses’ customer base. Over a year this market is worth £80 billion. Businesses will be short sighted if they don’t harness the power of the Paralympic Games and ensure their service is accessible and disability-friendly. Good customer service is essential; 66% choose businesses renowned for good customer service and 83% have taken their business to a more accessible competitor.

Tips for improving communication with customers who have disabilities:

- Treat all customers as you would like to be treated
- Make no assumptions or generalisations
- Pity is not an emotion that disabled people appreciate
- Disabled people are not all alike
- There are ranges of abilities and not everyone requires or wants your help
- Do not let one bad experience cloud your judgement
- Do not patronise
- Do not be afraid to ask what you can do to help

Go for business gold

SME businesses that capture the spirit and significance of the Olympics to galvanise staff and inspire customers and business prospects will be winners during the Games.