It is looking positively perky, despite the scepticism of Mary Portas. A new survey reveals increased satisfaction levels, with supermarkets coming out on top. Rob Brown reports

Mary 'Queen of Shops' Portas reckons good service isn't just "resting" - it's as dead as John Cleese's parrot.

Service with a smile? Forget it, she says, it's more likely to come with a sneer or a shrug of indifference.

And that's not good enough, especially compared with the five star treatment shoppers get in the US and Japan. But is customer service in the UK really that bad?

For anyone who's waited an age at the customer service desk, struggled to get the attention of a 'colleague' mid-gossip or asked where an item is only to be directed to the opposite side of the store, the automatic answer is 'yes' and there's no doubt there are plenty of examples of bad service out there.

But their number is waning so much so, that customer satisfaction in the UK is reaching new heights, according to the Institute of Customer Service.

Its UK Customer Satisfaction Index, seen exclusively by The Grocer and released next Monday, reveals that the overall satisfaction score has risen over the past year. And guess what? Supermarket shoppers are the UK's most satisfied, with food retailers registering the highest score 81 of the 13 sectors surveyed.

Better still, it's not just the usual suspects that are winning in what Julian Chamberlain, MD of mystery shopping company, Retail Active, describes as "the new battleground for retailers".

Although Waitrose and Marks & Spencer predictably top the rankings, Iceland is third and only one, the Co-op, came in with a score under the cross-industry average. So much for Portas's claim that "the service industry has become a faceless I couldn't give a monkey's business".

In grocery, at least, nothing could be further from the truth, believes ICS CEO Jo Causon. "We're seeing a renaissance in customer service," she says. "There is a growing understanding that to differentiate your business, good customer service is the way to go. Retailers recognise that we have less money in our pockets and are considering where we spend our money much more closely."

The generally strong performance from food retailers is testament to their increased investment. Training budgets and spending on customer feedback are on the up across the sector, with Waitrose spending £300,ooo on training 634 staff between 2008 and last year, up 7% on the previous two years. Mystery shopping companies, meanwhile, report record sums being spent on monitoring customer service. Many supermarkets are even running schemes rewarding staff who meet the grade in mystery shopping trials with instant cash.

Some retailers don't seem to be as good at customer service as others, however. The Co-operative Group has the least satisfied shoppers, according to the index, with Lidl and Tesco only marginally ahead.

Some put the Co-op's poor performance down to the structure of the business the fact that stores bearing the Co-op name could belong to any one of the 19 regional Co-ops in the UK or the nationwide Co-operative Group.

"On a local level they are probably doing well but they are lacking the consistency of other organisations," says Jonathan Winchester, MD of mystery shopping service provider Shopper Anonymous.

The Co-operative Group itself blames the "major upheaval" in hundreds of outlets caused by the integration of Somerfield into its estate.

"These changes to ranges, systems and processes covered both Somerfield and Co-op stores and involved major retraining exercises for our staff," says a spokesman. "We continue to invest heavily in improving all aspects of our store operations, which is beginning to bear fruit in terms of customer service."

Tesco insists it too will "continue to invest significantly" in customer service. "We listen to our 20 million customers every day so that we can continually improve their shopping trip," says a spokesman. "We hold our own regular customer surveys and focus groups to understand our customers' experiences with us. We receive excellent feedback from many customers. However, we are not complacent and are always looking to improve."

Tesco's big challenge will be to deliver exactly the level of customer service its shoppers expect. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer clearly do a good job of this, but so does Iceland with a score of 82 (two points above Causon's benchmark for "world class" service). Expectations are key and there is an argument that when it comes to budget players, they are somewhat lower, so easier to exceed.

That doesn't mean that businesses like Iceland aren't dramatically increasing their focus on customer care. Last year, it launched a customer care training programme and it also runs a mystery shopping programme offering incentives to staff that deliver good customer service.

"We put huge effort into engaging our colleagues about their job and the company, and in return we ask them to work hard on how they interact with their customers," says Nick Canning, the retailer's executive director for people and customers. "This involves doing the right thing in each individual circumstance and not just following a process."

Customer focus is driven from Malcolm Walker at the top of the organisation down, he adds. "It has been embedded into the company values, management capabilities, training and performance reviews."

It has to be if retailers are to deliver strong customer service day in day out. "The real art of customer service isn't just in achieving a high standard, it's achieving it consistently," says Rob Collins, personnel director at Waitrose. "So how do we ensure we don't become complacent in an environment where customers are quite rightly asking for more from us?"

For Waitrose the answer comes in three parts. Firstly, each of the 45,000 "partners" who work for it share in the company's profits, so it's in their personal interest to ensure customers are served consistently well and come back for more. Secondly, says Collins, customer service remains its central focus, with the Waitrose board analysing its performance against a number of parameters every month. The third pillar is ensuring staff are well trained and knowledgeable.

"We are spending more and more on service and there has been a lot of investment on training," says Collins. "Ultimately we want to drive loyalty to Waitrose and that comes out of the relationship our customers have with us. The huge distinguishing factor is our people. It's really important that they not only have the knowledge they need but that we keep it up to date."

It's also vital staff take a proactive approach towards customer service. Understanding the importance of showing, instead of just telling a consumer, where a product is, can make all the difference as can responding quickly to a customer query or quickly opening a till when the queues are growing. "Yes, customers are put off by long queues but what puts them off more than anything is having long queues and seeing tills unmanned," notes Jeremy Michael, MD of customer experience research company SMG.

The way retailers handle complaints is another critical factor, adds Winchester. "One important thing is training, but the other is having the right process in place so staff members can deal with complaints quickly and efficiently and don't have to get a manager," he says. "So if you come in with a faulty product it can be dealt with instantly."

And, presumably, not be told your dead parrot is resting.

What exactly is good service?

We asked mystery shopping companies, training providers and retailers for the do’s and don’ts of customer service

Pretty Pollys
1. Well-designed stores
"The trick to getting service right is understanding the customer journey," says Retail Active's Julian Chamberlain. This boils down to simple things like making sure entrances are welcoming and products are well signalled

2. Knowledgeable staff
Retailers with staff that understand the products they're selling, have specialist knowledge (in the wine aisle, for instance) or the required preparation skills (on the meat and fish counters, for example) tend to have happier punters

3. Good manners
Good manners cover a multitude of sins, according to research by The Resource Group. Shoppers can forgive an untucked shirt or even an inability to help with a query, so long as staff are polite, it says. And manners are free

4. Faster queues
Nobody likes to queue. But in busy times a wait is sometimes inevitable. SMG UK suggests the "snake queue" can keep dissatisfaction to a minimum, giving shoppers the perception a queue is moving more quickly

5. Delivering the goods
These days good service doesn't begin and end at the store door. To keep shoppers sweet retailers need to deliver on their promises, say experts. That means making sure online service matches that in store

Dead parrots
1. Poor complaint handling
The Co-op, Lidl and Tesco all fell down in the UKCSI thanks to shoddy handling of complaints. Experts say a swift response is key. In short, if a customer returns a parrot because it's dead, don't do a Palin

2. Unmanned tills
Research by SMG UK suggests shoppers will keep their cool even if they are kept queueing for four minutes, so long as staff are seen to be doing everything possible to keep the queue moving. Unmanned tills set blood boiling

3. A lack of professionalism
A major gripe identified in the UKCSI. This covers everything from the general appearance of staff to product and store lay-out knowledge. Those that scored highly were those with staff willing to go that extra mile for customers

4. Inconsistent service
Customer service needs to be ingrained into a company, according to UKCSI winner Waitrose. If customers cannot rely on good service in every store, expectations will not be met and loyalty will be lost

5. Self-service
SMG UK cites self-service checkouts as a potential flashpoint. Sure, they're fine if they're working well and used properly, but authentication problems and barcode misreadings can make shoppers see red