Got Customer Service? Get it Yourself! (Originally published 2007)

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Customer service is not dead. Taking its last gasping breaths, yes, but, as Monty Python would put it, “not quite dead.” I recently made an on-line purchase and discovered in the shipping confirmation that there was an address error. Naturally, the first live person I managed to contact assumed I had done something wrong when typing in my address. Probably – I’m not the most tech-savvy person. However, years ago no customer service person would dare suggest such a thing to a money-wielding shopper.

It used to be those in retail lived by the motto “The customer is always right.” Having been on the other side of the counter a few times, I know for a fact this isn’t true. Regardless, living by that rule made things much more pleasant.

Common courtesy and etiquette rules have mostly gone out the window when it comes to relations between customer and cashier. Or customer service representative, hospitality host, or whatever the politically correct term-du-jour may be.

I have witnessed my share of shoddy customer relations and know that it’s a direct reflection of our times. There’s a vicious cycle working over the counter of the cashier thinking the customer isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and vice-versa. I’m sure it may have always been this way, since the first caveman passed a few shells over the boulder for some flint, but what’s apparent now is that there’s no hesitation in expressing these feelings on either part.

I recently got my engagement ring back from a jeweler repairing a chip in the stone. It took almost nine weeks. Repeated phone calls for a progress report went unanswered week after week, and when I did get someone, it was always someone else’s fault: the gem-cutter’s. I was as nice as could be for as long as could be, but this was my engagement ring here, not some bauble I wouldn’t miss for over two months.

When I finally got to pick up my ring, the apologies were mumbled and paltry. Absolutely no effort was made to keep me as a customer. Clearly, they couldn’t care less if I ever returned. I had become “That” customer and I knew it, but their lack of attentiveness forced me into that role.

Believe me, I am not so naive as to think there aren’t just some plain nasty, self-righteous consumers out there. I’ve seen them. But I do know that a lot of people truly miss good customer service. These are the people who will sometimes shop high-end stores they can’t really afford just to get that level of service.

It has become apparent that some in the retail business don’t even know how to offer good service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited for items to be bagged while the employees are loudly discussing when their next break is, or what they did last night. I usually try to keep my head down and get out as fast as possible because a) I don’t like feeling like I’m inconveniencing anyone, and b) some of the things I’ve heard sound pretty close to illegal.

I’ve had one customer agent simply tilt a phone away from her mouth and glare at me while I waited for her to finish her personal call so I could ask a question. Rather than get into it with her, I took it up with her management. They needed to know that this was unacceptable, and she was more likely to listen to them than me. If we, as consumers, continue to put up with this type of behavior, nothing will ever change.

So the bright spot in this commentary is that I did have a good customer service experience recently. Back to the on-line purchase I made, I contacted a real person who made the corrections for me, catching the package before it ended up in a postal black hole. I thanked him profusely, telling him I had just about given up on customer service. He vowed to “single-handedly restore the concept”. He may very well have to. I hope his management took notice, and that a number of other folks out there are also listening.

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