Way, way back in 2002 I penned a column on Customer Service. It appeared in some local (Philly/South Jersey) mags and I received quite a bit of response to it.

For some reason, on this particular day, I feel the need to dust the cobwebs off it and share it again.


“Can Anyone Help Me?”

(the demise of Customer Service in America)
By Steve Olenski
© 2002


“We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” – W.H. Auden

Customer Service. The dictionary defines the word customer as a person who buys goods or services, especially on a regular basis. The word service, as used in this context, is defined as an act of assistance or benefit to another or others.

My father — God rest his soul, worked for 35 years in the A&P supermarket chain. The last position he held up until his retirement was that of District Supervisor — which in those days was a very powerful one in that he had a group of stores where he controlled nearly everything but price. In fact, just about everyone in my family at one point or another in their life worked in a supermarket. Three of my brothers, my sister and myself all met their future and current spouses in, where else? … a supermarket.

My father would always preach to us that price was not necessarily the driving factor behind which particular supermarket a consumer would patronize. While he did admit price certainly played a role, he constantly preached that the two things people looked for was a clean store and good (customer) service. He swore by this: If you provide a clean location, are nice to people and treat them right, they won’t mind paying a little more for their groceries.

Now understandably a clean store or location does not apply to all services. For example, we don’t care that an auto mechanic keeps an untidy garage. But we should expect to receive quality customer service from that mechanic. In fact we demand it — and if we don’t demand it, we should. It is every customer’s right to expect good customer service. And I’m not just referring to saying “thank you” after we make a purchase. That’s not enough. That’s being re-active. I mean taking the time, depending on the service or goods being purchased, to be pro-active. To inquire of us, the customer, if there’s anything else they — the employee, could help us with. If we understand how to use that tool we just rented or bought, or ‘Would you care to see the matching pillow cases that go with the sheets you just bought?’ or ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

I don’t think this is asking too much. Do you?

Remember the definition for customer? A buyer of goods or services on a regular basis. The operative words being regular basis. What most companies seem to have lost sight of is that their ultimate success or failure is based on the repeat customers, not the ones who try their product, service, etc., once and move on.

If you have had a bad experience with a company due to poor customer service — are you ever going to go back? Probably not.

I don’t really know when we as a society got like this — that receiving good customer service became the exception rather than the rule. But that’s exactly where we’re at, and it’s unfortunate. Now this isn’t to say that all customer service is bad. There have been reported incidents where someone actually received quality customer service. These reports cannot be confirmed at this time. I’m exaggerating of course. It’s just that receiving good customer service is the exception — or better still, rare.

In the past few years I have had experiences with some major companies and the customer service I received was, for lack of a better term, mind-boggling. I don’t know any other way to describe it. Not surprisingly my family, friends and co-workers have also had some truly amazing incidents involving major companies and the complete lack of quality customer service.

NOTE: By no means is poor customer service reserved only for larger companies.

Now there must be some explanation for this. Is it that companies just don’t care anymore? No, I don’t think it’s that. At least the optimist in me hopes that’s not the case. No, what I think is at the root of this ever-growing epidemic is quite simply this: the majority of companies, Mom & Pop stores and smaller companies aside, are hiring more and more younger and inexperienced employees. Not surprisingly they
have a very high turn-over rate, meaning these companies take the approach of ‘why bother to train them, if they’re not going to stay anyway?’ Of course, all of this leaves you and I to… well, fend for ourselves.

To sum up, the words “customer service,” when used together, is a misnomer of sorts. There will always be buyers of goods and services. What type of assistance they receive is another story.

Til next time.

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