'Tis the season for giving good customer service
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

We are in the full swing of the holiday retail season, and people are interacting with retail clerks and business owners more than other time of year. It’s easy to overlook the importance of these people who are helping us.

As the owner of a small retail store, I notice how I am helped in other stores. Good sales people don’t hover but are available. They can sense when a person might need assistance and know where everything in the store is. When asked, they can offer an honest, informed opinion as to the merits and demerits of each item, helping the customer choose the most appropriate. They try to be pleasant and helpful.

Good customer service is a calling. It’s not just about selling things, it’s about helping people meet their needs, making their lives better in some small way.

And it’s about making people feel better about themselves. However, when a salesperson is disrespectful to a customer, it can strip them of their dignity, question their very self-worth. When people leave a store feeling unhappy because they were treated with contempt, this is shameful and violates our calling.

I had such a sad experience the other day. At one store, I saw a man be treated very badly and leave in disgust. I then received the same for asking to carefully open a bag at the counter to better see the contents folded up inside. I was informed that the bag was clear for a reason and given an angry lecture.

Over time, I have witnessed many such unhappy incidents:
• Hostile unwillingness to help customers find anything or to accommodate them in any request, no matter how nicely asked.
• Passive-aggressive rudeness. (“It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”)
• When asked a question, citing a rule in response. And if questioned again, loudly repeating it in a voice one might use with exceptionally slow-witted children.
• Angry shouting if a hapless customer overlooks the rule forbidding cell phone usage.

Such actions seem designed to make customers feel that everything they do is wrong. And they leave customers — especially loyal ones — embarrassed for the way the store’s staff treats people.

And, sure enough, looking online I found that other customers had many similar experiences.

This particular store stays in business because the selection is good and the prices are low — so people (including me) try to ignore the rudeness.
But this kind of service is a blight on our profession. It illustrates two main problems, from which we can learn:
• 1) Believing rules are more important than people.
• 2) Unwillingness to go out of our way to help customers.

Customers can be difficult and rules are necessary. But focusing on customers’ faults, actively looking for their failure to follow rules, only makes us unhappier and poorer.
Often an exception doesn’t cost or inconvenience us much, if at all.

And helping people sometimes requires going out of our way when someone has an extra need, thereby earning their gratitude and goodwill. Being reasonably flexible and assuming that customers mean well is important to our mental health.

I will try to shop at this store again, if the owner will let me. I’ll keep trying to follow the rules, even when they’re not clear, and look away when the staff mistreats someone who has no idea what he did wrong.

But it’s extremely sad to witness such an abuse of our profession, which demands that customers — human beings — be helped with compassion and respect.

When shopping this week, don’t forget to thank the person who helps you.