We Asked For It

Some folks will tell you Customer Service has become an oxymoron, illustrating this contention with anecdotes of how poorly they/their mother/a friend were treated at Store X. I try to see it from both sides of the counter.

My grand-daughter recently became a supervisor at a department store in a large mall. She’s a friendly kid (my seniority allows me to use the k-word), the kind you hope helps you when you need it. She gets along well with fellow employees, too, and keeps on top of what needs to be done. Lately she’s been less involved with merchandise than customers. And complaints. I’m sure she’s learned The Golden Truth already: The customer is always right. Even when they’re wrong. Yeah, I added that last part: two people called her store this week and yelled (she’s young, with good hearing) to emphasize their displeasure. And, ultimately, after the problems were sorted out, they were wrong. And hung up without a sorry or thank you. My bet is, they’ll tell their friends how badly Customer Service treated them.

I’ll also wager I wouldn’t have to walk far, in the same store, to find an employee who’d offer only limited assistance were I to ask (note to same: fold the clothes after you speak to the customer. Give them your attention).

There’s a camera store in the same mall, but they don’t really want to help you—they want to sell you something. There’s the difference. Service is listening, asking the right questions after a customer has (with your help) figured out what they need, and then offering choices that the store carries (or can order, if it’s not a stock item). Service is not simply saying “What can I get you today?” You might not like the answer.

Our town has always been tough on camera stores. A few great ones, now long gone, come to mind—places where you could actually hold a Leica! With different lenses! And—the salesperson knew how it worked (because they owned one). These were tiny hole-in-the-wall shops located downtown, before the Big Boxes (and stupefying malls) sprang up and the city’s core area dried up. Stock was piled in the only direction possible—upwards. And (I’m not making this up) you were likely to be waited on by the owner. All the people who worked in these stores at least seemed like photographers themselves. They had great stories to tell, many of them true.

But one-by-one they died, victims of human buying nature: their prices were seen as being too high, and the fancier franchise stores quickly took most of their business. Later, I worked at a store that attempted to bring back the old model, but it fell on the same sword. Lower prices, not service of the first order, were what customers wanted. And that’s exactly what we got.

I want to end this semi-nostalgic mini-rant by pointing to a store I’ve recently shopped at, Outdoor Photo Gear. I don’t know if they have coffee on behind the counter—because they’re an online retailer. But they had what I wanted at a fair price, shipping was free (and fast), and they thanked me in writing for shopping with them. It was nice to see an owner’s signature again.

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