Monday, September 13, 2010

Whatever happened to customer service?

You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied. ~ Jerry Fritz

Despite the fact that I'm a yoga instructor, a bibliophile, a blogger, a wife and mother, a frequent traveler, a daughter, a friend and a dog owner, I'm also a customer. I have various needs (and wants) that I shop for...and like most people, I would like to go to those places in which my needs can met for the best prices.We're on a strict budget, as just about every other family is these days. Why overpay if I can purchase a gallon of milk at half the price? Why go somewhere out of my way, if I can save a few pennies closer by? What's the point of frequenting a series of tiny, "Mom and Pop" stores, if I can do all my shopping in one place? The answer is simple: customer service. The smaller Main Street stores, for the most part, tend to honestly care about what the consumer's experience is when she walks into their stores.

This subject, which is not a typical Preppy Yogini inspirational sermonette, is an important one: smaller stores, whose owners truly have a personal interest in each of their customers, are being forced out of business. I have always believed in healthy competition in the business world. Despite my love for excellence, I have always held with a belief in the freedom of choice in the marketplace, a "laissez-faire" attitude in business and the survival of the economic fittest. I never understood why folks would picket and protest when a Home Depot was going to go into town, or why a K-Mart would hurt Main Street shops. Having recently experienced, by far, the worst shopping experience of my life at Wal-Mart yesterday, I now understand the cause for concern. Having been met with empty shelves, a surly and bitter staff and immovable lines to pay, I realized that my choices for finding decent bath towels are now almost gone. The nice home goods store in my small town has vanished, simply sliding out of existence in the presence of the big box stores' shiny beckoning packaging. But once the luster of having everything from athletic socks to window cleaner in one place wears off, we are left with no other choice but to remain hostage to an apathetic, unpredictable and inferior place to shop. And, that's our only option.

Customer service, in everything from large stores to postal shipping, has taken a downturn. It's hard to get anyone to answer the phone when you call a consumer hotline. After meandering through a maze of non-applicable numerical choices, we're still left with our problems regarding a broken dishwasher we've only just purchased. At some point, the bottom line of saving money became more urgent than accountability in service. As such, the market responded, and we, as the public, are left without help, without caring and without the ability to buy bath towels when we need them. And, we really only have ourselves to blame, since we, ourselves, showered the consumer market with our response to "Low, low prices". Sadly, with those rock bottom deals, comes rock bottom attitudes. We can't get the manager behind the service desk to make eye contact, while she's on a personal phone call, we can't figure out why our television cable won't work because the local office no longer accepts incoming calls and we can't understand the reason our gas card has stopped working, even though the payment is up to date.

Is it too late to feel valued as a customer? Have the times progressed beyond helpfulness, cheerfulness and problem solving? Are we willing to live with substandard responses to our queries just to save a dollar? I don't believe so. It is my opinion that people are fed up with a lack of appreciation and choice. People inherently want to feel enthusiastically welcomed and esteemed. Consumers want to know that they are highly respected for choosing to shop in any one store. I'm not a businesswoman. I don't have an MBA from Harvard Business School. Yet, I know that, as I talk to people who come to my own yoga classes, they understand there are many choices in yoga teachers, and I make certain that each student feels cherished when she comes to class. Additionally, I feel the same way when I make my purchasing decisions. Do I want to be insulted and left to fend for myself at an immense concrete city block of a store, or do I want to have a positive experience...even if it's slightly more expensive? The place that I have arrived to, in my own consumerism, is that I'd rather have better quality, a more positive experience, and fewer "things".

Many years ago, my father, Jim Lavenson, wrote a speech called Think Strawberries. In it, he movingly tells the story of his own career in the hotel industry, and how powerfully exceptional customer service can make, or break, a business. Because I grew up with my dad's philosophy, not just at work, but at home, the ideals of friendliness, hospitality, helpfulness and going 'above and beyond' for those with you, became second nature to me. Dad was lauded for this spech, and it went on to be published in several magazines, as well as included in most college Hotel & Restaurant Management courses. I grew up immersed in "quality over quantity", with the belief that caring about other people really does make a difference and customer appreciation makes an enormous difference. My own inability to pass up a 'bargain' here and there led to my own discount shopping. Sadly, this decision by me, and by thousands of other shoppers like me, has led to fewer choices for us.

So, what do we do now? We make a point of shopping at the remaining, or newly opened, stores in which we feel valued. We take the time to go to a variety of stores, rather than 'one stop shopping', in order to support small businesses. We seek out locally grown, locally made and locally sold products. We thank the companies that *do* appreciate us, and let them who, on their staff, was especially helpful. Above all, we tell the larger companies exactly *why* they are losing our business. We even drive a little out of our way to frequent stores that fit our standards.

This will not change the world. It will not end wars, famine or disease. But, it will be bring striving for premium services back into vogue, and give rise to a movement towards higher standards in our shopping. As the notable Bill and Ted have said "Be excellent to each other". I believe this applies to customer service too...even if strange things are not afoot at the Circle K.