At Your Service?

If anybody’s interested, I think I might have a solution for businesses and government entities caught in the economic crunch, trying to do more with less. Not “the” answer, perhaps, but “an” answer.

It’s a two-word suggestion: customer service, a pretty simple concept and a pretty cost-effective one. If you’re a business, you treat the customers you have well and they are likely to come back and spend their money with you. If you’re a government agency, dealing with people who really don’t have a choice when it comes to the services you provide, you nonetheless provide services competently, so you don’t have to waste time – and money – handling complaints and redoing what you did incorrectly in the first place.

To illustrate the point, I offer some highly subjective examples based on a visit to the mall and on a long, frustrating attempt to get some information from my county water department.

First the shopping. It’s no secret that retail businesses are hurting. So wouldn’t that suggest that a little extra effort on the part of the salespeople, directed toward customers who actually show up to make purchases, would be a good idea? I’m envisioning something beyond simply ringing up the sale for the customer who has already done the work of finding what she is looking for. Maybe a mild pleasantry, on the order of, “Is there anything I can help you with?” No groveling, no fawning, just a little service.

A recent trip to a department store with relatively few shoppers, where I waited for one salesperson to finish her conversation with another before she acknowledged me, yielded a semi-bored, “Are you ready now?” (No, I wanted to say, I just thought it would be fun to stand next to the cash register holding a stack of towels. But I didn’t.) It’s not that the woman was rude, but her demeanor wasn’t exactly what you’d expect of the representative of a major national retail chain that spends millions of dollars in advertising trying to lure customers into its store.

By contrast, the next store I entered was actually bustling with customers and had lines at three cash registers. I, of course, had found my usual spot behind the person with the most complicated transaction of the day – something involving returns, credits, gift certificates, discounts and maybe a foreign currency or two. Or so it seemed.

But this store was different, in that the employees were alert, cheerful and efficient. They noted the crowd, opened another register, rearranged the waiting customers, apologized for the delay and even managed to wish everyone a pleasant afternoon and sound as though they meant it.

I can’t help thinking that there might be a correlation between the sales staff attitudes and the volume of business at the two places.

On to the public sector: I’ve lost track of the number of times I have called my county’s water department (five? six?) in the last few weeks, seeking an answer to what I think is a reasonable billing question. I understand there is no particular incentive for department employees to make me happy; it isn’t like I can take my business elsewhere.

But I would like to know why our bill went up almost 300 percent, from one billing period to the next, when there has been no change we can determine in our water use and there are no leaks that we’ve been able to find.

I’m not trying to get out of paying what we owe – in fact, I paid the bill because I didn’t want to be dumped into the deadbeat category or have our water cut off.

The pattern is that I call up, leave a very polite message and a phone number or two and someone promises to call back or have a supervisor call – but it doesn’t happen. Once I was given a six-digit “service number,” which made me hopeful; another time someone suggested the water meter might be “messed up.”

But nobody has ever returned a call – at this point even a message confirming my suspicion that no one has the slightest interest in my problem would seem like progress. I’m not holding my breath, but I am thinking warm thoughts about customer service and wishing it wasn’t in such short supply.

Categories: Business Casual