Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 11, 2004

Customer service counts

Here’s some free advice for anyone thinking of starting a business in South County, or anywhere for that matter: Customer service counts.

Throughout the Bay Area, customer service levels have sunk so low that just a half-hearted effort at treating customers better would make any business shine compared to its competitors.

Simple efforts make a big difference. I’m amazed at how few cashiers say “thank you” to customers after taking their money. Even here in rural South Valley, customers can choose from among several businesses to purchase their school supplies or tennis shoes or lunches.

Despite that basic economic reality, a simple “thank you” is so rare from cashiers these days that I notice when they say it rather than when they don’t.

But it’s not only the more frequent, under-$100 purchasers that businesses take for granted. Purveyors of big-ticket items often fail miserably at meeting, let alone exceeding, customer expectations as well.

Recently my husband I were in the market for a new car. We negotiated purchase and trade-in prices and were ready to sign the paperwork. With two bored kids at the car dealership (for the record, this dealership is not in South County; the car in question is a make that’s not sold here) and bedtime approaching, we were anxious to finish the process.

We were told that it would take 10 minutes or so to seal the deal. Forty minutes later, we were still waiting for someone to present us with pages of legalese to sign.

In a stunning failure of basic customer service and etiquette, we were told – again – to wait a little longer. Instead, we left the dealership.

Sadly, that’s just one of multiple shoddy customer service stories I accumulated in a couple of days of car shopping.

I’ve held several customer service jobs – for an insurance agent, an insurance company, a computer service and a retailer. I’ve even manned the newspaper’s city desk. I know how hard jobs with lots of public interaction can be. But I also know that doing them with grace and etiquette makes a positive difference not only to a business’s bottom line, but to an employee’s daily work experience.

Especially in this struggling economy, I’m amazed that customer service is so shoddy. Given how much money businesses spend to lure customers to their establishments, I am constantly shocked at how little effort they put into ensuring customers will return.

***

On this third anniversary of Sept. 11, I’m moved to ponder how little we’ve changed since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, pundits and everyday folks talked about how America and Americans would be radically and forever different as a result. We’d value our neighbors, there’d be bipartisanship and cooperation in government, we’d vote.

But looking at the nasty political season that’s now in full swing, I don’t see much difference. We’re still waging presidential campaigns on sound bites and mud slinging instead of talking about issues and agendas. We’re still struggling to get people to the polls to cast ballots.

But you don’t have to look at the national scene – just look closer to home. We’re still grumbling about relatively petty concerns – garbage service and road work complaints rate newspaper space – and highways are still filled with rude, impatient drivers.

Although the U.S. has avoided another attack on its soil, terrorism seems to be on the rise worldwide in the last three years. Newscasts and newspapers are filled with stories of beheadings and hostage-takings, of suicide bombers and genocide.

I followed the news coverage of the horrific Russian school hostage crisis. The inhumanity of the terrorists, the tragic loss of life and the devastating impact on the survivors reminded me of the aftermath of Sept. 11. I wonder if Russians believe the event is a seminal one in their history.

But as for Americans, the loss of 3,000 people in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field as a result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks didn’t really change us in any fundamental way, I’ve concluded.

But here’s an important question: Is that a good thing? Does a lack of real change indicate strength of character in the face of adversity, or does it show a stubborn refusal to face reality?

How you answer those questions is probably an excellent predictor of which presidential ticket you’ll choose on Nov. 2, at least for those of us who bother to vote.

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