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The little irritations of poor customer service

Sunday, September 30, 2012
Look happy, be attentive and wear an apron. Okay, you can leave that last part out.
It was back around, ooh, February I think.

We were at Dick Smith, which is an electronics store here in Australia. I was doing my bricks-and-mortar research on computers, having already done the online kind and gotten in the ballpark of what I wanted.

Mrs Speech and I wandered around the laptops. The tech specs for each machine were on A4 flyers tucked underneath in little pigeon holes, only they had been mass-misfiled and no flyer matched the computer it was underneath.

We spent ample time looking confused. No help was forthcoming.

Finally I sauntered over to the checkout, and asked for help. The girl had dyed hair and a facial piercing I can't quite recall. No biggie. She can look however she wants as long as she helps me.

"So, I'm looking for abc computer, with an xyz graphics card."

"Um, okay."

"Can you help me find that?" She wandered over to the flyers and began to sort through them, her apathy bleeding through every sigh and unpleasant facial expression.

"Um, you can look at the flyers. They show what the computer has."

"Yes, I did that...they're mixed up."

"Um, okay. I don't know." She looked through more flyers and began half-heartedly rearranging them. That was going to be a twenty minute job. She had this passive-aggressive thing going on that suggested I was taking up her time.

"Do you work in...computers?"

Seriously, am I keeping you from something more important?

"No. No-one works in any particular department anymore. We all do the whole store."


Long story short, she reluctantly found someone else to help me, who knew what I needed to know. We left without making a purchase.

Is there anything more omnipresently irritating in modern western consumer life, than bad customer service? Is there anything that can, as consistently, get you to grind your teeth in frustration?

Your service needs some first aid

We were recently at the mall. We ducked into the chemist to find out how much some bandages were. Our local pharmacy is awesome and sells them on the cheap.

We hit the first aid section and squeezed past an older lady customer who chose to not move even though she had ample room on her side of the aisle. Again, no biggie. She was obviously distracted speaking to the pharmacy employee who was assisting her.

Mrs Speech and I tried to find the bandage for a couple of minutes. I think we looked appropriately lost and in need of help, displaying all the signals:

  • Shrugging shoulders
  • Looking around aimlessly
  • Picking up various items, looking at the packaging, then putting them back
  • Shaking head
  • Mumbling things like, "no, I guess they don't have it."

Pharmacy employee was three feet to our right when this occurred. But when she had finished helping older lady, she turned on her heel and left. You'd have to be a goldfish not to pick up on the signals we were displaying.

In the digital economy, you don't get to be this bad at retail service. And, ironically, his job is now owned by a bank of servers.
Then there was the girl at Rebel Sport (I'm not picking on the girls, honest. I've had some fantastic service from women over the years). We were looking for running shoes as our walks were taking on the hardship of one of those brutal twelve hour triathlons.

I waited four feet from her, holding a shoe I wanted to try on. Aren't they supposed to acknowledge your presence, you know, sort of "I'll be with you in a minute" ? That sort of thing? When we finally got her attention she was lovely but before then I felt like the invisible man.

Watch me invisibly walk out the door with a pair of shoes I haven't paid for. Then see how quick you pay attention to me.

This is a serious issue beyond personal irritation. Australian retail did not get the jump it wanted last Christmas. For the past couple of years sales have been sluggish, even though our economy is strong.

But when you can buy most anything online and save yourself time and money doing so, why would you drive to your local, put up with parking issues (Westfield is charging to park at some of its malls), crowds, rude gen-z schoolies, and all the rest of it, just to be ignored, sighed at, patronised and otherwise passively neglected?

Power Retail pulls no punches. Australian businesses suck at customer service. They're awful. They don't bother.

The report also shows that two-thirds of Australians will abandon a sale due to poor customer service, while more than half will spend more with a company that is able to provide good service.

Kids come up through the ranks of the fast food franchises learning personal organisation and point-of-sale technique. But they don't learn how to be professional in their service. It can be like talking to an eggplant, some of these kids. I was the same way when I was fifteen. You have to teach them.

If not, they become part-time salespeople in their early twenties who fumble with flyers under computers while demonstrating that you are absolutely, taking up their time and HOW DARE YOU DO THAT.

........His name was Sonny

After Mrs Speech and I left Dick Smith, we visited another computer retailer named Harvey Norman. They had a computer I was interested in. Salesman could see I was interested.

I asked if I could spread the payments out over layby rather than put down the whole amount at once. No deal.

How come?

"Well, computers are you know, advancing so quickly, you could you know, get two months into a layby, change your mind, and then, you know, we're stuck with an obsolete machine."

Gerry Harvey kind of looks like the Russian Back Channel guy from The Sum Of All Fears. That was such an ordinary movie.
Uh-huh. If computer technology truly advanced that quickly, the friendly android from iRobot would be sorting our socks for us by next year.

That layby thing is a policy issue and Harvey Norman has its own set of management concerns that will do them in, in the end. They're run by an older dude who frowns upon this internet thing as a way of snagging customers and who generally exudes a crusty, inflexible attitude to retail proceduralism.

Then there was the time - I can still make Mrs Speech laugh while acting it out - before we were married when we were in Chicago for the day, and we wandered into a jeweller, browsing for engagement rings.

Kind saleswoman showed us one or two, and as soon as we expressed the slightest interest (literally five minutes in) she plopped a block of in-triplicate forms on the counter and proceeded to sign us up for a payment plan.

To this day, when I'm walking through a store and a salesperson asks if I need help, I think of that moment, look them directly in the eye and tell them I'm just browsing around. They back off.

I can seriously think of a dozen similar stories to share but after a while I think you'd be even more bored than you perhaps are now.

You feel my pain, right?

But eveyone's got 'em. I don't know you but I know you have similar stories.

And it's killing the retail sector. As I said, if the cost and convenience of shopping online isn't enough, poor service will absolutely destroy brick and mortar. It's the last straw.

It's flipped completely and become a buyer's market and former icons are suffering for decades of inaction on this vital issue: treat me well, and I might return. Don't, and you'll see the back of me quickly.

Don't call me mate, or luv, or - if you ever want a sale from me - 'darl', don't try to be my friend, DO wear appropriate clothing to work, don't push extra stuff on me I don't need, don't ignore the signals.

Your business depends on getting cash from my wallet to your till.

Yes, please.
One of my earlier experiences with customer service was when I was at university. I came back from a lecture one day and stopped at a cafe in the Myer Centre. They had good lasagne and I was feeling mildly Romanesque so I rocked up to the counter.

There were two trays of lasagne: the one on the left looked like it might have been rejected by the starving kids on a World Vision commercial. Curled and cloyed together as with glue that pre-schoolers use, its pale,dry rancidity was eclipsed in pure desperation by the steaming pan it was still sitting in.

As though the fact that steam rising from it could convince a guy that it was still fresh.

Pan on the right had new lasagne. Legitimate steam rose from its freshly cooked cheese, neatly cut squares of Italian delight topped with non-wrinkled tomato.

Said to man behind the counter, "Can I get a lasagne, please."

He begins to plate up the stuff from five years earlier.

"Um, actually...d'you reckon I could have some from that newer pan?"

He looks at me challengingly.

"do you want it or not, mate?"

That cafe is no longer there.
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