Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
81° F Dallas, TX

The Lost Art of Customer Service

Editor's Note: Some companies have forgotten how to treat their patrons with common decency.

In a still-sputtering economy with every customer dollar hard-won, you’d think good service would be a top priority for all companies. But if you did, you’d be wrong.

Sure, some progressive outfits, like Carrollton-based woot!, have adapted new service models based on value, transparency, and even humor. Other companies once known for good service have coasted on their reputations—no names, but you’d recognize them—and let their service slip while nickel-and-diming their customers to death. Still others, for whatever reason, seem to have given up on the concept altogether.

Consider the case of an upscale Dallas supermarket we’ll call “Luxury Grocers.” (Again, no names, because the point here is customer service—or the lack thereof—not bashing a retailer that may have a lot of otherwise well-meaning employees.) A couple of months ago, our D colleague Rhonda Reinhart was shopping at Luxury when she slipped on a puddle of spilled oil in the prepared foods section. She fell hard on her left knee, dropping her shopping basket and sending her salad flying. A fellow shopper quickly came to her aid, but that was about the last helpful gesture Rhonda would encounter at Luxury that day.

According to a story she wrote for D’s FrontBurner blog, the first store staffer on the scene simply mopped up the spill, without much comment and certainly, Rhonda wrote, without any apology. “Next on the scene is a man with a walkie-talkie. ‘Are you okay?’ he says. I say yes. ‘Someone is coming to talk with you,’ he says. Nothing else. No apology.”

Rhonda, who I’ve come to know as an honest and reliable person, says that at this point her knee was throbbing and her jeans and shoes were dripping with oil. Finally a third staffer shows up, Rhonda goes on, and “her first words to me [are]: ‘Oh, flip-flops.’ ‘This has nothing to do with flip-flops,’ I say. ‘It’s the huge oil spill in your floor.’ ”

This employee asks how the oil got on the floor and wants to know about injuries. (A swollen knee, a stiff neck, and a sliced-open finger, just for the record.) The staffer “tells me that ‘someone’ will be calling me in a few days to get more details …” Rhonda continues. “Realizing no apology—or common courtesy—is coming, I look down at my oil-stained clothing and ruined salad and tell [the employee] that I, too, am done. I will be leaving the store, sans purchases. [She] then smiles at me and says, ‘I hope your day gets better.’ ”

On FrontBurner, commenters proceeded to label Rhonda a crybaby and a drama queen. Some said that “slip-and-fall” injuries are a common scam in stores, and that Luxury Grocers was right not to offer any apology or expression of “guilt,” for fear of a lawsuit. Replied Rhonda: “Okay … maybe an apology is out of the question. But does kindness also admit liability? Would the offer of a chair to sit in … be an admission of guilt? Would the offer of a wet rag to help clear the oil off my clothing and feet be an admission of guilt? Would an offer to help me re-gather my groceries be an admission of guilt? Or would that just be considered good customer service?”

Her points are excellent. As D’s food writer Nancy Nichols also commented, Luxury Grocers prides itself on “customer satisfaction”—when it comes to Himalayan sea salt, anyway. And in sharp contrast to Luxury, Nancy went on, other enterprises like the Texas Rangers handle similar incidents with genuine concern.

Luxury Grocers, for its part, did follow up with a phone call to Rhonda from someone in its risk management department. That person said that she was sorry the incident occurred, and that she would forward Rhonda’s complaint to the store manager. (Rhonda hasn’t heard from the manager yet.) Later a Luxury spokeswoman said, in response to an inquiry from D CEO: “We apologize that Ms. Reinhart had a negative experience …”

Some might say Rhonda’s tale is making a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t think so. Especially in such tough times for retailing, why wouldn’t a company want to do everything in its power to treat its customer like an honored guest, with compassion and common courtesy, after an incident like this? (According to University of Phoenix experts, by the way, acknowledging the party’s distress, “being nice,” offering him or her a seat, and comping any products involved are the smartest ways for retailers to go in such situations.)

And, if they’re not treated that way, I wouldn’t blame customers a bit for exiting the store and never going back. Would you?