Strictly Business: Customer service a horror

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

It was just a tiny pumpkin.

And it was only $1.99, said the sign posted over the bin from which I plucked it from a crowd of look-alikes.

But when the grocery clerk tried to charge me $3.99 for that little gourd -- then argued with me over the price -- that miniature pumpkin caused my neighborhood grocery store to lose a client. That pumpkin has since become my personal symbol of a one-woman boycott. Since that incident a couple of weeks ago, I have not gone back to what was my regular going-home-from-work grocery stop.

You see, I tend to avoid spending my money in stores where the staff are quarrelsome and try to humiliate me with eye-rolling gestures aimed at the customers waiting in the embarrassingly long line behind me.

I tend to stick with the stores where the associates are trained to either take the customer's word for it or call for a price check. I'm inclined to shop in the places where people at least act as if I'm their friend.

It's a notion that sort of reminds me of when I was growing up in Stevenson, a two-grocery store town at the time. I remember, at a very young age, asking my mother why we always stopped at one of those stores and never the other.

"Because Mr. Gopel is our friend," was her matter-of-fact answer.

Anyhoo, I know it's useless and tiresome for an old, cranky person like me to complain about the demise of customer service. Who wants to listen? I'm even a bit bored myself.

Really, most of us who remember the concept of customer service realize it is passé, kaput. We need to stop whining and come to terms with it.

But that grocery store incident went beyond bad service and ventured into the realm of rude and uncalled-for. And I can name a few other recent examples (the way, way too-aggressive door-to-door salesman and the counter person at the dry cleaners who let several minutes tick by without making eye contact with me, her lone customer) that have me wondering about the content of today's customer service manuals.

I also wonder about the grocery chains that seem to be training their employees with only handbooks. Are the leaders of these businesses so confident in their never-ending share of the market?

After all, supermarkets are perhaps the most protected retail sector because their core offering -- food -- is something everyone has to buy. Food stores over the years have also increased their share of consumer dollars by adding other product lines, such as beauty products and pharmaceuticals, which they often can sell cheaper because of their scale and buying power.

Perhaps it's a profitable business model, especially when it's well managed by these new armies of aggressively trained customer service representatives. I guess time will tell now that the food-buying holidays are upon us.

But I, for one, believe these grocery businesses would realize far more profit by focussing on good old-fashioned, bend-over-backward friendliness to outdo the growing abundance of grocery competitors in Clark County.

They'd also do well to administer training on how to treat customers with respect, which means no arguing -- ever -- over a lousy pumpkin.