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The customer isn't always king

Published:Monday | May 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Robert Lalah

I felt a little peeved. The surly woman standing behind the counter yawned (again) before walking off. I had hoped to tell her what I wanted to buy. She was, after all, the cashier at the St Andrew pharmacy I had sauntered into that morning. Unfortunately for me, she had apparently not rested well the night before and clearly considered it a bother to be dealing with the likes of me so early in the day.

I overheard her say to one of her co-workers as she disappeared into a back room that she was gong to splash some water on her face. Perhaps that would revive her. Me? Well, I was left standing at the counter to ponder the meaning of life and other such complexities until she was done.

Now this wasn't my first time feeling the sting of vexing customer service. In fact, it wasn't my first time that day. But I hardly believe the gods of commerce have it in for me. I imagine instead that poor customer service is just that pervasive.

Who hasn't, after all, harboured a malicious thought for a less-than-attentive cashier at the tax office, or an impolite waiter at a restaurant? Poor customer service is like a thorn permanently lodged in the nether regions of the Jamaican consumer. What's surprising is that even as more persons go into business on their own and competition consequently gets more intense, there hasn't been a substantial elevation in customer service standards.

On the cellphone

I remember spending several minutes trying to convince a supermarket cashier that perhaps it would be better for us both if she waited until after she had finished checking out my purchases to talk politics on her cellphone. She put her index finger up and said, "Mi deh pan di phone!"

Poor customer service takes different forms, too. It's not always the angry store clerk piercing your soul with a contemptuous glare after you've asked her to repeat something. Sometimes you find yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely. You know, when a sales commission is involved and you're the near-sighted gazelle unwittingly wandering into a den of hungry lions. The second you step inside the store, they attach themselves to you, and like North Korean tour guides, they never leave your side.

Your every move is monitored, and as soon as you show even the slightest interest in an item, they begin offering to escort both it and you to the cashier. The crafty ones try to distract you with conversation. They'll ask about everything, from your job, to your family, favourite sports teams and culinary preferences. I guess the hope is you'll lose concentration and buy something without thinking it through.

This kind of interrogation should really qualify me for a fixed-rate mortgage or at least the kind of high-level security clearance that can get me a seat at the dinner table on Sunday between Barack and Michelle. It never does, though.

Hammer your point

Of course, I'm not saying I could do a better job. Not everyone has the talent to deal with (often hungry, tired and short-tempered) customers day in, day out. It can't be easy.

In August 2007, 76-year-old Washington, DC, native Mona Shaw got so frustrated with her phone company's customer service that she got her husband's hammer, drove to the company's office, went in and started smashing everything within reach. Wham! There went the receptionist's computer monitor. Bam! The telephone was next. Clank! Bye-bye, fax machine. At the end of the commotion, the golden-ager simply said, "Now do I have your attention?"

Now clearly the actions of Hammer Lady were ill-advised. She eventually had to pay a fine and was given a suspended sentence by a judge who told her she should have known better. But her frustration is understandable. I'm sure many of us have fantasised about doing something like this.

It would be better, though, if we could find a way, both customers and customer service representatives, to leave past experiences and personal trials behind and approach each other with mutual respect from the start. You be polite to me and I'll be equally courteous to you, if only for as long as it takes to complete a transaction. It doesn't seem that difficult. Now if only there was someone who could hammer it home to us.

Robert Lalah, assistant editor - features is author of the popular 'Roving with Lalah' feature. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and robert.lalah@gleanerjm.com.