How can I help you? Be nice

Customer service representatives can rankle and unnerve

Call me, would you? My number is 555-621-2037. Except, it's not. And if it was, you couldn't call me anyway because my cell phone is not working; it's "defective." That's the word they used — a diagnosis issued at two separate locations in two different states. The term caught me off guard — it felt like an indictment.

How does a phone I depended on and enjoyed for four useful months become abruptly nonfunctioning in the middle of an attempted call — and when I am alone in an unfamiliar city?

When it happened — just for a moment — I was not entirely sure what to do next. Do you realize how hard it is to find a pay phone these days — especially in an unfamiliar location? What if I used a walker or had mobility problems that made even looking for one impossible.

Fortunately, I don't have mobility issues — yet. And like many aging individuals, I try to be resilient in the face of life's little irritations, so I located a bank of phones about a block away and scrunched in front of crumpled fast-food bags listening to a mechanical voice on the not-very-sanitary mouthpiece repeatedly asking me to deposit 95 cents. Now I ask you — why 95 cents? It used to be a quarter — if the cost has to go up, why not two quarters, or even three — what's with the extra dimes? I am rummaging in my purse looking for change "¦ losing patience. Can you tell?

I got through the initial inconvenience with, I hope, some amount of grace. I've tried to maintain that grace as I attempt to remedy my problem. In the process, I've experienced moments of good customer service but a lot of beyond-the-pale-poor encounters with people paid to help you when your phone stops working. Do employers not understand that the person behind the desk or on the other side of a warranty query is the face of their company?

For example, I spoke with someone named "Kelly" who kept calling me "Dearie" and "Hon" (for 35 minutes and eight seconds). And then I talked to her supervisor, "Paul," for another block of time until he told me their "system was completely down" and "call back later." Kelly was the one who said she was sure I must have dropped my phone in water — and "by the way the warranty does not cover water damage "¦ hon."

This column is not about cell-phone angst, it's about good customer service. Or maybe it's about how important it is to be nice to each other when we encounter problems.

You know it when you see it. It means interacting with someone (a store clerk, a salesperson) who has a smile in their voice, some amount of genuine empathy and a desire to be responsive not just to "a" need, but to "my" need. It is an utter joy when those interactions go smoothly and easily — improves my whole day. Same for you?

Henceforth, when I witness pleasant-spirited, resolution-oriented customer responsiveness, I intend to compliment the person mightily.

By the way, thanks for listening — I feel a lot better now.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.


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