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What Ever Happened to Customer Service? Meet Bette

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

What the world needs now is a customer service vigilante. Her name: Bette. (Bette is short for Better, as in Better Customer Service.)

Bette is not a caped crusader, though. Bette wears a 1980s skirt suit. The jacket has shoulder pads and an asymmetrical hem. The matching knee-length skirt is formfitting — not 21st century formfitting but pre-Herve Leger formfitting (i.e. touching, not hugging, her in all the right places). Bette wears black square-toe heels and maroon lipstick. Her cheeks are sometimes stained with excess rouge. She is attractive, but she’s formidable. The sound of her heels clicking against the floor makes you shudder.

Bette is my imaginary hero. She is the avenger whom I wish would pop up whenever a cashier yells, “Next!” instead of cheerfully asking, “May I help you?” (And, no, a sullen “May I help you” sans the lilt of a question mark doesn’t count.) I wish Bette were there to break up a conversation between two cashiers who are so busy talking to each other that they haven’t bothered to look up an see that I’ve been waiting at the register for 42.8 seconds. I want Bette to yank the telephone receiver out of a sales associate’s hand when she answers the phone on the first ring instead of answering my, “Where might I find…?” In my shopping fantasy, Bette would tsk-tsk the store attendant who refuses to give me a hand as I wrangle hangers while attempting to count my own items before entering the fitting room.

[pullquote]Bette is my imaginary hero. She is the avenger whom I wish would pop up whenever a cashier yells, “Next!” instead of cheerfully asking, “May I help you?”[/pullquote]

And Bette needn’t always show up in the flesh. She patches in on my call to the switchboard operator when I ask to speak to a specific person and I’m suddenly transferred without a “My pleasure” or a “Please hold.”

Now, these customer service attributes — sounding cheerful, being timely and lending a hand — might sound like supremely unrealistic expectations. They are examples of going above and beyond the duty, not just getting the job done, right? Wrong. Customer service is no longer serviceable when it’s rude.

I used to chalk up all my unsatisfactory in-store shopping experiences to “bad” customer service. But saying that it’s bad doesn’t tell the whole story of how employees and associates are missing the mark. It’s not that a cashier failed to successfully ring up my purchase; it’s that a cashier rolled her eyes (if she even lifted them at all) and stuck out her hand and gruffly muttered, “Gimme your stuff.” If bad customer service is what’s wrong with shopping, then bad manners are what’s wrong with customer service.

When did good customer service become a privilege not a right? One of my father’s signature moves at a diner is to pelt the waitress with detailed requests. (“Coffee hot, not warm. Hot. You got that? Eggs scrambled soft, not hard. I do mean soft. And that’s soft, not runny.”) Then, after she has followed his instructions precisely, Daddy will take her hand and give her a hefty tip with a pat on the back of congratulations. Sometimes he’ll even call her “Partner.” Growing up, this would embarrass my sister, stepmother and me. But Daddy would maintain that if someone “goes above and beyond the call of duty,” then they deserve the attention.

The call of duty is doing the job, facilitating or completing the transaction. Customer service is doing it with the satisfaction of the customer in mind.

So much of life is DIY and opening your own doors. Shopping (and dining and preparing to board an airplane) should be the equivalent of having someone hold the door open for you.

If only I could summon Bette in real life. If only some exec at McDonald’s or H&M would have the good sense to hire real-life Bette as their VP of Customer Service Actualization or Customer Service Maximization (or some other corporate sounding title that ends with an -ion word.)

Bette understands the importance of polish, etiquette and manners. Oh, to live in a world where she appears, like a genie, to offer on-the-job correction to every cashier who shouts, “Next!” That’s why whenever I’m stuck in a less than desirable customer service exchange, I dream of Bette.

Filed under: Culture

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Penny Wrenn

Penny Wrenn is a Harlem-based writer who was raised in Lancaster, PA. (Right? Can't you just see the From Amish Country to the Apollo memoir now?) Penny's work has appeared in Esquire; Essence; Glamour; Marie Claire; O, The Oprah Magazine and Redbook, among other publications. She writes a weekly (or twice weekly or, sometimes, thrice weekly column, "Penny For Your Thoughts" for MadameNoire). And, by the way, she doesn't usually use the word "thrice" in conversation.

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