What Does Customer Service Mean to You?

A Neighborhood Store


It is important to know what customer service means to you. Although, it might sound simplistic to say that customer service depends on your attitude toward the customer. However, if you really care about giving good service and wanting to serve your customers, good customer service will be somewhat a matter of intuition. If you don’t like the customers, chances are you will not please them. Customer service will be a natural result of really caring.

Many people are nostalgic for the days of the “Ma and Pa store.” I grew up in those days when such stores were in every neighborhood. They were mostly small grocery stores which most people could walk to and were owned by people who either lived in the back of the store or somewhere in the neighborhood. The customers were their friends and neighbors. In our neighborhood, the people across the street from us ran the hardware store a few blocks away. The local butcher lived half a block from us. Our next door neighbor was a retired factory owner whose factory was about three blocks away. Then with the advent of the GI bill people started moving to housing developments outside of the city. The shops were no longer as convenient and they had to drive somewhere to shop. By and large, the stores were impersonal and self-service, no longer friendly. They were not unfriendly, but not friendly either. As the owners of the neighborhood stores got older and sold. The new owners did not always have the same attitude toward the customers. They didn’t know the people and, seemingly, did not want to know them. You could still buy at these stores but it just wasn’t the same. What was missing was the personalism of the old owners without the advantages of the big stores. It appears to me that sometimes older people wanted a small business to bring in extra income and running a store looked easy to them. They did not understand that the years of serving the same customer, who were also friends and neighbors, was part of the business. It did not occur to them to get to know the customers. The new owners saw no reason to know the customers and the customers saw no reason to come back.

In the 1980’s I moved to a small town and commuted to work. Most people did and there were not very many local businesses left. The small stores in that town and those nearby seemed to have a very “could care less” attitude. For example, I would mention that we just moved into town and there was no response or else a disinterested “that’s nice.” Nobody said “Welcome to our town, I hope you like it here.” The response they gave was one that they didn’t care about me as either a customer or a neighbor. If they had given the other response it would have indicated that they did care and I would have been more likely to want to come back and do business with them. These are the kind of shopkeepers who complain that Wal-Mart if taking over the country. The sad part is that when a Walmart or other competition comes in, these stores do nothing to compete. It is as if they think it is your civic duty to buy from them. They town did have one exception. There was a grocer who understood his town and his market. He expanded his store, stocked it with the goods he knew the customers wanted. They would probably stock up on canned goods and such in the “cities’ but would buy bread, milk, meat and other fresh foods from him. He cared about his town and they cared about him.

Things have become more and more impersonal. When I first started driving, a service station was a place where an attendant pumped gas into your tank, checked your tires and oil and cleaned your windshield. Now if a station advertises “full service” it means someone will pump the gas for you.

Another thing that makes customer service bad is technology and the tendency to let technological systems run things for us instead of taking charge of our own customer relations. Instead of the old saying that “the customer is always right’ we assume that the computer, phone system or robot is always right. We all hate it when we are put on hold by an impersonal device and you waste ten minutes or longer going through the system of interacting with a non-human system in order to get to talk to a human. What I really hate is when they put me on hold I usually have to listen to some terrible music.

What is really sad is that nobody thinks to challenge the devices. An experience of mine while working as a collections correspondent for a corporation in the early days of computers may illustrate something I believe about customer service. At that time computers mostly handled money transactions. On credit accounts such as loans for home improvements and such the computer would send out about three late notices and if no payments were received the accounts were turned over to someone like myself. One account was given to me as a result of a letter from the customer saying that she had paid all her payments but we were still billing her for an amount of about $35.00. I looked through the file and there were several previous letters and letters from my co-workers telling her she owed the money and please pay the billed amount. I decided to look a little deeper and requested a print-out of the account. What I discovered was that when she made her first payment it was posted a day or two past the due date. When that happened the computer deducted a late payment from her payment leaving the account a dollar short. (Ever hear the saying “a day late and a dollar short?”). In those days customers usually had a coupon book for payment on an account. Each month, they would tear out a coupon and send it with a check to meet the payment. In her case the account was short for the late charges that had accrued each month and the computer would deduct another dollar from the next payment. When she sent in what she thought was the last payment she still owed the amount of all those late charges.

I figured the only real thing she might owe is the first dollar late charge and I was doubtful about that. I went to my supervisor and explained my thinking on it. He agreed with me and gave me permission to cancel the charges. I also wrote a letter to the customer explaining what had happened, apologized for the inconvenience and told her that she did not owe us anything further. With all of today’s talk of customer service, I am not sure that anyone would take the trouble today to find out what the customers problem really is, and then take appropriate steps to resolve it. If companies did do that, they might build good will and find they have more customers as a result.

All in all, I think customer service is somewhat in what you do and there are lists of thing one can do to help satisfy the customer. However, I think really caring about the people you do business with will usually lead to doing the right things intuitively.

Copyright 2012 Don Hoglund

© 2012 Don A. Hoglund

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Larry Wall 4 years ago

I understand exactly what you are saying. I worked in a neighborhood drug store when I was a teenager in the 1960s. There were three neighborhood pharmacies within a three mile radius. The store was staffed by the pharmacist and me. We knew all our customers. We knew what medications they were taking before we looked up the number on the prescription bottle. Prescriptions where kept in special boxes, and went back for years. We did not sell hardware, groceries or stuff like that. We sold prescriptions, shampoo, shaving items, some makeup, toothpaste, etc. When the pharmacist passed away, the owner tried to keep it going with another pharmacist, but he was too young (older than me) but did not understand the neighborhood. He did not know that Mr. Smith could never understand sales taxes, so you just worked it into the price. He did not understand why we filled out the insurance forms for a half dozen customers with no extra compensation. They were among our best customers. That personal touch goes a long way.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for your comment. I remember about sale taxes. When I worked on a small town paper in Iowa. I had come from Minnesota where they did not have sales taxes at the time. All the staff had to wait on the counter at times and when I did, I always forgot to collect the sales tax.

Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

I really understand what you are saying about small town businesses and personal services. Think about it. Now if you even want to call a bank about a problem, it is all automated services. Also, our society has made a mistake in making customer service positions minimum wage. It takes years of wisdom to deal with customer problems and problem solving.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Lipnancy and thanks for commenting. I had thought about relating a bank incipient. I remember working on a small town newspaper in the 1960s. the bank was across the street. I got a call from the bank teller asking me if I could come in and deposit enough money to cover a check I wrote. I've never had that kind of service in the city aand probably couldn't get it in a small town today either.

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

Beautifully said, Dahoglund. I can relate to the small town ideals. I was 'moved' out of the city of Detroit when I was three to an undeveloped small town north of that. My grandparents and father's brothers thought he was 'crazy' for moving to the 'boonies', but they eventually followed suit. Within two decades the 'town' had merged to the proportions of a city and then a 'tricounty' area.

I remember being able to walk up to the drugstore picking up pop bottles along the way and cashing them in for penny candy, then taking that to the local theatre and watching all day shows for about a quarter.

That small theatre closed for lack of interest before I graduated. The small town atmosphere and familiar neighbors gave way to impersonality and strangers.

Well said, thanks for sharing. Rated up/interesting. BTW-great sleuthing to uncover the source of the problem for that woman. Yes, things like that do still occur, however, it is usually prompted by either the press investigating the injustice, or by some type of legal action. :)

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thank you for commenting, Denise. I remember scrounging for pop bottles as a kid. Perfect recycling system. The bottles got reused, it cleaned up some of the trash and gave kids some spending money.

I cited the example of finding the source of a customers problem with an account she knew she had paid because it illustrates what I think customer service is about. customer has a problem, employee resolves problem, customer happy and hopefully remains as a customer. I cannot too much fault my coworkers for not finding the problem sooner as computers were a new element back then so we were not aware of how they worked. The sad part is that things are worse now and customer service is more lip service than one of taking care of the customer. At one time, you may remember, when a bill was counted as paid when it was mailed. The postmark was the evidence. I do not know when or why that was changed, but it goes against the customer that now the payment is only credited when it is posted. That means that it is out of the control of the customer. One can pay a bill early now but it can be delayed within the office of the company for a number of reasons. I have seen this happen to me on things like a new mortgage. By rights if the company or its agents delay posting the payment for whatever reasons they should adjut the date but often they don't. I've had it happen to me.

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

I agree. It is frustrating at the very least. Personal customer service is NOT the way it once was. Honestly, I get sooo frustrated waiting at a check out line and watching the service people talk to each other without so much as a glance in my direction or a greeting.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Denise. I fear that the world has become more mechanized and les personal than it used to be. If management would understand that the image of their brand starts at the point of contact with the customer than they would not have to spend so much time trying to correct the image later. Thanks for your observation.

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Customer service these days, Don, unfortunately for all of us is becoming an oxymoron. When I trained sales people I concentrated on customer satisfaction. I stressed that it was not enough to just serve customers but to satisfy them. That's what 'small-town' businesses used to do.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I agree,drbj. Certainly satisfying the customer should be the goal of any business. I remember reading in a Public Relations testbook that PR is to do the right thing and then tell them about it. Too often the first part is left out.

Thanks for commenting.

Dexter Yarbrough profile image

Dexter Yarbrough 4 years ago from United States

Hi Dahoglund! Great hub on customer service - something that is sorely missing these days. The bad thing is that some people have become so accustomed to poor customer service that it is now the norm.

Oh, for the days of Andy Griffith stopping at the filling station to get gas and a bottle of pop from Gomer - or Goober.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Dexter. Thanks for commenting. When I was working I attended all sort of meetings and seminars on customer service but it didn't seem to make much difference. I think it is an attitude more than what we do. with the right attitude we will mostly do the right things.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Don,

I am old enough to remember the old stores that really gave personal service and also the gas stations that when one pulled up they did everything that you mentioned at no extra charge. It was just a part of the regular service. I also remember telephoning businesses or doctor's offices and getting real people answering the phones...not an answering service. Good customer service is still needed in this day and age but is more seldom seen compared to the past.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Peggy, Thanks for commenting. I think a lot of it is that life itself is less personal. I had a cousin who had one of those corner stores. As he moved up economically and socially he went to work for a local chain of grocery stores and moved to an upscale neighborhood. He no longer had the roots. He probably gave good service as a manager but it would not have been as personal.

rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

dahoglund, I agree with you that the current day businesses no longer provide the old customer service. Times and attitudes have changed and relations have become impersonal at the least.

Voting it up and interesting.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

rajan, thanks for commenting and voting. The fact that things have become impersonal. I think. is much of the problem. The same may be true in politics as well.

ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 4 years ago

dahoglund , my ole friend ! I have gotten to a point where , after a lifetime of civility , I want to just say to people

"Get some frikkin personality here , would ya "

God , have we reached a point in America where there is no "common sense " anymore !....+++++

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

ahorseback, the state of customer service could be a plot for a science fiction story of some sort where the running of a company is turned over to robots who proceed with machine like efficiency. "punch H if you want to talk to a human." You punch H and get put on hold with some weird music and a message that says " the number you have reached is no longer in service."

I recall a teacher in a letter writing course, which to some extent is a customer service thing. He said that he could teach us how letters should be written, now go back to your offices and see if you can get your managers to let you do it.

Thanks, my friend for commenting.

manatita44 profile image

manatita44 2 years ago from london

I share your feelings, my Friend. I have noticed much of what you say. It sucks! No feeling at all in so many cases!

Let's all hope and pray. Much peace.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thank you manatitta for your comment. Sorry to take so long in answering.

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