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“May I Help You”? The Decline of Customer Service

“May I Help You”? The Decline of Customer Service
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Photo: Louis Matlow, circa 1940, Girardville, PA


My late paternal grandfather Louis (or Poppa Louie, as he was affectionately known) owned a men’s and boys’ clothing store in a small coal-mining town in PA from the 1920s to 1950s. He lived above the store with his wife and children, and was known to open the store whenever anyone needed anything.

My dad followed ‘suit’ and opened up a men’s and boys’ clothing store in the 1950s in a nearby small town where I was raised. Growing up in the family business, I watched my dad embody the spirit of his father when it came to customer service. I would observe him interacting with his customers, always willing to go the extra mile for them.


Ted Matlow, circa 1992, Mount Carmel, PA

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized not everyone shared this same philosophy as he did.

Back in 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, coined that familiar phrase “The customer is always right”, words we used to hear much more frequently back in the day.

Remember when you really felt catered to as a customer? Me neither! I think most businesses stopped that practice in 1910. I’m finding that bad customer service seems to have reached epidemic proportions. I’ve encountered some interactions with customer service personnel lately that made me go “Whoa, shut the front door”.

Are you also finding that these days the business, not the customer, seems to always be right? And if so, when did this role reversal take place?

I experienced this when my new portable AC started to break down this past summer.  I needed a replacement part for my filter and two weeks after I placed the order, an incorrect part arrived. Two weeks after that, the correct part arrived. What happened to overnight shipping? Despite an exchange of numerous emails and phone calls, there never seemed to be a sense of urgency, quality control or professionalism on their end.

Speaking of ‘air’ problems, I had to cancel a flight this past summer due to medical reasons and was charged a cancellation fee of $135.00. When I called a few weeks later to rebook my flight, I inquired about the cancellation fee.

Oh, we have something called a medical waiver you could have requested to avoid the cancellation fee” the flight representative told me. Taken aback, I responded: “In all fairness, shouldn’t that information have been disclosed to me when I originally canceled this flight? I had no idea a medical waiver even existed”.

He put me on hold and said he would look into it.

Five minutes later, the representative came back on the phone to say that the charges had been reversed and credited back to my account. Mission accomplished. And yet, this all could have been avoided when I canceled the original flight.

Why is there such an unnecessary breakdown in communication between businesses and their customers?

Speaking of communication, or over-communicating, I recently stayed at a hotel in California (cue the Eagles song). Prior to my arrival, I requested a quiet room, since I live in the city that never sleeps. Here’s something you never want to hear when you lay your head down on the pillow at night:


That’s right – a few doors down the hall from me, someone was celebrating their birthday (with a few hundred friends, each slamming the door behind them). In spite of my numerous calls to the front desk, the noise continued throughout the night. The hotel was full, so moving to another room was not an option.

After emailing the Front Office Manager and Sales Manager upon my return home, they agreed to refund my first night’s stay. This had to be initiated by me even though the front desk clerk had documented that I called down repeatedly that evening and got zero sleep.

These days, It appears that customers must be their own advocates, at least that’s been my experience. What about you?

In switching the Debbie Downer gears, I’ve actually had superb customer service on occasion.  Upon check-in during a recent trip to Portland, my room was not ready, so the front desk clerk gave me a complimentary drink voucher to use in one of the hotel bars.  An hour later when my room was ready, he gave me a $40 meal credit as an appreciation for “my patience”.

Such a simple gesture that completely changed my perception of that experience. But sadly, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Customer service personnel are either overworked, or just don’t have the appropriate training to embrace that concept that a happy customer will be a repeat customer in the future.

To this day, my dad still uses an expression that makes my siblings and me chuckle.

No problem” he’ll say when presented with a challenge or task. I’m quite sure he used this same expression numerous times when dealing with his customers, as making them happy was his top priority.

Do you find yourself being your own customer service advocate or are you just too tired to fight the battle? The good, the bad and the ugly – we’ve all been there with our customer service experiences and we’d love to hear your tales.

If only every company shared this philosophy:

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job to make the customer experience a little bit better”.

-Jeff Bezos, Founder, Amazon


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