Thoughts about customer service – or the lack thereof

01 октября 2013, 12:24

It’s the little things that count with customer service.

I’ve known that for a long time, but I forget it when I live in a country where customer service has yet to become a valued business principle. I’m not talking just about Kazakhstan, either. I have lived in other countries, such as Ukraine, where an overarching business principle seems to be that customers can take it or leave.

Customer service is on my mind these days because I just returned from a vacation in Portland, Oregon. Everywhere I went in that green, beautiful, well-run city, I experienced superb customer service.

Just one example: I made a phone call to Fred Meyer, a Wal-Mart-type superstore operation, trying to find a difficult-to-obtain dietary supplement. The store’s main operator put me through to George, who was in charge of the supplements section of the pharmacy department.

George told me that, yes, indeed, he had the supplement. “When you get here, ask for me by name, and I’ll walk you right to the location where the supplement is, and answer all your questions,” he said in a friendly voice.

Another Portland example: Miller’s Homestead, a restaurant with one of the broadest selections of breakfasts in town, has butter and several kinds of jams sitting on every table.

“What’s the big deal about that?” you might ask if you haven’t lived in Kazakhstan long. “That’s the case in many American restaurants.”

The operative word is “American.” In Kazakhstan, a lot of restaurants – even classy ones -- don’t have butter. Many don’t have jam, either. If they do, it’s likely to be one kind only. And the majority of restaurants will charge you extra for both the butter and jam.

You don’t get toast to put your butter and jam on, either. You get plain old cold bread.

Some of you may think I’m being persnickety about the butter-and-jam ­­situation – “you spoiled foreigner, you!” But it’s a metaphor for customer service in general – or the lack thereof -- in Kazakhstan.

And let me ask you a question: How much would it cost a restaurant to put butter and jam on tables for its customers?

Unfortunately, when you’ve been in a country for months, or years, you get used to lack of customer service. You shrug it off, as locals have since time immemorial, particularly during Soviet times.

When the customer-service gap really hits home is when you return from overseas and see it again with fresh eyes. You remain irritated for several weeks until you become numb to it again and begin accepting once more the latest customer-maltreatment outrage that comes along.

The best retail outlets in the West, Japan and other developed countries give their employees the power to “make it right” with the customer even if the store takes a short-term loss in doing so. An example is an employee taking back a perfectly good product that a customer decided he just didn’t want.

 The object of this policy is to keep the customer for the long haul. Even if the store takes, say, a $50 loss on a transaction, it keeps the customer. That means it gets thousands of dollars worth of additional purchases from him over several years.

Employees in many American stores are even empowered to set a price for a product when there’s no bar code on it and a store clerk can’t find a price in a price book somewhere. This employee price-setting empowerment allows the customer to get what she wants, and prevents her from having to wait a half hour before there’s a solution.

In contrast, woe to you if there’s no bar code on a product in a Kazakhstan retailer.

Here, the store “simply won’t sell it to you if there’s no bar code,” noted an American friend familiar with the modus operandi.

Recently another American friend, who had just returned from a Stateside city with good customer service, walked into a Kazakh-owned superstore in Astana to buy plastic coat hangers and plastic kitchen serving trays.

He noted with trepidation that there were no bar codes on the hangers or the serving dishes, but he needed both. So he brought them to the check-out counter. He showed the checker there were no bar codes, and asked to have a clerk find the prices.

The checker made a phone call. Way too much time later – about 15 minutes – a bored-looking clerk sauntered leisurely up to the checker to say she could find no prices for the products.

The American could guess what was going to happen next.

“I want to buy these,” he said.

“We can’t sell them – no bar codes,” was the reply.                                             

At which point the frustrated American took the 12 hangers and two trays and tossed them high in the air. They came clanging to the ground, scattering across the floor, leaving other customers open-mouthed.

It was his way of showing his displeasure in a fashion that he hoped was dramatic enough that it would lead to the store addressing the bar-code issue for future customers.

“Naw,” said another American friend. “They won’t do anything. The same thing will happen to the next poor sap who tries to buy something without a bar code.”

And, sadly, my guess is he’s right.

You may or may not like the American’s response to the situation. In some ways it’s a classic case of “the ugly American,” and what he did may anger Kazakh readers in particular.

The main issue here is not one foreigner’s response to a customer-service outrage, however – but the fact that by offering poor customer service, Kazakhstan businesses shoot themselves in the foot. Some customers become so upset by being mistreated that they never return. Businesses would probably be shocked at how many.

One more case in point: Some restaurants here have music playing so loud that customers cannot talk while eating.

When I encounter such a situation, I ask the manager to turn down the music, whether it’s coming from a live band or is recorded. If he refuses, I take my party and walk out – never to return again.

Usually, the manager glares at me and does refuse, no matter how nicely I ask him -- and he immediately loses four or five customers.

But he doesn’t care. He obviously thinks my request is a test of his manhood.

Customer service is the last thing on his mind.                                               

In fact, I envision this thought racing through his brain: “Who the hell is that foreigner to tell me what to do?”

At that moment I wish the restaurant owner were there to watch five perfectly good customers walk out.

Where am I going with my grumbling?

Kazakhstan has been trying to diversify its economy for some time, and countries that have succeeded at that have usually developed a strong service component as part of their economic mix. And a strong service component means – surprise! – good customer service.

Kazakhstan has worked hard to adopt international standards in various industries. It’s a wise move because it not only helps the country better serve its population but also be in position to export more.

Kazakhstan should work to adopt international customer-service standards. I’d suggest a Customer Service Academy that could offer training for managers of retailers, hotels, restaurants and other service professions.

Such a training facility could fast-forward Kazakhstan’s customer service to a point where it would be a good as that in countries with the best service reputations.

Everyone here – local and expat alike – would be the winners.


Got a customer-service horror story or pet peeve? Write about it in our Comments section.

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