Many times I have been asked about what I miss about America and I must confess that I have a hard time answering that question. It’s not that we didn’t like America; rather we lived there for forty years and enjoyed the best parts of American culture. Now, we live in Scotland and are happily embracing the new experience of living here.
However, one thing I do miss sorely is customer service. America is built on the free market system and consumption is at the heart of the culture. Retailers strive to win customer loyalty and especially repeat business. They make every effort to sell you something with each visit.
“Can I help you?” is always the first thing you hear in American shops, and many times you hear it more than once during a single visit. Clerks are trained from the cradle that their top responsibility is to ensure that their customers are happy and that they feel good about buying something, anything from the shop.
They are attentive to a fault and sometimes border on making a nuisance of themselves.
At restaurants waiters work for tips and so have a deep incentive to hover over their clients, refilling water glasses, removing empty plates, offering the desert menu and sprinting to fill a customer’s every need.
No one goes unnoticed in American shops; everyone is a potential customer.
Scotland offers a facsimile of that kind of service, but on its own terms. Scots have a deeply ingrained reticence about interfering with another person’s business and the same is true in the retail environment.
I was at the movies recently with the family and was feeling indulgent enough to pay the exorbitant prices charged for popcorn and drinks. There was only one person in front of me in the queue, but it was taking ages.
I saw a number of other clerks behind the counter busily stocking their respective tills. The manager walked right past me, looking diligent in her affairs and filled with a self-importance. The line was still crawling.
So, I gave up and went to find my seat. I came back two more times and both times asked one of the other clerks for assistance. “I’m not open right now. I’m stocking my till. You have to go around to the other side…you see that clerk over there?”
The line had grown by one, but was moving no faster.
This week I was at the local grocer to return one thing and to pick up a new calculator for daughter Elisabeth.
Four clerks were standing around chatting, a regular hen party. I stood outside their little circle for a full minute before one of them looked up.
“Can I help you?” she asked with a look in her eye that said, “What do you want pal?”
“Where are the calculators?”
“Up that aisle there, you see?”
She returned to her gossiping foursome and I wandered off to find them. I came back two minutes later and waited again for her annoyed look.
“I can’t find them.”
A pitying glance.
Eventually she pointed them out properly, but did so as if she were helping a bothersome child.
At the check out I pushed my stuff over the counter. “I need to pay for this and exchange this.”
“You have to go to Customer Service, downstairs.”
Naturally, there was a queue, so I waited. Again, there were two clerks, one helping customers and one looking diligent about her own affairs, studiously avoiding the customer’s eye.
After five minutes of waiting I reached the counter.
“I need to exchange this.”
“This is not Customer Service. This is the kiosk.”
I looked over her head at the massive “Customer Service” sign.
“That’s Customer Service over there,” she said, clearly irritated with my impertinent request.
She pointed to the other clerk who smiled and finally acknowledged my presence.
I shoved my product in her direction, working hard to restrain my tongue.
Again, not long ago I was in the hardware store looking for ice melt and a sledge for the kids. With the four week cold spell and the ground covered with snow and ice I expected to find both these items in abundance.
“Do you have any ice melt?”
“How about a sledge, for the kids.”
Aren’t you people in business here? You could be making a mint on these two items alone.
“We ordered some at the beginning of the season, but they’re sold out.”
“Are you liable to get more any time soon?”
“Maybe by mid-February. Next please,” she said looking over my shoulder.
Granted, there are exceptions and I have encountered a few salespersons who go out of their way to provide an American shopping experience, but most of the time clerks look as if they are annoyed by customers asking questions.
Yes, there are times when American service is not so good, but there is always a competitor down the street willing to bend over backwards to make you happy. “The customer is king…the customer is always right,” American words my itching ears long to hear.