Could the Recession Save Customer Service?

A plea for kindness to recession shoppers.

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I haven't opened my wallet for much more than breakfast and subway fare in months (a year?). I'm obviously not the only one. (Kevin Lane, a financial advisor in Prescott, Ariz., calls our nationwide flight to thriftiness "The New Frugality," and he sees it up and down the income strata. "Even wealthy people are re-evaulting their cell phone plans," Lane says.)

Last night, on my way home from work, I had a sudden desire to spend. Not much, just enough to ensure that I'm not taking "the new frugality" to an unhealthy extreme. Just to remind myself what it felt like to slap the credit card down on the counter and walk out with a shopping bag holding something  a little unnecessary.

I stepped into one of those chain-store-but-still-too-expensive potion/lotion/soap stores to peruse the wares. The air was heady with the scents of lavender and peppermint and there was a general swirl of stress-melting blissfulness. I was absorbed in a line of spa products that seemed to promise better days and better moods ahead, when from behind me a rich, basso voice boomed: "Four minutes. You have exactly four minutes before we close."

I turned and nodded to the gentleman. I turned back and tried to consider which peace-inducing product would induce the most peace, but all I could think about was the clock ticking down: 3:52, 3:51, 3:50. I got nervous, and at about 3:46, I scrammed.

As I walked out, wallet still intact, the goodbyes from the salespeople were singsong happy. I'm pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to be. I left without buying anything, folks. You can't even try to upsell without a sell.

Now, I know that people like to leave work on time--there are trains to catch and kids to feed and dogs to let out. But this is a recession. If anyone is willing to cast aside their layoff-fears and savings-anxieties and risk 401(k)-night sweats to step inside a store selling anything other than hammers or gallons of milk, it seems to me that their small effort--and the potential promise of a purchase--should be treated with kid gloves and a kindness reserved for recession shoppers.

Retailers shed 522,000 jobs last year--and more to come--as consumers slinked away from stores to save their meager bank balances for emergencies. Employees still on the payroll no doubt have tough jobs to do, if they want to keep their registers from atrophying. Indeed, customer service has probably never been more important than now.

In a Motley Fool piece last year, writer Selena Maranjian notes that premium customer service "can only help a company in our current environment." She has evidence, too: "I suspect it has something to do with Amazon's 75 percent revenue growth over the past two years, and Netflix's customer retention."

I've worked in retail. It's a difficult job. You have to leave your own issues at the door and focus on other people all day. You are always "on." But you can be a real solution to a company struggling to survive. You can help customers find things that will add value to their lives. Great customer service shouldn't be a perk these days. Our economy can't afford it.


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