Is Personal Customer Service Dead?

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Maybe I am just getting older (I am forever 29), but I miss the personal service that used to be inherent in the customer experience.  I can’t say from a former era because it’s really not that long ago!  I’m not referring to the 1920s or 30s here – just the 70s!

What happened?  Did we lower our expectations?  Do we just not interact with people the same way?  Do people just not carry on a conversation the same way?  Are we so busy texting and emailing that we have forgotten how to converse with people?  Do the Millennials not want to talk to people?  Would they prefer interacting with avatars?

Well, when I was growing up … uh oh, here she goes – she walked a mile to the school bus, up hill the whole way in the pouring rain, right?  No, not that bad.  But just picture a skinny, red-haired, pig-tailed schoolgirl who wore knee socks and who the neighbor boys called Pippi Longstocking.

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Despite my gawky wardrobe back then, I was still Grandpa’s little girl, or should I say “Papoo’s” pride and joy.  I was always by his side.  We would venture everywhere from my allergy shot appointments to the bank and grocery store.  Now, even though it is some 35+ years later, I still have clear memories of those trips.

After every weekly trip to the doctor for my allergy shot, we’d stop off at Jack in the Box.  I can’t recall what we ate, but I do remember the older woman with short curly black hair who always helped us.  She knew us by name, knew our customary order and would come by the table while we were eating to check on us.  These days, I don’t often have the occasion to go inside a fast food restaurant, but even so, I can’t remember the last time someone stopped by my table while I dined in at a fast food restaurant.

When’s the last time you found yourself inside a bank?  They’re nearly empty these days.  Between ATM cards and online banking, I think most of us no longer have that personal interaction with a teller.  No … Wait … I take that back.  My mother-in-law doesn’t see the need to use an ATM machine when she can go inside the bank every week to obtain her cash.  Ok – my mother-in-law.  That’s a totally different story.  Let me just say I could write a book.

Now, I’m back to a bygone era.  When Papoo and I made our trips to the bank, I always knew what to expect.  We ALWAYS would see the same teller.  Even if it meant waiting in a line we didn’t have to, we would still wait for her.  Deposit or withdrawal – I don’t know.  I just remember her hair.  Fire red!

She would say, “Oh, little Laura, I just love your hair.  Look, you and I have the same color hair … yours is just a little longer.”

“Yes, ma’am we do,” I would always respectfully reply.

Years later I understand why her fire red hair still blazes my memory.  When you are eight years old, you just assume God gave her that Ronald McDonald hairdo, but age grants me the clarity and wisdom to realize she had overzealously dipped her hair in the Miss Clairol Red bottle.  This doesn’t tarnish my memory, however.  What I remember most are the extra cherry lollipops she always slipped me – two for me and one for my younger brother.

What could beat a lollipop?  A trip to the grocery store with Papoo of course!!

A grocery store trip with Papoo spelled adventure!  That’s right – adventure!  We could spend hours in the store.  We would go up and down every aisle just in case I might find another item I wanted.  (Can you say spoiled?  Me – ABSOLUTELY!)  Let’s just say I now understand why grocers place the frozen items in the last or next-to-last aisle.  Our ice cream would be dripping from the cart otherwise.

First important stop – the Deli – for Macaroni Salad!  We’d always wait for our favorite deli lady, Imojean.  Papoo and Imojean would discuss pleasantries – the weather, family, the sick neighbor – all while Imojean would load us up with all our much-loved items – roast beef, coleslaw and lots and lots of macaroni salad!  She would even send me off with a little cup of macaroni salad I could eat during the rest of the trip.  Macaroni salad still takes me back there.  When I eat it now, I am practically in the store again with Papoo.  Much to my dismay, St. Louis isn’t the macaroni salad capital, and I still haven’t found a local deli that sells it.

Next stop, the Bakery for some black and white cake – a little slice of heaven freshly baked that morning by Sudie.  Sudie could have been twins with Esther Rolle, who played Florida Evans on Good Times.  Her coworkers even called her Flo.

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She would always greet us with, “Why, Mr. Meredith, how do you do?”

“Very fine, Miss Sudie.  How do you do?”

“A bit down in the bread basket the other day, sir, but I mended quickly and I am mighty fine now.”

“Tis good to hear, Miss Sudie.”

I tugged on Papoo’s shirt to garner some attention.   “Papoo, how can Miss Sudie fit in a bread basket?  Isn’t she too big?”

“I’ll explain later, Laura Ann.”

“Now, Miss Laura Ann,” Sudie caught my attention.

“Yes, ma’am.  How do you do?”

“Mighty fine, but not as fine as the black and white cake I baked special for you, Miss Laura Ann, just this morning.”

Off we went after the good-byes with the most heavenly cake in the universe.  One last stop – the check-out line.

Miss Mattie captained our checkout lane of choice.  We always waited for Miss Mattie’s lane, even when others were open.  Miss Mattie and Papoo would go through the same ritual every time, much like the one with Miss Sudie at the bakery.  It was customary to always ask about your mother.  In this case, it was Miss Mattie’s mother and my mother since Papoo’s mother had “passed on” some time ago.  Groceries bagged and we were off.  A young man always wheeled your bags to and loaded them in your car.  Tipping was not allowed.

Speed the clock ahead … I am married and we moved west to St. Louis.  I have grown accustomed to the city, but all else being equal, I prefer my roots.  I don’t find the personal touches in everyday life events inherent in how people behave here.

Are those skills and behaviors we are born with?  Are they regional?  Cultural?  As I age (now over 40), I find myself turning into my mother.  That was once a scary thought, but why fight it?  My teenage kids say, “Mommy, you are just like Maw!  Why do you have to compliment the lady at the bank window about the color of her horrific flowered blouse or tell the girl at the drive-thru that her painted nails look nice?  Are you nuts?”

“Why do you do that!?!”

I do tend to chat with people I come into contact with on my everyday journeys –  just small talk, pleasantries.  It certainly makes the sometimes seemingly mundane tasks more pleasant and the world a nicer place.  Do I really think the yellow nail polish is a good look?  No, but it is certainly striking.  And why not pay her a compliment?

Are you “personal” with your customer service providers first?  I am just curious.  Do you expect them to add a “personal” touch, or would you rather them say nothing and just hurry up?  Clearly, I prefer the former.  Is all our texting making us forget our “personal” interaction skills?

There is no doubt that humans are social beings, so we clearly connect with other humans.  That’s a no-brainer.  No connection = no procreation.  Simple point, don’t you think?  But, I think the personal interaction skills must be learned.  As children, we learn from our families, classmates at school and we keep learning as adults in the workplace, with friends, at church, in countless settings.

I observed personal customer service skills growing up that I imitate today.  But I don’t think you either “have it or you don’t.”  These skills can be taught.  It’s challenging, but imperative, for customer service personnel to learn how to connect with a customer on an emotional level.  Are you doing all that you can to assist your customer-facing employees learn those specific customer service skills to truly connect with your customers?

We would like to hear about your personal customer service experiences and how you are working with your employees to ensure a connection with your customers.  Please share your thoughts with us.




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About Laura Meredith

Laura Meredith is the Director of Public Relations at Pretium.

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