By Robert Gillis

One of my very first columns published in the Foxboro reporter, 6/1996


There is a great scene in the movie “Back to the Future” where Marty McFly, a teenage time traveler from 1985, has just arrived in the year 1955. The first site he sees is a gas station where four uniformed attendants rushed over to the car that has just pulled into the station. While one pumps the gas, one checks the oil, another the tires and another cleans the windows. “Morning Sir, nice day…”

Marty blinks in astonishment; he’s never seen anything like this in his age of self-service everything.

Acknowledging that will probably never go back to that level of friendly assistance, it seems that the term “customer service” doesn’t exist anymore. Here are some recent a personal examples that come to mind:

  • “As a convenience to our customers, we now offer books of stamps”, the sign at Shaws in Sharon stated. “I’d like a book of stamps,” I said to the person behind the service counter. “Oh, ( expletive)” he mumbled, rolling his eyes.
  • On a recent drive to Burlington, my tire was ready to fall off the car and I needed a mechanic, fast. The teenager behind the gas station counter, wearing what appeared to be the new company uniform (dirty dress shirt, over a “Megadeath” T-shirt, tie, shorts and grungy sneakers) didn’t even make eye contact when he said he didn’t know any mechanic in the area. Fortunately, I was able to find a mechanic. He was in the building next to the same gas station.
  • Then there was the seven clerks behind the counter at the Entertainment Cinemas Sharon who couldn’t serve me a large popcorn because it was “between shifts.” I guess you either by your popcorn before the movie, or go without.
  • Then there was the attendant at the Gulf station in Abington who took my credit card, pumped the gas, pocketed my card, and went to talk to his friends. I had to get out of the car and asked if he’d forgotten about me.
  • And how about the clerk at Record Town in Braintree who was playing obscene rap music over the stores loudspeakers. I really didn’t think the little kids in the store needed to hear songs about copulation, drugs, and murdering police, so I went to the counter. At least he shut off the music, but why was that playing in a family store?
  • My personal favorite was at the thankfully departed Payless shoe store. As I tried to explain to the clerk that she was incorrect about the store’s credit card policy, she proceeded to paint her fingernails black, barely make eye contact, and dance along with the rap music blasting on the boom box on the counter. “Yep,” she said. “Whatever,” she added.

There is no excuse for such displays. Work can certainly be social, but does the clerk really need to drop four cans of dog food on top of my loaf of bread because she’s asking the kid bagging groceries if Tony and Janie broke up? Could I at least have eye contact in Stop & Shop? Could the guy selling tokens at the T station at least grunt so I know he’s alive in there?

Now I know most of you must be thinking, “This only happens to you, Bob.” But my experiences, unfortunately, are not unique. It seems everyone has all kinds of customer service horror stories.

In all fairness, the customer is certainly not always right anymore, and there are many out there who treat customer service people like dirt. We’ve all seen that one customer who seems hell-bent on reducing the sales clerk to tears, just for sport. And I admire customer service people who hold their temper with irritating or hostile customers. It’s a very hard job.

It’s also true that many customer service professionals do not like their jobs. It might not be their chosen career but they need the income. Many others who work in customer service excel at it – they always smile ( or at least treat you with courtesy) and that keeps people coming back.

Sometimes people look down on those who work in customer service. That’s not right; all work is honorable.

A few years ago I was writing the trolley into government center station when the driver started singing, “Hey, hey, the gang’s all here.” I’m not making this up – it really happened. He was interviewed on many new shows and said he loved his job and enjoy bringing a little song into his passenger’s day.

It certainly worked; many people on the trolley were smiling. Some even joined in the song.

While we don’t need to go that far, it would certainly be a pleasant change if we could simply see less apathy from some customer service people. Maybe once the apathy is gone, they could even manage a little smile, or a hello. It would sure brighten our day.

But the bottom line is this: the profession is called, “customer service.” That means these people are there to serve customers.

To the people who do the job well, we’re grateful for your smile, friendly greeting, and courteous service. To the ones who exhibit the kind of negative behavior I’ve described, please try to remember that the customer is not an annoyance. The customer is what keeps your business in business.

Treat us badly, and we can always shop somewhere else.

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