“I’m in your hands”

Gift Bags

It’s hard to get good customer service, but it’s hard to be comfortable expecting it.

On a recent Robert Brook episode he complains at length about the lack of old school customer service in London book stores: at the grand old Foyles in London. At least, he makes it sound as if it had been grand in the past. In particular, the two Roberts were remembering the good old days of helpful, bookish employees who might say something like, “I think I know exactly what you’re looking for,” as you stumbled into their section, before you even opened your mouth.

You know, the long term employees who are experts on not only the stock available (or that could be ordered) but precise enough to match any old Joe off the street to the right stock item, like a book. You surrender yourself to them and hope for the best.

In Garlic and Sapphires, you can see Ruth Reichl doing this time and time again in as she recounts her days reviewing restaurants: first she gives herself over to makeup and costume artists for disguise, then a sushi chef, wig saleswoman, etc. Laced into many of her reviews is commentary on well she was taken care of, attended to: waited on. As she tells that sushi chef once she establishes a quick master/patron rapport with him, “I’m in your hands.”

In American consumer culture, post-web, this sentiment seems rare. We might expect people to be helpful, but we don’t give ourselves up to employees often. Part of the problem is you fear you’ll get ripped off. For example, every time a see I “special” at a restaurant or grocery store, I assume its old food they want to get rid of before it rots, not anything that’s actually unique, exciting, or special that day.

We’re suspicious in the marketplace, and we certainly don’t want to pay for quality service, let alone goods. Americans tend to be too cheap to justifiably demand quality, and employers – we consumer theorize – are so buck-hungry they’ll gladly cut all corners to get more green.

Pricing is also a problem for good customer service and product quality. While we loath haggling, we assume that every price should be cheaper. For us, the price paid for a good or service is often more important than the actual good or service itself.

How do you shift to putting yourself in someone else’s hands, then? The issue is one of trust, and you can’t build trust without being a bit of an expert in the field yourself. To do that you must have enough taste – or be expert enough, depending on how you look at it – to confidently judge if employee knows what they’re doing and is offering your fair deal, not just a cheap deal. That seems a tall order, and somehow more expensive than the alternative (see, that cheap-lust again!), but it somehow seems more mature, more adult.

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