Customer disservice: Canadian consumers need to stand up and be counted

Customer service has mostly gone the way of the dodo in Canada, says Jo Davies. To fix that, bad customer service needs to be pointed out and companies need to be held to account if their employees provide shoddy service, she says.

United Airlines case isn't rare in the world of terrible customer service, says Jo Davies

Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport on April 11 after a cellphone video was released showing a passenger being dragged from his seat by airport police. Jo Davies says that incident, and United's initial response, was a massive customer service blunder, but not a rare case. ( Scott Olson/Getty Images)

United Airlines has decided to up its customer service game. Not hard, considering the abysmal depths to which they've recently sunk.

If you've been on Mars recently, you missed the incident where a United passenger was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off a plane, incurring broken front teeth and a concussion. This, in order to allow United employees to fly home on the overbooked flight. Customer service rating? Minus a million.

Apparently, United will offer up to $10,000 to passengers who are asked to give up their seats. Sounds like a great deal for United customers, but not a very bright move on the airline's part.

Here's a thought, United: how about NOT treating your passengers like cattle and regularly overbooking flights? You'd likely lose less money and increase your customer satisfaction ratings overall.  

United's situation isn't rare. A quick scan of the internet shows customer service fails in abundance.

Even here in friendly Manitoba, customer service seems to be rocket science for a lot of folks. Ever try finding a sales clerk in Home Depot when you need one? The Holy Grail is easier to locate.

As for restaurants, stores and movie theatres, it seems everywhere I go is staffed by people who don't realize that a genuine smile and a sincere, "Hello, can I help you?" goes a long way to making clientele feel valued.

A recent trip to the U.S. was an eye-opener, if only for the reaction I received from sales clerks and cashiers everywhere. The sales staff at one ladies' clothing store were so utterly helpful and friendly, I was sure they'd mistaken me for family.

Some consumers might not prefer it, but I for one appreciate being waited on, especially when parting with my hard-earned dollars. Suffice to say: the United States has many challenges, but customer service isn't one of them.  

I'm not sure why customer service has mostly gone the way of the dodo here. Is it because Canadians are generally quieter and more unassuming? Are friendliness and professionalism beyond us?

A shopper at a New York Topshop store. Jo Davies says in her experience, customer service in U.S. stores is superior to what's offered in Canada. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

I admit I'm slightly taken aback when faced with an enthusiastic sales clerk here. My first reaction is to question their sanity.

Take the difference between Walmart greeters here and south of the border. Here, it's rare that any make eye contact, never mind actually welcoming you to the store. I can't tell if it's because they are shy or if they are worried they will put off customers. Is it just our Canadian-ness that is quashing any customer service superstars?

Is it lack of training for sales and wait staff? Is no one setting a good example for them? Maybe I'm overestimating the common sense of treating customers with warmth and energy. Just because I know the importance of good customer service, it doesn't necessarily mean that people in the service industry are aware of the niceties expected of them by the paying public.

The young man that served me at McDonald's last week didn't once crack a smile. As far as I'm concerned, that's the fault of his manager or his training. A positive example from business owners and/or managers goes a long way to showing employees how they should behave with customers.

Is it just our Canadian-ness that is quashing any customer service superstars?- Jo Davies

Am I just expecting too much from the (mostly) young people in these jobs?

Most of the places I go offer their employees low-paying service jobs. Is it that these millennials feel that any extra effort on their part isn't warranted in light of their low wages? Are they saving their smiles and hustle for the future, when they are being paid a living wage and feel more appreciated?

I worked in the fast-food industry in my final year of high school, when the minimum wage was a third of what it is now. Yet consumer surveys say that people see customer service as worse now than it was in previous years.

In this age of social media, bad customer service experiences tend to be shared faster than Donald Trump takes off for Mar-a-Lago on a Friday afternoon. And human nature being what it is, people are more likely to share negative stories than positive ones.

As such, businesses need to be more careful than ever about how they treat their clientele, or suffer from bad reviews online for the foreseeable future — at least one recent survey said that Canadians are far less likely than other consumers to make a fuss online over bad service. They just leave without saying anything and never go back.    

Consumers need to stand up and be counted. Bad customer service needs to be pointed out. Ask to speak to the manager if you encounter poor service. Take the time to fill out customer service surveys.

Companies need to be held to account if their employees provide shoddy service. It all goes back to the concept of being treated the way you allow yourself to be treated.

If you want better customer service, you need to demand it.

After all, it's not rocket science.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jo Davies

Jo Davies is a freelance writer and office assistant who is never at a loss for an opinion. She is currently writing her first novel, set in Jamaica.