Last year, when my wife and I were in New York, I got pulled into a shoe store — and I learned a great lesson about customer service.

We were on Fifth Avenue, home to Trump Tower, overpriced cupcakes, luxury boutiques and tourist traps by the score. It's a retail mecca, though, and brands compete to get noticed, and to get your dollar.  

The shoe store was Camper, which was a draw for my wife, as it's based in Spain, where Martha's family is from. While I was expecting to spend the next few minutes standing by, I was happy to see a healthy selection of men's shoes. When I asked the clerk if they carried anything in size 14, I was astonished by the young man's reply. 

"Yes," he said, beginning to point his finger at precise shoes on the store's walls. "That one, that one," he said, swinging around, "those two ... and that one."

"Could I see them all?" [I was practically giddy, and I should explain why: with my shoe size, I rarely get something — that is, choice — that other shoppers take for granted.] 

"Of course," he replied. In moments, he had the first box by my side, and as I tried the shoes on, he quickly retrieved the others from the back room.

Camper shoes

A great pair of shoes were made better by excellent customer service. (John Gushue/CBC)

I was floored that he knew his inventory so well, but even more impressed as he talked with the two of us, simultaneously taking care of Martha's queries. As he answered our questions, he kept track of other customers; not for a second, though, did we feel ignored. Indeed, he made us feel so comfortable we wound up staying longer than we thought. 

I wound up buying a pair of black shoes, which I wear almost daily — they're easily the best shoes I've ever had. Their quality was definitely enhanced by the superior service we had from that young New Yorker: thorough product knowledge, ready assistance, a warm demeanour and smooth, professional handling.

He was also a nice guy. "Tell your mother she raised you right," my wife told him as we left. I swear he was blushing as we picked up our bags to go. 

Stuck in the craw

The experience has stuck with me; it was probably a routine transaction for the clerk, but we were impressed by how that kid handled himself. I later made a point of contacting Camper to say so.

I've been wondering lately about what makes for good (and especially great) customer service, as well as what makes things go south. When it's good, we consumers are happy enough — after all, we should expect nothing less. But when it goes wrong, does it ever stick in the craw.

Everyone has a customer service horror story, I'm sure. I certainly have several, and that's just involving air travel alone! There was the time we were stranded in the Halifax airport, the time our gate was moved in Toronto without an announcement, the time we raced through the Frankfurt airport to meet the connection we were told would be no trouble to make ... and of course which we did not. No one could, I later figured out.

In each case, a bad experience was compounded by awful, awful customer service. In Halifax, Air Canada pulled its people from the floor and refused to answer the phones; in Toronto, the smugness of the two clerks on the front desk was matched only by their clear irritation that we passengers were disrupting their conversation; in Frankfurt, we were directed to the wrong lineup, only to have an immigration official yell at us to get in the right one, while refusing to tell us where that right one might be. 

Cringe-worthy experiences

Travelling has its own share of stresses, but routine retail transactions can have pitfalls, too. I still cringe thinking about the too-cool-for-school cashier who told a joke at my expense, the cashier who took the gum out of her mouth and into my bag (mistakenly, but still), and the repair shop that "lost" an appliance for not just weeks, but months.

hi-bc-130103-cashier-change-coins-bills-8col

Retailers are often challenged to keep staff, let alone give them appropriate training. (CBC)

Then there was the computer shop where I once brought in a piece of gear for an upgrade I did not dare to do myself. When I learned that they had overlooked the order and instead performed a service that I didn't request, they balked when I refused to pay.

It actually got worse: when I asked to see the manager, I was blown away that he not only didn't ask me any questions, but felt confident with the clerk's (entirely wrong) account that he turned to me and said, "We don't need your business." I was asked to leave. I still shake my head thinking about it.

Most negative customer service experiences I've had are comparatively minor: the aloof clothing-store assistant, the distracted cashier, the waiter who got an order wrong.

The missing ingredient

Often I shrug that stuff off, marking it down to a lack of attention.

But it's often a lack of something else: training.

Several of my friends own or run small businesses, and I've learned from their insights. As one put it, he used to assume that hiring friendly people was enough for front-of-house work, or direct customer contact. Not by a long shot: over time, he's learned that while disposition is important, it has to be backed up with the time and effort that goes with training.

Another insight he learned: training in customer service is something that every employee— no matter where they work in the operation — ought to receive.

Beyond the 'friendly Newfoundlander'

How often have you heard someone say that "Newfoundlanders are so friendly"? [Apologies to Labradorians: I'm sure the sentiment applies there, too.] 

Newfoundlanders Are So Friendly cartoon

Wallace Ryan's 'Newfoundlanders Are So Friendly' cartoon has been produced as a popular T-shirt by Living Planet in St. John's. (Wallace Ryan)

I happen to believe it's generally true; time and again, I've been astounded by acts of kindness, often spontaneous and certainly random, that have played out before my eyes. Someone needs something? Watch local folks come out of the woodwork. I'm sure this sort of thing happens around the world, of course, it's just that it happens so frequently.

But there's a curious disconnect. A friendly population does not automatically translate into great customer service — sometimes, not even into friendly customer service.

I'm quite sure that's where training provides the bridge, that and a more professional approach to how we conduct business. The local hospitality industry has seen great strides over the years, with the bar being raised on what can be expected, for instance, when you're seated at a table or checked into a room.

It seems to me there's still room for improvement — just as I know that customer service is a two-way street, and that front-line staff have to endure the worst from customers.

I can't control what other customers do, but I can bring my best to my side of the equation. I learned from my dad quite a few years ago what a generous tip can mean, and as a matter of course, tip 20 per cent at restaurants. Why? As Dad put it, it's not that much more, and how much is excellent service — and thus a first-rate experience, the kind you'll remember fondly — worth to you?

I remember one tipping encounter very well. As anyone who's ever gone to a Swiss Chalet before Christmas knows, it's a knockout-busy place. Four of us went there after the supper rush one night, and our waitress — who clearly had been on her feet for hours — treated us as if we were her first and only customers of the day. We were dead on our feet, too, and she made us feel as cozy as could be. That night, I put an extra $10 on top of my regular tip, which she assumed was a mistake.

My reward? Her smile and gratified nod as she learned there was no mistake, and then rang the purchase through. It wasn't the biggest gesture, but it made a difference to both of us. 

I wonder how many business owners pay attention to what it takes to make that experience happen.