Where “Customer Service” Is Not An Oxymoron

The degree of mentschlichkeit by complete strangers (the art of being a nice, kind, decent and upstanding person) found in rural New England never fails to delight and surprise me.

Conversely, I am sorry to say that when I return to my hometown on the East Coast, I am frankly astounded not only by the huge number of rude and unhelpful and apathetic people; but also how nice, normal people living there seem to think “that’s just how things are” and that they’ve become complacent and put up with such bad behavior.  They feel dread and defeat before they even go into the store!  (Not to mention the fear of being mugged in the parking lot.)  I will spare you the ugliness of my daily shopping travails in my home town, but I do wish to relate what is more typical behavior in New Hampshire and in Maine.

When you walk into a store in rural New England, whether it’s a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall or a Big Box store, you are greeted with, “How can I help you today?”  The thing is, they really mean it.

Too many times to count, I’ve asked a Wal-Mart employee where a certain item might be located in the store.  They will never say, “In Aisle 10.”  The employee will take you by the hand, smile, and actually walk you to Aisle 10, even if it’s at the complete opposite end of the extremely vast store, and even if they were busy doing something else at the time you asked for assistance.  Even if you insist, “Oh, that’s okay, you can just tell me which aisle it’s in,” they will say, “Oh, it’s no problem!  Let me show you the way!”

At first I was taken aback – – do I really look that old and helpless?  But I noticed that neither age nor gender is a factor.  This is just what they do.  The customer comes first and so does his satisfaction, even if the employee leading you by the hand makes a measly minimum wage and his prospects for promotions or long-term employment in that store do not look particularly bright.  And it’s not just a particular Wal-Mart (or Home Depot or Lowes, supermarket chains, etc.) – – it’s every single Big Box store I’ve been to anywhere in Maine or New Hampshire.  If the item is not on the shelf, they will voluntarily go to the back of the store and try to locate it for you, and if they can’t find it, they will check their stock list for current inventory and find out when a new delivery is expected.

While at Wal-Mart I loaded up on cereal.  One type had a peel-off coupon on the box cover saying that the manufacturer was giving a free pound of bananas for every box of cereal bought that had the coupon sticker.  Unfortunately, however, I was unable to make use of this coupon since this particular Wal-Mart was not a “super” Wal-Mart and they did not carry any fresh produce.

Once my purchases were made, I headed to Hannafords, a pleasant supermarket chain that is found throughout Maine and New Hampshire.  I put some bananas into my cart, and went in search of goat’s milk, which I digest more easily than cow’s milk.  Unfortunately, they were out.

When I got to the checkout line, the cashier asked the question that every Hannafords employee is trained to ask:  “Did you find everything you needed today?”

I joked in a light tone of voice, “I guess this is just not my day.  You seem to be out of goat’s milk.  And I just came from Wal-Mart, where I got a coupon for free bananas with my cereal, but because it’s not a “super” Wal-Mart, I was unable to use the coupon since they don’t carry fresh produce.”

The cashier stopped and placed a call to the dairy department.  “I’ve got a customer here who says we’re out of goat’s milk.  Can you please check and see if you can find some?”

Alas, they really were out of goat’s milk.  But the cashier felt so bad, that he said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  I’m not going to charge you for those bananas in your cart.  I feel bad that we didn’t have what you wanted, and I hope that next time you will shop at Hannafords as your first choice, before you go to the ‘other’ store!”

Okay, the bananas were not worth more than $.57.  But that’s hardly the point.  It’s clear all of these stores value their customers, and wish to have an ongoing and loyal symbiotic relationship.

I told my “free bananas” story to many of my friends from my hometown and they were shocked.  “That would never happen here,” they unanimously agreed.

The thing is, once you’re away from an environment where bad behavior, cynicism and apathy are the norm in consumer relations, you begin to realize something:  you really don’t have to put up with it.  You do have a choice.  And if you can’t find a place where basic decency and respect reign, then it’s time to go elsewhere where people do act like mentschen.

Those places and the good people in them do exist everywhere, of course.   And yeah, I know what I’m about to say sounds harsh and snobby.  But it’s just so refreshing to not have to look very hard, and to live in a place where mentschlichkeit is the paradigm, and not the exception to the rule.

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