(Illustration: Kagan McLeod) (Illustration: Kagan McLeod)

Jim Davidson and I are a modern, acquisitive couple with two kids, a rambunctious dog and a loyalty to stick shifts. And we’re looking to get a new set of wheels—or, at least, we’re pretending to be. He’s a professional mystery shopper, I’m a journalist; we’re on an undercover mission to discover the best and worst of customer service in Canada.

Among our first stops is a German auto dealership in northwestern Toronto. We linger in the showroom alongside a retro coupe whose back end has been tricked out with a videogame console, awaiting attention for way too long before the receptionist assures us that she’ll track a salesperson down. When another five minutes pass without anyone materializing, we bail, heading for a rival dealership that might be more willing to make a $30,000 sale.

Such an experience would irk even the most patient of consumers. To the owner of the business offering it, the scenario must be infuriating. And, judging from the findings of our up close and personal survey of customer-service quality, most Canadian entrepreneurs have cause for concern. Many should be spitting mad. And some wouldn’t be able to stomach the treatment their employees give the greatest asset of every business: paying customers.

Full disclosure: we went into this quick-and-dirty assessment presuming we’d uncover a scene characterized by profound mediocrity. It wasn’t long before we found our hypothesis borne out. But some of our encounters, in contrast, exemplified the kind of service that generates sales, loyalty and positive word of mouth.

What makes the difference between the good and bad? Don’t be too quick to blame the staff—because where front-line service falters, there’s often a front-office cause.

Can’t you see that I’m ignoring you?
In some jobs, employees have no choice but to connect with customers. In others, such as retail, employees have the option to ignore the client. Such is the case at a high-end furniture and housewares chain, where the first employee Davidson and I encounter looks at us but pretends not to have seen us. There are shopping baskets to be had, but they’re not well displayed; we don’t even know such things are available until a knot of female staffers disentagles itself from the shower curtains long enough to acknowledge us. Even after that intervention, we wander among the singing tea kettles and stainless-steel ice buckets for several minutes before someone else asks about our needs.

Such inattentiveness was irritating enough a generation ago. But the faster pace of everything today means that customers are more impatient than ever, says Davidson, principal of Markham, Ont.-based Competitactics, which conducts undercover customer service audits for organizations of all stripes. Agreed, no one wants to be stalked by white-collar salespeople, store clerks or customer-care agents. But making customers feel ignored is worse. In the retail context, for instance: “Just acknowledge customers,” advises Davidson. “Say hello and let them know of your presence—and do it quickly.”

If you won’t help me, can I help myself?
Davidson and I are well served after our extended tour of the aisles, with a pair of employees dedicating themselves to tracking down catalogues and price lists for the patio furniture we seek for our make-believe deck. But we invest several minutes agonizing over our two-dimensional options in front of a computer screen with a cashier who fails to mention, until late in our machinations, that there are more examples of furniture on display on the second floor. Oops.

The fiscal reality of contemporary commerce requires most companies to run a zone defence rather than play man-to-man. But they can fill the gaps in their coverage by facilitating self-service, to which more of today’s tech-savvy consumers and business purchasers are accustomed. Such tactics can be dead simple. In the furniture store, says Davidson, “There’s nothing on the main floor to suggest that there are more outdoor tables upstairs. A tabletop sign would have sufficed.” Even better would be a computer kiosk that allows shoppers to search for products by keyword, with product photos provided and a store layout on which the items are mapped.

“If someone’s wandering through a store where the salesperson is occupied with someone else, they’ll leave,” says Davidson. “But if there’s a mechanism through which they can easily find what they’re looking for, they’ll feel better served.”

Customer service is not my job
At a major electronics store, we’re on the hunt for one of those newfangled gadgets that tie the Internet to our 60-inch plasma TV, allowing us to reduce our reliance on the cable and satellite-TV companies. As is typical of big-box landscapes, it takes a muscular campaign to attract the attention of a salesperson. Once he’s finally on the scene and aware of our desires, he tries to demonstrate the Boxee Box media player. But he can’t find the remote control for the display model. So, we have to imagine the product in action, inspired by some spinning icons and a semi-apologetic explanation of what should be happening onscreen. A useful demo, it seems, will have to wait for the remote control to reappear on its own recognizance.

The effort is no better at a hardware megastore, where Davidson and I enter at the garden centre. After tiptoeing over a coiled rubber hose laying in the aisle, we ask the nearest employee where we can find toilet levers. Rather than walking us to the target display, she offers up directions that send us into the bowels of the expansive store. Her instructions turn out to be correct, but it takes two passes in front of the dangling lever displays before we spy the things.

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