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How to get the best customer service

Great service - from the clothing-store salesperson who outfits you in that perfect suit, to the cellphone-provider rep who quickly reverses that errant charge – can certainly win over customers, and is especially welcome when you’re shopping during hectic times like the holidays.

Many customers are even making their buying decisions based more on their shopping experiences than the quality of a product or service, according to recent research. In fact, two-thirds of 1,000 people interviewed in the U.S. for a 2012 American Express survey were willing to spend more with companies that provided great customer relations.

Is that a bad thing?

It largely depends on the product and service, and what’s important to you – but consumer and retail experts warn not to get blinded by the customer-service light.


The recent recession proved that cutting customer service should be among the last moves to keep businesses afloat. That personal care that consumers have come to expect, especially in an age where company loyalty can be ousted with a click of a mouse, can truly define where spending loyalties lie.

But that can be dangerous, says Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith of Consumer Protection BC.

“Customer service is a great thing and is a really good business practice, but the product also has to be of quality,” Chabeaux-Smith says on the phone from Vancouver.

“If a business has proven to be trustworthy, it’s good, but it’s still up to us as consumers to do a bit of legwork, and ensure satisfaction and happiness with any transaction.”

Jeff Mowatt, a customer service strategist based in Calgary, says the advent of the Internet and globalization have prompted businesses to beef up customer service – something that is definitely attracting consumers.

"It's more and more competitive, and trying to compete on price or differentiating a product is increasingly difficult because people have information everywhere," says Mowatt.

Where a consumer spends money often comes down to the complexity of the purchase, Mowatt says in a phone interview.

He gives the example of how great customer service can prompt someone to hire a financial adviser, rather than do their own investments. “While some people are comfortable doing it themselves, others want an adviser to understand their unique needs and help them make more complicated decisions - that’s where a consumer will pay a premium for someone to help them.”

On the other hand, someone shopping for Christmas presents may be happier going online to get the right price, he says. “That’s why people love places like Costco, which is perceived as having bigger quality at a better price. Customer service isn’t Costco’s [business] model, but it’s a highly profitable organization.”

How to put some common sense into customer service dealings? Here are some tips:

Shop around
Even if you’re loyal to a certain retailer, check out others and “get a few quotes so you can make an informed choice on what a standard value for a product or service is,” says Chabeaux-Smith. If you do find a better deal elsewhere, ask the retailer you usually go to if it will match the price to test their loyalty. She says consumers can say, “‘I prefer to give you my business because you have good customer service, but can you match this?’”

Embrace your needs
Figure out what matters most to you when dealing with a company. For instance, a recent American Express international survey cited these top three ingredients for customer service: the service was provided “from the heart” instead of being pre-planned, a customer service worker had gone above and beyond to solve a problem, and the service was tailored to specific wants and needs.

Resist peer pressure
Don’t go to a retailer just because your friends do, says Mowatt. “For young people, buying a lot of the technology or fashions … peer pressure can take over. Companies may give products away in terms of trying to influence them.”

Don’t be swayed
“Before you go shopping, ask yourself what your needs really area - for example, I need a pair of pants, or a cellphone that does A, B and C, and have a certain budget in mind, and really be clear about wanting something meeting your needs and not wants,” says Chabeaux-Smith. “If you’re clear about your needs walking in, you’re less likely to get caught up in [any sales pitch] and overspend or buy something you don’t really need.”

Read the fine print
Don’t just go on the word of a salesperson or customer relations officer. Consumer Protection B.C. urges reading all terms and agreements of any contract, including the policy on returns and exchanges, and clarifying any questions before signing. Never leave a store before reading your receipt to ensure you’re charged the right amount.