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modern ms manners: a note on customer service etiquette

According to the ABS, 1.2 million Australians were employed in the retail industry throughout the period of 2008-2009. At that particular time, this represented the largest proportion of the employed Australian population.

Even if you do not happen to be one of these 1.2 million people, chances are that you will frequently interact with a member of the retail sector on a daily basis, whether it be the overwhelming happy checkout chick at your local supermarket (discussed here), an overzealous telemarketer wanting to sell you the latest update to a product you already have, or that guy from the infomercials who is so excited about the new bagless vacuum (which somehow is also a total gym that guarantees life insurance), that you cannot help but share his enthusiasm.

I personally have been on both sides in retail, as a sales assistant and also as a customer. Thanks to tween marketing, I got into the habit of shopping quite early in life. Now as an adult with boring adult responsibilities like rent to deal with, I do not go shopping as often as I would like. However, when I do, I feel the fact that I had to save all my pennies makes the experience all the more important to me as a customer. I therefore appreciate when a sales assistant has been particularly helpful or friendly during my shopping experience.

Unfortunately, however, I have found that whether or not a sales assistant does in fact provide the level of assistance implied in their job title is a bit hit and miss.

Recently, I accompanied my newly engaged friend as she attempted to find a wedding dress. Needless to say we were both terribly excited (I probably a little too much), and we were both looking forward to a lovely girls’ day. Most assistants we encountered were brilliant, offering advice and generally being friendly and polite. However, we were unfortunate enough to encounter a particular woman whose obnoxious mannerisms completely discouraged my friend from considering anything further at that particular store, whilst another lady left entirely on the advice that she ‘looked awful’.

Whilst I appreciate there is a need for honesty when dealing with a customer who asks for your opinion, there is also a need for tact to ensure that you do not overstep the mark and insult a stranger’s feelings.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have also had an experience with a sales assistant who was so keen on making a sale that she was blatantly ignoring my protests and was unable to be honest with me about my purchase. I was attempting to buy an evening gown for a formal function and ventured into a local boutique. Immediately I was swept upon by a young lady who proceeded to show me a series of styles, including one little velvet number that looked quite elegant on the rack.

However, some time between my taking the dress off the rack and attempting to try it on in the dressing room, I must have had some sort of brain implosion. Something weird had happened to the dress which meant that to actually get it on I was forced to shove my head through what felt like a child’s arm hole. Half-naked and unable to breathe, I was forced to seek the help of the sales assistant, who assured me that I was on the right track and I just needed to give the dress a little tug.

Much tugging and panting later (it sounds a lot sexier than it was), I was finally “in” the dress. Instead of looking like the glamorous young lady as I had intended, I looked some sort of velvet salami which had been stuffed with the inflamed body parts of an overheated and angst ridden 20-something year old. This however did not stop the assistant from crooning about how “gorgeous” I looked and how I simply must buy the dress. Considering the difficulties in getting the darn thing off, I almost agreed with her. However, given the dress code was not “furry sausages” I wisely decided against the purchase.

At the end of the day, customers and retailers are engaging with each other for a particular purpose. Customers wish to buy something, and retailers wish to sell something. However, that is not to say that there cannot be a certain level of decorum and professionalism adopted when we do enter into these dealings with each other. Offering your customers a friendly greeting does not take too much effort, whilst thanking your retailer for their help might make their day.

As to the amount of contact an assistant should have with the customer, I feel it is a personal decision that should be gauged on a case-by-case basis. Some people want a lot of attention (especially for an important purchase like a wedding dress), whereas others simply want to be left to browse, knowing that the assistant is there to help if needed. Whilst I appreciate the need for retailers to meet budget, I personally am looking for an assistant, not a groupie. Especially not one who has a penchant for dressing me like a velvet sausage.

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