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The customer rules, again Add to ...

In addition to discounts, promotions and no-interest financing, there's something else some stores battling the recession have begun offering customers: a look in the eyes, a warm smile and a distinct lack of attitude.

Customer service is making a comeback, which means consumers who have spent years being ignored by snobby sales staff or waiting in endless lineups are finally getting the respect they deserve - at least in some places.

Whether it's a simple gesture, such as returning a client's phone call promptly, or a bold initiative to bestow gifts on loyal customers, a growing number of companies are tapping into the idea that if they can play nice, consumers will reward them at the cash register.

The Bank of Montreal has distributed plastic cards to thousands of employees across the country with customer service "commandments" urging them to sincerely thank clients and return phone calls promptly.

Air Canada recently announced it will reverse a previous decision and allow some pets on commercial flights, one of many new "customer-friendly initiatives" the embattled airline has been rolling out to please consumers, said Ben Smith, the company's executive-vice president and chief commercial officer in a statement.

Earlier this month, Home Depot said retooling its customer service strategy would be its number one strategic priority in the near future.

Holt Renfrew has created a new program called "random acts of kindness" in which sales associates surprise their clients with thoughtful gifts, spa treatments or lunches on a shopping day.

For instance, one sales associate had an orchid delivered to a client as a surprise for her birthday. Another sales associate in Calgary sent a CD to a client who was in town that day specifically to see that band perform.

"It's about making people feel special, about making people feel appreciated and enabling our sales force to be very authentic in the way they reach out to clients," said Alix Box, the company's senior vice-president, stores and distribution.

In addition, the company has also been beefing up training seminars to help improve the relationship between sales associates and customers.

But the customer service trend is far from universal. Some businesses have had to cut sales staff and service budgets to stay afloat during rough times.

Dozens of blogs and online forums are teeming with customer-service horror stories from people complaining about getting the wrong order multiple times at fast food outlets, to staff that are simply rude or unhelpful. Companies that abandon strong customer service do so at their peril, according to Nicky Fried, vice-president of "storytelling" at Strategic Connections Inc., a Vancouver-based consulting firm. (Ms. Fried's job is to help companies tell stories about corporate successes and employee achievements to teach, inspire and motivate others in the company.)

She argues that companies competing with each other, especially during a recession, sell products of similar price and quality. As a result, the customer's experience when buying the product can play a substantial role in choosing one company over another, Ms. Fried said.

"That's the worst place you can cut," Ms. Fried said. "The only advantage you can offer is excellent customer service."

Tammy Warawa of Edmonton is living proof of the theory that businesses looking for ways to survive a recession should treat their customers like gold. Ms. Warawa said that Alberta's oil boom meant that, for years, customer service was non-existent in many parts of the province.

"It used to be no matter what the kind of restaurant you went to… you just didn't get good service," she said. "The customers just kept coming, they didn't really care."

But now, said Ms. Warawa, who has four step-children and blogs about money-saving tips at cheapnik.blogspot.com, "things have definitely changed."

The downturn has hit many businesses in the area so much that now, Ms. Warawa said she gets smiles and thank-yous from all kinds of businesses. She was most surprised, however, when a gas station attendant thanked her for her business after she filled up her tank.

While she's noticed that some restaurants and other businesses have cut back on staff, which affects how customers are treated, Ms. Warawa said that, for the most part, things have improved as businesses look to attract budget-conscious shoppers. It's a reality that puts power back in the consumer's hands for the first time in a long time, Ms. Warawa said.

"Especially during a recession, we actually make a point of supporting the business we want to keep in business," she said. "I especially won't go back to the places we've had trouble with."

 

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