Next November, we'll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's visit to our little piece of the planet. But while area businesses eagerly await that swarm of visitors and potential residents who are about to "discover" us, will those businesses provide the quality customer service and hospitality our guests expect?

As a Peninsula resident, marketing professional, and consumer, I've heard some stories about exceptional, customer-service-driven businesses here - and lots of stories about mediocre or execrable (lousy) service.

I've visited many stores where I was treated as an "inconvenience." And I'm frequently a victim of that lethal "freezer" approach to customer service - the "We don't care" mentality, characterized by slow, inconsistent, chaotic, "relationships" with customers, and insensitive, impersonal employees. Some businesses provide "customer disservice."

Other businesses bump it up a notch and offer a "factory" approach to customer service. Focusing on timely, efficient service, they still seem insensitive and apathetic. They're the "You're a number and we're here to process you" kind of business.

A little better, but still not enough, is the "friendly zoo" kind of business. Slow, inconsistent and disorganized employees really try to help customers. Personable and interested as they are, "zoo" employees still manage to screw things up and leave customers dissatisfied. They need a plan, some focus and some real training.

By far the best model is the "quality customer-service" kind of business - aimed at timely, efficient transactions and committed to friendly, tactful deliverance of our expectations. These businesses - for-profit and nonprofit - tell us "We care, and we deliver."

And they're rare, indeed. The 42nd Street Cafe, Guelfi's West, Unique Petique, the Work Source Center, Grays Harbor College and the hardware department at Jack's Country Store come to mind.

When I conduct customer service workshops and seminars, I always invite participants to share horror stories and success stories. Many readily volunteer horror stories, easily recalling God-awful experiences. But beyond Nordstrom and Les Schwab, not many participants can readily mention first-rate, customer-driven businesses. How sad.

Yet it's not that difficult to create a service orientation that exceeds customer expectations, generating a "Wow" reaction. It just takes a shift in perspective, some dollar investment, and an awareness of the three major reasons a business exists - to solve problems, make customers feel good and make money.

Business owners: heed these suggestions. Avoid the freezer, factory and friendly zoo mentality by (1) putting customers ahead of phone calls, (2) displaying a positive attitude (unlike Gumby's pal Nopey, who always said "no" to everything said to him), (3) bending the book and not always adhering to ugly, meaningless policies, (4) exhibiting common courtesy and good manners, and (5) giving something back to the community that supports you.

Of course, there are some creative ways for unhappy customers to respond to wretched service. Why not complain - frequently and imaginatively? If all else fails, follow the example the late, brilliant columnist Mike Royko set years ago when he took on AT&T in Chicago.

When AT&T announced a new 800 number - identical to Royko's office phone - Mike asked them to change their number, but of course big, powerful, indifferent AT & T refused. So Royko developed a devilish approach to "creative complaining."

When customers called him to complain about defective phones, Royko gave them "technical advice,"urging them to throw the faulty phone out of the window, praying over it, or chanting a mantra. Sometimes he expressed deep sympathy, breaking into a fit of sobbing. Beyond that, Royko purposefully offended minority callers who wanted AT&T help.

He told African-American customers that their service was discontinued because they used jivey language and laughed too much, creating confusion in the electronic equipment. Norwegians were cut off for being "dull" and Italians were denied service because their phones were "garlicky." He didn't even get around to the Chinese, Hispanics and Lithuanians. God forbid that any of us must resort to that kind of wretched customer service.

Please, area businesses, don't get on my customer service "Wall of Shame." Please don't follow a "Pile 'em high, price 'em low, and treat 'em rough" philosophy.

And please don't emulate that brazenly rude approach to customers so well portrayed by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Remember Basil? His insolence and incompetence as a lodging owner was unmatched, exemplifying a "We're not satisfied until you're not satisfied, and that's a promise" kind of mentality. Nuff said?

Reach picky customer Robert Brake, who invites your horror stories and success stories, at oobear@centurytel.net

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