Montreal needs a reality check on customer service

11.25.13

Last week the Gazette published a rant by a couple of restaurant waiters, in which they angrily chastised customers for committing such cardinal sins as making small talk, asking for allergy-free meals, requesting to be seated in a booth, sending back food when it was not what they ordered, or — gasp! — failing to leave a giant tip. Judging by the tone of the rant, these two waiters probably deserve every lousy tip they get.

Please Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Ignoring YouNow, I’ve spent most of my career working in the customer service sector in some way or another. From my student days working at Fairview shopping centre folding sweaters, to my career in account services and strategic planning for various marketing agencies, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make sure that the customer was satisfied. It’s not easy, I’ll grant you. There are days when it’s trying, or when certain people make you want to tear your hair out. There are those clients who make you go home and cry and question your will to live. But on the whole, I love it, and I suspect most other people who deal with other human beings in some way feel the same. I get deep satisfaction from building those relationships, anticipating and exceeding expectations, and making people happy. The one thing that always gets to me is when I’m complimented for simply doing my job. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher: After all, compliments and thank yous are nice, but in today’s highly competitive world, shouldn’t good service be the price of entry?

Bad customer service is one of those universal things that can happen anywhere. People love to complain loudly about airlines, telecom companies, service providers, restaurants, hotels and stores where they had unfortunate experiences or were mistreated. They tell their family and friends. They take to social media en masse. This is hardly unique to Montreal.

What is unique here, however, is this sense that this is perfectly normal. and that nobody really needs to try harder or to do better. There are exceptions, of course. But in general, our service sector is among the surliest, rudest and most indifferent on the continent — and when called out for it, they tend to blame the customer.

The customer is always wrong?

We Montrealers have a love-hate relationship with our service industry. On the one hand, we bitch and moan about surly store clerks and wait staff. On the other hand, we have the unfortunate habit of viewing it as a point of pride. We’re not like those Americans who greet the public with overenthusiastic fakery, we boast. We’re better than that. Our service sector may be grumpy and indifferent, but câlisse!, at least it’s honest.

It’s yet another example of how Quebec is eternally trying, it seems, to emulate France. Rude customer service? Check. Eternal public sector strikes? Check. Ban on religious headgear? Working on it.

Of course, some people find the infamous French service sector arrogance to be endearing, largely because there’s a certain amount of dry humour in it. That’s where Quebec, and particularly Montreal, fall down on the job. It seems we’re trying to adopt the rude indifference without picking up on the cheeky wryness that make it all somehow work. We’re cursed with French arrogance and North American lack-of-humour: A deadly combination.

Or maybe it has nothing to do whatsoever with wanting to emulate France. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of a closed society desperately trying to avoid oppenness and progress. After all, we wouldn’t want to be Chicago or San Francisco or — gasp! — Toronto. We have our own businesses here, homegrown ones that are proudly francophone and pur-laine through and through. And far be it for us to require them to compete with the rest of the world. Nope, it’s our national duty as Quebecers to support them even when they have inferior products or indifferent service. To do otherwise smacks of a lack of so-so-solidarité.

Get less for more.

We Quebecers already accept that, due to our smaller population and higher taxes, we usually pay higher prices for less selection, and our service options are few and far between for both online and offline shopping. Americans and even many RoCers reading this blog are probably surprised to hear that things they now have been conditioned to take for granted from their shopping experiences — easy shipping, free returns, price matching and adjustments, knowledgeable sales staff — are simply not available in La Belle Province. Moreover, they’re probably taken aback whenever they walk into an establishment in Montreal only to be summarily ignored, or when they ask a question only to be greeted by a shrug or — worse — an angry rant about daring to speaking English. People accustomed to the friendly hellos and helpful manners found elsewhere in Canada are often shocked when they come here — not merely at the bad service, but at the low expectations for better.

Whenever I read a restaurant or store write a long rant in the media about how it’s been forced out of business by high taxes / unfair rent / low margins / evil American chains infringing on its territory / political decisions, I always stop and question it. After all, many of these are valid grievances, and merchants’ associations need to lobby, too. But all too often, these rants are the sour grapes of large companies that were driven out of business because of poor product offerings, lousy service or bad business practices. If people lose the appetite to eat or shop somewhere because they were mistreated by abusive staff, it’s not the government’s fault.

It’s worse in the public sector. Yes, bureaucrats have a bad rap everywhere, but in Quebec, the sense of entitlement can be particularly egregious. Want to renew your license, apply for a permit, buy a metro ticket, or avail yourself of a government service? You’d better hope you show up with unlimited time, patience and humour, and prepare to be yelled at, chastised or simply dismissed.

Unpleasantness isn’t a virtue.

We need to change this thinking. Unpleasantness isn’t a virtue, and being friendly or helpful aren’t crimes. Going the extra mile with a smile won’t turn us into a generic American city; it will simply make us much happier and more friendly versions of ourselves.

So, in answer to the authors of the Gazette article, I’d like to humbly propose my Top 5 ways not to be a horrible customer service person:

  1. Smile. You may be having a bad day. You may think the customer is a complete idiot or is wasting your time. But never let ‘em see you sweat. Besides, if you smile, people will smile back at you.
  2. Tips aren’t automatic. You have to earn them. If you’re being paid less than minimum wage or taxed on money you haven’t earned yet, that sucks but it’s not the customer’s fault. Lobby to change the laws or the tax codes, but don’t expect to treat people like dirt and then earn a 20% tip for your troubles.
  3. Learn how to tell a customer that they’re wrong while making them feel like they’re still right. This isn’t an intuitive skill for everyone, but it’s a vital one to be successful in any customer service role long term. People are only human and they may make unreasonable requests or mistakes.
  4. Think about how you can build a long term relationship with every customer who walks through the door, whether they’re buying a $100,000 IT system or a $5 pair of plastic earrings. Here’s a hint: It starts by treating them like an actual human being.
  5. And for the customers: Demand better. Remember you always have a choice. Don’t accept arrogance, indifference or mediocrity. Take your business elsewhere in the case of the private sector, and speak up publicly in the case of the public sector monopolies. Things will only improve when we start insisting on it.

Montreal may be famous for its poutine, smoked meat, bagels and cold winters. But a little warmth wouldn’t kill us.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Edith 11.26.13 at 10:55 AM

Having lived in Montreal, Halifax and Edmonton I feel like Edmonton is the worst of these three cities when it comes to customer service! I now live in Edmonton and I cannot wait to go home to Montreal to shop (despite the fact that there are higher taxes in Montreal compared to Edmonton) for 2 reasons: there’s more of a different selection (Montrealers/Quebecers aren’t afraid to wear something that is different from everyone else because it looks good on them – as opposed to wearing something that everybody wears even if it looks awful on them!); the customer service is great! Granted I’m francophone but my husband isn’t and we’ve never had the bad attitude of “French only”. Whenever we return to Edmonton and go back to the same chain store we are shocked at the appalling difference in customer service between the two cities!

As for Halifax, there is less of a selection there as well (similar to Edmonton) but the customer service is also great! For example, there’s one particular Future Shop where my husband and I went to all the time and we were never disappointed. They went out of their way to make sure we got what we wanted. So it was a big shock to us when we first arrived in Edmonton to be so badly treated at our local Future Shop (when we were even approached and talked to by a clerk). We are more often ignored and when we finally talk to someone, we can tell we are bothering them.

I don’t know what bad customer service you are talking about in Montreal. I love going back so I can get treated in a way I would want to compared to the way I get treated in Edmonton. Then again it’s not fair for me to compare Edmonton, the land of REALLY bad customer service!

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segacs 11.26.13 at 1:30 PM

Thanks for the perspective. If Edmonton is worse than Montreal, I guess it’s all relative. I’ve never encountered that myself, but I’ve spent relatively little time in Edmonton so I can’t really judge. But I’ll consider myself warned!

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