You’ve heard of upselling. This is un-selling.

It's not just that customer service is increasingly lacking; it's that the customer isn't even acknowledged.
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Consumer satisfaction with all brick-and-mortar retail categories has been flat or in decline.

No shirt, no shoes, no service.

But even if you are properly attired, you still get no service.

Increasingly, that’s how the shopping experience seems. Consider a stroll I took during our recent vacation in Maine.

We were in the quaint Old Port section, along Portland’s waterfront. There was a renewed vibrancy in the neighborhood, famous for its cobblestone streets, after a number of lean years.

My son, Jack, and I went from store to store: from the upscale men’s retailer Portland Dry Goods to a small grocery store to Urban Outfitters, and without exception we were ignored. Street bustle notwithstanding, there was a flatness to the in-store experience: no greetings, no can-I-help-you-find-anythings, no thank-you-for-coming-ins.

You’ve heard of upselling? Many of today’s retailers practice what I call “un-selling.”

Feeling like the Invisible Man

That is, if there were even a slight chance of my purchasing from them, they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with their indifference to customer service.

I don’t like it when a store employee pesters me to the point of claustrophobia, but I don’t want to be made to feel like the Invisible Man, either.

I blame employers for not training and supervising their employees well enough (if they train and supervise them at all) and employees who lack maturity and empathy. But they also reflect a society that less and less seems to appreciate, much less expect, simple pleasantries.

You see it all the time in the coarseness of social media. You see it in the motorist who fails to acknowledge, with a simple wave of his hand, that you gave him space to merge onto the highway.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index is at its lowest point since 2006, dampening consumer demand.

“Unless companies do more to increase customer satisfaction, higher wages alone will not be enough to stimulate consumer spending, which is a driving force in the economy,” according to ACSI, which is connected with the University of Michigan.

Consumer satisfaction with all brick-and-mortar retail categories was “weakening or flat” in fourth-quarter 2014, with only online retail showing improvement.

The good news is that the companies and their employees who get it – who, as the credit card commercial suggests, treat you like you would treat you – can really set themselves apart.

Customer Service Hall of Fame

Consider Chick-fil-A. Among fast-food chains, Chick-fil-A is a bird of a different feather in terms of customer experience. Employees are friendly and engaged whether it’s taking an order, offering a beverage refill or taking your trash.

It comes as little surprise that Chick-fil-A, for the second year in a row, was the only fast-food company named to the 24/7 Wall St. Customer Service Hall of Fame.

Also raising the bar for customer service is Nordstrom, as described in this Shopify blog post, which concludes:

“Nordstrom’s exceptional customer service comes primarily as a result of two main components, firstly their attention to detail when it comes to the customer experience and secondly, the level to which they empower their employees.”

I prefer online shopping for its selection and convenience, and generally I find the experience to be positive. The friction comes when the human element is introduced: emails that aren’t returned, live chats that yield unspecific answers to product questions, phone conversations in which the customer service representative acts like he’s doing me a favor.

I had ordered a U.S.-made messenger bag from Chrome Industries near San Francisco. Upon receiving it, I had second thoughts and called the company to inquire about another bag.

The customer service representative, Matt, was coolly accommodating. I thanked him for his assistance. He responded, “Yeah, no problem.”

You see, “no problem” has replaced “you’re welcome” in today’s retail environment.

And that is a problem.

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