Consumer Report 2015: How is customer service in B.C.?

Our exclusive BCBusiness/Insights West survey on the state of customer service in B.C., including details on the best and worst banks and cellphone providers. Plus: the arrival of Nordstrom in Vancouver this month and what it means for local retailers

Are you being served? Or put another way, how well are you being served? This being September, when minds turn to shopping for new fall outfits, new school supplies—or, for the annoyingly prepared, that special Christmas gift—we thought it would be a good time to survey British Columbians on how they view the state of customer service in this province.

In a word: poorly. “What was fascinating to me was that people are starting to get really mad about service,” says Mario Canseco, vice president of public affairs for research firm Insights West. His firm conducted an online study of 808 adult British Columbians from June 1 to June 4 of this year. What the findings show is that, outside of e-commerce sites, we describe the experience of interacting with a company—over the phone or in a store—as having gotten, on balance, significantly worse.

Canseco has a couple of theories as to why. First, because it’s so bloody expensive to live in B.C., we expect to get a bigger bang for our buck—and when we don’t, we complain. Secondly, there’s the preponderance of older folks in many parts of the province—many of whom remember a time when service actually meant something. “Half the people we interview in Victoria are over 60,” says Canseco. “They’re still going to buy stuff for their grandkids or their kids. They are looking for that level of service that should be there but isn’t.”

Interestingly enough, while British Columbians over the age of 55 are generally sour about all kinds of service, they are positive about the state of e-commerce service. And that poses an interesting challenge for bricks-and-mortar retailers that have largely relied on the boomers for their success, says Canseco. “I can’t imagine my dad going into the Gap and finding something for my daughter. It’s too noisy, it’s too crowded—it’s difficult to figure out who’s an employee and who isn’t. It’s getting difficult to navigate your way and find those sweaters.” If you’re not really careful with these sorts of customers, says Canseco, they’ll start to do everything online—and then it’s going to be tough to justify a bricks-and-mortar presence.

Those under the age of 55, on the other hand, tend to be more forgiving of mediocre service, especially those under the age of 34. “The 18-to-34 demographic is far more likely to have experienced working in service at some point in their life. We all had student loans. We all had to work at Starbucks,” says Canseco, pointing to the landmark 1990s film Clerks as a turning point for this generation. “That was the moment when the service industry stopped caring. ‘Yeah, I’m here, I’m at this video store. But I don’t really want to be here. I want to be a famous director. I want to be a model.’” As Canseco sees it, if you’ve lived the retail life—or have been exposed to this cynical Hollywood portrayal—you enter the shopping realm with lowered expectations.

So what does it all mean? First off, if what you offer is pure transaction and no service, then there’s not much of a future for bricks-and-mortar operations. Canseco points to the demise of Blockbuster Video as a prime example: “Once you’ve found a way to deliver entertainment without having to hold a DVD in your hand, then everything was over.”

But if you offer a real connection, a unique customer service experience, then there’s hope. “We see it with Victoria’s Secret in downtown Vancouver. What I like there is that you’ve really turned the experience of buying something that is supposed to be very private—especially if we go back 20 or 30 years ago—into something that is more public, an experience,” says Canseco. “Nordstrom is definitely trying to go for something similar. They’ve both been able to not only bring people into the store because of the garments they’re selling but also the experience that they’re providing.”

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