Service with a smile

One of the things that struck me when I first moved to Australia over twenty years ago was customer service. I’d walk into a shop to browse and someone would almost immediately appear at my side, asking if they could help. Bizarrely, it felt as though they meant it. For someone coming from Britain, where customer service is an oxymoron, I was suspicious. Were they being passive-aggressive? There seemed to be no subtext: they actually wanted to help. Gradually I became accustomed to it. And it was helpful, most of the time.

Anthony has a theory that the British don’t like serving others whereas no one minds in Australia. I remember an Armstrong and Miller skit in which a bloke wanders into a chic shop to browse and the shop owner says, ‘If you’re not going to buy anything, then fuck off.’ I suspect an Australian audience wouldn’t have really got that joke but I’m sure most of us have looked through the door of some posh boutique and seen a fearsome assistant and thought: nope, not going in there.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that, in the process of our renovation, we’ve experienced a variety of customer service interactions. Mostly we’ve been struck by the helpfulness but sometimes there’s been a curious lack of follow-through. We’d be told, for instance, that they’d email us some additional information with further details on alternatives, all very specific. But nothing would come. Thinking they might have taken down my email address wrongly, I’d ring up and find that the person we’d dealt with wasn’t available but they’d get back to me. Nothing again.

This didn’t just happen in showrooms. When we were looking for a builder, we had meetings on-site with a few potentials to discuss what we were planning, usually for an hour or more. There was enthusiasm and we’d see photos of previous projects and discuss time frames. Each time, it would feel so positive that we believed we were really moving forward, not realising that, as we waved them off, that would be the last we’d ever hear from them. You had to wonder what was in it for them. Or if we were such a nightmare no one wanted to deal with us.

It reminds me of the book contract I had with a big publishing firm some years back. Everything was agreed, the fee negotiated, and the publisher told my agent that the contract was on its way. Nothing came. Further phone calls ensued and always we were promised it was on its way. Still nothing. Eventually my agent gave up, totally perplexed and swearing she’d never do business with that particular publisher again. The contract never arrived and I never wrote that book. Bizarre.

remaking a room

Thankfully, the majority of the time things go swimmingly. We’re now well into the project, with much of the old plumbing redone, a horrible amount of asbestos removed and replaced with timber boards, and new windows imminent. The ensuite bathroom is a bit breezy without its glass louvres but they should arrive this week and frankly, it’s very Byron Bay to have a bathroom open to the elements. Soon we’ll tackle the other side of the house, refitting the kitchen and adding a gorgeous new window to the main part of that room. There’ ll be exterior work, too, reinstating the finials and gable fretwork, patching up some boards and then giving the whole thing a luscious new coat of paint.

ensuite bathroom awaiting its glass louvres

Nothing happens in isolation, of course. Even the tiniest decision has a knock-on effect. Putting in a single light switch involves everything from door placement and wall finishes to the style of the switch itself. A single detail can dominate an entire day. It took us weeks, lots of samples and several repaints to find the right white for the exterior woodwork. And we’re still waiting for the brackets for the veranda, copies of the originals, which we were told would take five or six weeks but thirteen weeks later, well … We’ve been told so often that they’re due tomorrow or this week that we’ve almost given up. We’re trying to be patient and I’m still smiling.

the lack of brackets and fresh paint doesn’t stop me enjoying the veranda

Covid changed life in many areas and now there are delays due to everything from transport issues to the Ukraine situation. Material prices continue to climb. But perhaps the Covid pandemic encouraged us all to be more flexible and to go with the flow. With fewer folk travelling overseas, more people are working on their homes, so materials and trades are in short supply. In my region, many lost their homes this year to devastating floods and rebuilding them is far more important than whether my fancy brackets arrive in time. Being grumpy that a sales person didn’t get back to me isn’t helpful.

Or maybe that’s me pretending to be more sanguine than I really am. Look, I’ll get back to you on that. (Just don’t expect me to actually follow through.)

What’s your experience of customer service?

Categories: Australia, Design, memoir, OtherTags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh that verandah!

  2. What a labour of love is your renovation. I admire your persistence in getting all the details just right. How frustrating to never hear back from sales people. This happens to some extent in Switzerland, where demand often exceeds supply for services despite the prohibitive costs. But overall, customer service here is far superior to France, where I think the attitude towards service is similar (if not worse) to the Brits. (‘I am here to do my job and if you are part of that process, so be it, but don’t expect too much in the way of actual service!’) P.S. I also swoon for that verandah!

    • You can’t go wrong with a veranda, I reckon! Funny you mention French service – there’s always been a discernible difference when I’m shopping in France and I drop into the conversation that I live in Australia. Suddenly they’re much friendlier, having been a bit terse with the rosbif they thought I was. I suspect you might have noticed that when you mention you’re Canadian not American.

  3. Ah, but I do miss being called “my love” by shop assistants in Bath/Bristol. “Darling” from a 17yr old in Australia is an insult; “My love” in the west of England was entirely acceptable.

  4. I tend to panic if someone comes up to me in a shop and asks to help and I avoid small boutiques altogether. Having worked in bookshops your post reminds me of all the times I was less than friendly to customers. Usually those who came in 5 minutes before closing time saying ‘I’ll only be a minute’. That used to really get to me because by the end of the day you’re just knackered and want to go home or go out … I also tended to be pretty cool with those who came in with small children who destroyed the children’s section and then left with a shrug of the shoulders. That used to happen quite a lot and puzzled me. We were a bookshop not a school library. I think I should finish there because I’m sounding worse and worse!

    • Oh yes, I remember those people who saunter in just as you’re about to lock the door. I now make sure I never do that but tend to take it to extremes, thinking I can’t go into a shop half an hour before it closes… I’m sure you were always a model of politeness, whose fine use of language would have carefully delivered an ice-cold dagger to the heart. Except to those special beings, of course, whose thick skins make them immune to such subtleties, including time and staff wanting to do anything other than serve them.

  5. Hi dearest Colin Just wanting to say what a delight this was to read (and to see) Much love to both of you, Trish xoxo


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