Service at the High End

November 23rd, 2009

Categories: Accommodation, Communications, Customer Service, Generational Differences, Luxury, Quality, Repair, Retail, Service

A stunning friend of my mother’s was ignored when she visited Christian Dior in Paris. It was the 1970s when the economy was also in a sling. The weather was beastly so she was wearing a raincoat and headscarf to protect her hair. She thought that may have been why nobody paid her any heed. After a few moments of feeling invisible, she turned and walked out of one of the most prestigious couture houses in the world at the time and told us that as the door closed behind her, she took comfort thinking, “How do they know that I’m not a millionaire-when actually, I am.” [What a billionaire is today is what it was to be a millionaire then.]

There are some luxury brands, such as Tiffany, that have traditionally bent over backwards to make everyone feel welcome regardless of their budget or the size of their billfold and to make customers feel like millionaires or billionaires, whether or not they are.

Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Obviously not always, even in today’s economy. My nephew told us about how he was poorly treated at a Mercedes dealer and a friend and follower of this blog, Catherine C., had a similar experience at a BMW dealer. She and her husband went to a different dealer to buy their car.

Catherine C. also generously shared details of another recent experience with a luxury brand that’s worth sharing because it illustrates a crucial disconnect when the level of service isn’t equal to the product. She writes:

“My mink coat came from a prominent NYC furrier. My husband bought it directly from that company 12 years ago because of an introduction from a business associate. The older generation was still around then.  Over the years, the younger generation has gradually taken over. 

“In the beginning, I had no problems. But in recent years, there has been a steady stream. 

** “One year my coat and headband ended up somewhere on Long Island [I live in New Jersey]. That was the year they insisted that their records showed that I had two coats.  Obviously, the owner of the other coat got hers and mine. 

** “Another year I had to fight to get my bag and hanger back. 

**  “In yet another year I ordered and paid to have the fur at the coat’s hemline replaced but it didn’t really look as if it had been done–it can be hard to tell for sure.  The next year they called to say it needed to be done!  I questioned why, when they supposedly did it the year before and billed me for it. Lo, there was no bill for anything that year at all – not even storage. 

** “This year, I ordered the lining replaced.  I called around November 9 to say I wanted the coat delivered. I was told it would be picked up from the storage facility in NJ on Monday, November 16 and delivered to me a few days later. When it hadn’t been delivered by November 19, I called to find out why. I had been pinned to the house waiting for the delivery for two days and was getting tired of it.  I was told they’d track it and get right back to me. 

“After 45 minutes without a call back, I knew there was a problem. So I called again and learned that the relining was not done when the coat went into storage in the spring. The work hadn’t been entered into the system until late so the work had been done about a month ago. They gave me a song and dance about the coat first having to go to the showroom in NY and then be delivered to me in NJ and they didn’t know why that hadn’t happened. I pointed out to the owner, the next gen guy I’m dealing with, that I have had my share of problems with them in recent years.  He told me ‘these glitches do happen.’  Really? So many times to the same customer? 

“I can certainly guess what really happened. Maybe the relining had been done and maybe it didn’t get done until I called. Either way, they realized they hadn’t billed for it and they weren’t about to release the coat until they did. So a bill went out after I first called to schedule a delivery and they hadn’t received the check by the day the coat was due to be released.  Rather than tell me that, they conveniently had a ‘glitch.’

“While we are braced to expect this treatment from a phone, cable, or appliance repair service, this company falls into the luxury sector.  That means the customer expects superior quality, service, value, craftsmanship, as well as uniqueness. And the company needs to deliver against a higher set of standards.  When it doesn’t, the brand is tarnished. 

“At this point, as much as I love my coat (which is of superior quality, outstanding craftsmanship, excellent value, and unique), I hate the service and would not recommend this furrier to a friend.”

We asked and Catherine C added, “I feel entirely the same way about my BMW and the dealership where I get it serviced.  The sales experience was great.  I love the car, but I hate the service department and would not recommend the dealership.

“If the coat didn’t get repaired and/or sent out on schedule, I should have been notified. They did acknowledge that, but it didn’t happen. They’re quick to call to try to sell me services though. If it was a matter of the bill (which I hadn’t yet received) not being paid, they should have told me that.

“I see two things going on here:  The generational decline in standards and the failure to live up to the promise of a luxury brand.

“One does have to wonder:  Is good service a generational thing?”

And I must add: How is it that with all the help we get from computers and other technological advancements we can’t conduct business as well today as we did before they existed?

12 Responses to “Service at the High End”

  1. Simon Carr Said:

    Interesting subject, Jeanne.

    I am afraid I must disagree with you and Catherine C., at least in part with respect to appearances. You are being unfair. The people who serve us are not geniuses. They do what instinctively seems right. Take care of the more important first.

    For many years almost every month, every year, I flew almost everywhere on the globe on numerous different airlines. I never belonged to “sky clubs” or had “gold cards,” but I learned early on that if I wanted to be treated nicely, I had to look the part. As a consequence, I flew the Concorde six times at British Air’s expense and got out of an African country experiencing a coup d’état in somebody else’s first class seat on Caledonian. Even today, when I do fly, which is seldom, I am the only man on the plane with a coat and tie on through out the flight, and if I want a drink, I get it quickly.

    Twenty years ago, I bought something at Christies. The doorman helped me. I’ve been back many, many times to look, and always dress as spiffily as I can. (Doing so helps inside also.) Each time I go in, he tips his hat and shakes my hand. When I come out, he offers to get me a cab, ignoring the probably rich Christies’ customers he is talking to. I say, “No thanks.” I know it is silly, but being courted is nicer than being ignored.

    My wife likes a special perfume sold only in one of New York’ snottiest stores. When I go to buy, I dress appropriately, and walk out with not only with the stuff, but a bunch or free samples. More importantly, I’m not kept waiting.

    As to whether today’s poor service is a matter of the generation gap, it may be, but the fault is with the customers of all ages. There is a word in Italian, “senta,” or “senti,” if addressed to more that one, (meaning roughly “listen), which one uses to get attention in an Italian restaurant. It is in the imperative, and if you are Italian (I don’t recommend it for tourists.) and you get no response, it’s O.K. to throw your plate at the waiter and walk out. The first stupid American adult who didn’t rebel when told on the telephone by an automatic voice to press “one,” press “two,” is to blame for the service mess we are in, as well as are the schools that teach “social studies” and “gender studies,” instead of the three “R’s,” and let the kids attend schools looking like slobs.

    However, and it is a big “however,” I have consistently found that the smaller the enterprise, the better the service I am likely to receive. Consequently, I avoid everything from banks to grocery stores, to pharmacies to restaurants that have multiple branches. It’s amazing! Even the kids in small stores try to be helpful. I guess somehow they learned that being helpful had something to do with their being able to eat well.



  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thanks for your comment.

    You may have given some of us a tip for getting service from luxury businesses, although I am not sure why I shouldn’t be treated properly, if I act in a respectful way, if I don’t happen to be dressed in couture.

    As for the friend who was dismissed by the staff at Christian Dior, I remember her well. She was a beautiful woman whose raincoat and scarf were no doubt nice looking.

    I have an advantage over you–I know Catherine C. She is one of the most carefully and well dressed people I have worked with and looks great on occasions great and small. Further, most of her back and forth with the fur company has taken place over the phone.

    I’m not sure I’d get dressed up to buy a car and don’t know whether this was an issue with my nephew or Catherine and her husband. On the other hand, when I go to a concert, the theatre or a lovely restaurant, I admit that I feel sad when I see others dressed in what I’d wear to do gardening. I feel there’s a lack of respect for the occasion.

    As for the horrendous time-waster of pressing one, two and three to get to someone–I also don’t think that was an issue with Catherine, though I agree with you that it is annoying beyond belief, especially if you have to call back, as Catherine did, again and again.

  3. Eddie Baecher Said:

    Service in general is in decline.
    Several reasons being, middle age seasoned workers who earn a good wage and experience of twenty years and more can be exchanged for a younger, hungrier, cheaper, punk-ass who should have been started as an apprentice. Today’s market deals in bottom line and volume, if you receive bad service, you are not the only customer, and the employee will be judged on computer generated statistics.
    In conversation with the general manager of a local car dealer, he stated they were not going to get two hundred and fifty cars sold that month. Quick numbers, figure at twenty thousand dollars per car average that’s five million dollars of inventory in one month!, nine cars a day out the door. Buying a new car, or any car for that matter used to be a luxury. Fur coats, jewelry, hand tailored suits, on and on, consumers can impulse, swipe the credit card, and buy whatever on a whim.
    Go to your local gigantic over grown electronic conglomerate store where they probaly have twenty million dollars of inventory stock piled in the back, and inquire about say, a computer system, the glassy eyed “associate” will answer your questions by reading the specification off the spec sheet,, well you can do that, the only reason the “associate” goes out of their way is because they can be fired buy that annoying computer generated post sale questioner, or even worse the computer robot call that examines into depth about your “buying experience”.
    Yesterdays luxury’s are not luxury’s today.
    In my opinion if you want an “experience” acquiring a fur coat, shoot it yourself.

  4. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    Don’t get me started on lack of respectful dressing for the occasion (as per your Nov. 24 reply to Simon). When I brought my young niece to Lincoln Center to see the Nutcracker, we were delighted to get dressed up. It was, after all, a special event for us. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the people seated behind us were wearing sweatsuits. As if that were not bad enough, one of them started applying nail polish before the performance began. It was a visual and olfactory assault. This happened 20 years ago. It’s scary to think that behavior and respect for the occasion have declined even further since then.

    Regarding the idea that declining service has resulted from a generational shift, that seems to be true in general, but it’s not always the case. The contractor who remodeled two of my bathrooms is in his early 40s. Even though his bid was higher than those from competing contractors, I hired him because he came highly recommended. Also, I bought into his company tagline, which says, “There is no substitute for personal integrity.” He did not disappoint. The quality of his work was superb. There was no nickel and diming. He was a perfectionalist, like me. He earned every penny he charged me. How did he learn how to be such a good businessman? When he apprenticed at a large remodeling company, he carefully observed what made clients angry and frustrated. Clearly, he has kept that in mind when operating his own business. That’s why he’s so successful, even though he’s relatively young.

  5. ASK Said:

    Whoever Simon is, I have to agree with him. Dressing well, having good posture, and speaking clearly and with assurance, rather than into a cell phone, does tend to work more often than jeans, sneakers, and ear buds. Thank goodness.

  6. David Reich Said:

    It’s so ironic that we hear so much about the importance of service and knowing the customer. It’s everywhere in business pubs and online, as if the idea of good customer service is some new discovery that is suddenly made possible by Web 2.0.

    There are some places that focus solely on low prices, and offer absolutely no service. But even in these recessionary times, many are tiring of the do-it-yourself shopping experience, or worse yet, the rudeness seems to be good customer service attitude.

    Referring to your first point, it’s hard to tell these days who has money and who doesn’t. You used to be able to tell by attire, but now even the richest folks go out in jeans (not Jeannes). So a store with a snooty attitude deserves to lose business. No retailer these days can afford to turn people off.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Oddly enough, David, I get some of the most extraordinary service at Trader Joe in NYC on 14th Street, where the store is so crowded sometimes it’s hard to move and the lines–that move like lightening–are the longest I’ve ever seen in a food store. [Fine Italian olive oil costs $4 less there than in any other store…and other prices are as good–bargains galore.] And in the brand’s discount wine shop a few doors down, you are advised as you might be in the finest boutique in town!

    These days, I think people show their stripes by their approach and attitude as much as anything else. You might be wearing Jeannes, I mean, jeans, and act like a prince or be in the finest tweeds from Saville Row and act like a pig.

    Obviously, the topic of service fascinates me…and always has. I could never understand a snooty attitude. I always wondered why some stores and restaurants specialize in it. It didn’t speak of quality or luxury to me and I couldn’t understand the mindsets of people who tolerate it or dish it out.

    It doesn’t cost anything to be cordial and if a business is taking my money for service, high end or value-priced, I expect to be treated the way I treat others–nicely. I also expect the item I buy to work, and the dry cleaner or jewelry repair shop I use to return my stuff to me–and not to go through what Catherine has confronted with the fur company.

  8. David Reich Said:

    Trader Joe’s is an example of good prices combined with good service. And they’re doing well. I wonder why.

  9. Jeremiah Said:

    This is for Carolyn Gatto:


    Thanks for making your great comment!

    A few years back, we shared a couple of times first row center balcony tickets at the Met with a senior partner of a New York City firm of litigators and his wife who was a New York State Supreme Court judge. They came in blue jeans and and sweat shirts, and to make matters worse, we ate before the performance at the Met restaurant. It may sound fussy, but the opera may have been grand, but there was nothing grand about them. Once the business reason for going with them was over, we went no more.

    The artists work like hell and go through all sorts of agony “to look the part;” the least we can do is to pay respect by dressing respectfully.

    When my parents took me to the opera as a boy, the folks downstairs often dressed in black tie, and even the audience in the cheap seats upstairs at least wore coats and ties. (Remember Cher going to “La Boheme” with Tebaldi in Moonstruck?) Sadly, those days are no more.

    I may be elitist, but to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, “Let the dress fit the occasion.”


  10. Catherine C Said:

    Getting back to the subject of service in the luxury industry and to provide an update, I have now been told my coat is lost. So basically they were stalling me for the last week while they tried to locate it. The younger generation called in the older generation to break the news and offer a proposed settlement, with which I’m not pleased. I’ve suggested that the company search a little harder. Unless there’s something else they haven’t told me — such as that they know it was stolen or damaged beyond repair while being repaired — it’s probably hanging in someone else’s closet and she doesn’t know it yet because she hasn’t unzipped the bag and taken the coat out. I know it’s just a coat, but it’s the coat my husband bought me with his first bonus. It has many, many memories attached to it. That can’t be replaced.

  11. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    Catherine, I’m horrified at the turn of events regarding your coat. I certainly hope it does turn up in another woman’s closet. Please keep us updated. Meanwhile, I want Jeremiah to know that on Thanksgiving Day at the New York Athletic Club, we were surrounded not just by male guests wearing jackets and ties, but also by little boys who were similarly dressed and, for the most part, perfectly behaved. Hallelujah! The club has a jackets-and-ties rule for male guests who enter the main dining room, and it is not violated. It adds to the atmosphere, which is very lovely and old-world.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I would be mortified if I misplaced as little as a box of a client’s stationery and apologetic and… and….there’s something about admitting to making a mistake. People can’t do it these days. Is it the influence of lawyers?

    I am certain that eventually Catherine will get her coat back, but at a cost of stomach acid and aggravation. I am surprised that a luxury brand is so lost in the thicket of being right that where service is concerned, it does everything wrong.

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