The Lost Art of Customer Service by
(237 Stories)

Prompted By Customer Service

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Shopping for children’s clothing 2022

In the early 70s, my friend Connie had a Marshall Field’s salesperson (a woman, of course) who would call her when clothing in her two little boys’ sizes went on sale. She would set aside especially good items and Connie and I would take the shuttle bus from the campus of Michael Reese Hospital to the downtown store to buy them. While I didn’t have the same level of free personal shopping as Connie, the salesperson would also guide me to items for my young son. That was then, when the motto was “give the lady what she wants.”

The boys in their Marshall Field’s finery

As sexist as it is, I do miss the old Marshall Field’s mantra, “Give the lady what she wants.”

Back in the 70s and 80s, most stores were extremely accommodating. Returns, even without receipts, were rarely a problem. In fact, when a local store refused to exchange a pair of Oshkosh overalls for a larger size for one of my kids, I was outraged and never shopped there again. Small women’s clothing stores were so helpful and accommodating that I knew I would leave with the item I needed for a special occasion. When I needed help from a plumber or handyman, someone would actually answer the phone and schedule a specific time to come.

Gradually, this type of customer service dwindled. I remember trying to help my mother to connect with the help she needed but couldn’t access. When her computer geek stopped answering her pleas for help, she tried to reach out to him via her own Facebook page. When she needed to call her doctor, she found the choices of what number to push to get to a human being confusing. I tried to help her as best I could with her computer issues, which usually involved finding her desktop icon for the bridge game she loved. I put a post-it on her refrigerator with her doctor’s number, followed by “press 6.” But when she ran into Comcast issues, a different level of help was required to obtain customer service.

From Chicago, I called Comcast pretending to be my mother in Detroit. When I reached a customer service representative, I asked, “Can you help me, dear? I’m 90 years old and can’t find the information you want.” Yes, I confess – I enjoyed impersonating my 90-year-old mom to deal with the bureaucracy and lack of civility and kindness that continued to plague her life, and mine. I discovered that when it comes to getting customer service, sometimes pays to be 90.

When I call Comcast as myself (even though I am sure I am ancient to the kid from India named “Sean” who is helping me), I have to provide all sorts of information that forces me to crawl under the desk where my modem and other equipment reside or dismantle my cable box. As my mom, however, I just told “Sean” that I was 90 and unable to get him that number and, amazingly, he found my mother’s account with two clicks. When I called Medicare as Mom and told them I was 90, they politely explained how to appeal their non-payment of an ambulance bill. When I call as myself, they tell me to go online and figure it out myself.

These memories of posing as my mother make me nostalgic for days before automated voice messaging, call centers, and customer service representatives. I miss calling a doctor and having a receptionist actually answer the phone. When I used to call a store to see if an item was in stock, an operator answered and routed my call to an actual person. Remember those ancient times?

My customer service representative

These days, what passes for customer service, if you can’t fix the issue by going to the website and having a virtual conversation via texting, is to get in the cue. Listen to the muzak. They appreciate my call and the robot will route me through many levels of customer service, often resulting in being disconnected. Perhaps, after waiting a long time, I will be routed to an actual customer service representative. Unfortunately, I often end up talking to someone from a foreign call center and don’t understand what the person is telling me beyond going back to the website and trying again.

Yes, I finally got some customer service from Amazon

As sexist as it is, I do miss the old Marshall Field’s mantra, “Give the lady what she wants.”

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Laurie. I know Marshall Field’s prided itself on its customer service. That said, as with Betsy’s story, I appreciated (and can certainly relate to) the stories you’ve included of current bad service as well. Surprisingly, though, I’ve never thought about posing as a (super) old person to get at least slightly better service. May just try that next time I have to deal with Verizon — as well as threatening to switch to the equally dreadful Comcast.

  2. It’s true indeed Laurie, that getting a person on the phone is often rare or impossible.

    I recently wanted to reach my Chase banker and dialed the direct number for the branch I’d been using for years. But now I discovered those direct branch numbers now take you to corporate Chase and you cannot reach a branch. Complaining to my banker when next I saw him in person, he told me what to press on the keypad to bypass the robot.
    I bet lots of companies have similar maneuvers – we’ll just have to learn them!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are right. Same thing happened with our bank. We eventually gave up and went in person to talk to the banker. Turns out, the dire warning we received, even though we had taken care of the problem, was what they do on the assumption that no one responds to an email request from the bank. Good to know because they just sent us another one.

  3. Marian says:

    All true, Laurie, and I really can’t stand chatbots. My mother has better luck than I when she explains she is 94, and by some miracle Comcast has helped her. We all do long for the good old days …

    • Laurie Levy says:

      At least Comcast seems to have patience for people in their 90s. The chatbots are usually useless, but my daughter told me to try it because Amazon wouldn’t refund an item unless I returned it, but I never received it. She was right — the chatbot person fixed it.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    So well described–phone tree hell and on-line non-help. I have actually come across some advertisements claiming that a person answers the phone, and that is certainly selling point for me. No apologies needed for impersonating a ninety-year-old, and good to know it has worked! I’m sure plenty of ninety-year-olds have just given up left to their own devices (not to mention the rest of us). We have also found that crossing the border as seniors and declaring items such as support hose or dental hygiene supplies elicits a wave through.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      LOL! There are a few benefits to getting older. I’m lucky to have an internist (thinking of your piece) with real people who answer the phone. It’s been great, but he’s retiring in December. Hope this doesn’t change when the new doc arrives.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, your lament is far too common these days, and I fear, only going to get worse. I do love that you impersonated your 90 year old mother to get better assistance (and that worked for some time). Now, even that won’t do the job, as the foreigners on the call centers don’t speak enough English to understand our needs. I, too, am nostalgic for the good old days when the customer came first.

  6. Suzy says:

    I love the idea of saying you are 90 years old and can’t find the info they want, and then they find it themselves. I definitely want to try that! I agree with you about people in call centers who are hard to understand, and that if you just hang up and call again (even right away) you will get someone different and perhaps better.

    I wondered if Marshall Field’s still existed, so I looked it up, and apparently it has turned into Macy’s. Probably didn’t bring the old customer service along when it changed though.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Even before Macy’s took over, Fields no longer gave people great service. When my twin granddaughters were born, someone gave them a gift of christening gowns from Fields, which she clearly didn’t intend to use. My daughter had no gift receipt and didn’t get around to returning them right away, but they still had the tags attached. In the old days, Field’s would have issued a refund without a question. Now they only offered store credit and claimed the gowns were on sale, which is ridiculous because why would an item like that go on sale. But that’s what the computer said. She decided to donate them instead, thinking they would mean a lot to someone.

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