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On The Fly: When Did The Customer Stop Being Right?

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Actually, the answer to the question of when the customer stopped being right is "somewhere around 1980." For those old enough to remember, there was a time when you pulled into a gas station and four guys would rush over to service your car. One pumped gas, another washed your windshield, the third checked your tire pressure and the fourth one looked under the hood and advised you whether you needed a quart of oil.

But then Gordon Gekko became the poster boy for corporate greed. When eating your young became the new business model, customer service was kicked to the curb in favor of not wasting money.

As a result, we are now living with an entire generation of disinterested store clerks, rude waiters, indifferent cable company operators and medical office staffs who frankly don't give a damn whether you ever cross their employer's doorway again.

Personally, I mourn for the loss of customer service. I long to be always right in just one aspect of my life. Yeah, there actually used to be a saying that "the customer is always right." Hard to believe it if you have a Chase credit card, isn't it?

Well, at least Peter Shankman agrees with me. Shankman, the founder of Help a Reporter Out, has a new company -- Shankman Honig, a customer service consultancy firm. He recently opined that businesses need to lose some of their cut-throatedness.

Actually, he put it less delicately: "They need to stop being assholes," is what he said. "That or they're going to keep losing tons of money."

And to what do we owe this pending customer service turnaround? Social media, of course. Whether the customer service was good or bad, we immediately share it with our friends and the strangers to whom we are connected on social media.

Shankman offered up a great example. Two summers ago he was flying from Florida to Newark Airport and, being kind of hungry at the time, jokingly tweeted how he wished Morton's Steakhouse delivered to the airport. Lo and behold, someone at Morton's corporate headquarters saw the tweet and when Shankman landed, standing next to his driver was a tuxedoed waiter from Morton's with said steak dinner boxed to-go. "We heard you were hungry," the waiter told him.

Shankman was floored, and his reaction was to do what everybody today would do: He immediately snapped a photo of the waiter and the steak with his phone and posted it to Twitter. He was thrilled and wanted the world to know about it. Within 48 hours of Morton's steak delivery to the airport, Shankman's post had gone viral and the story had made it on to the Today Show. There's no doubt that Morton's first-time customer numbers spiked, as well as their revenue.

Now you tell me: How much good publicity did Morton's garner for the price of a steak? Plenty.

We live in a world where an act of kindness toward the customer -- sure, call it a publicity stunt although Shankman insists to this day that it was not pre-arranged or cooked up -- draws a lightning bolt of love from the world.

Customer service is a lost art and I personally think it's worth finding.

Think about it: How impressed would you be with a hotel if they sent you a text message saying "We just checked your flight status and see you're running three hours late. No worries. We're holding your room for you." You'd tell everyone you met for the next month about the hotel texting you, wouldn't you? Or what if the airline offered you passes to its first-class airport lounge because the clerk realized it was your birthday? Compare how that would make you feel to how I felt when the rudest ever United reservations clerk wanted to charge me $25 to book my flight over the phone when the airline's online reservation system was down. (And her soul sister? The United flight attendant who screamed at my son and insisted he do the jiggle dance in the aisle for 15 minutes instead of letting him use the vacant bathroom three rows in front of us in first class.)

The list of businesses who have forgotten -- or never learned -- the old adage of "the customer is always right" is endless. And we all have our own bad customer service stories to tell, right? That's Shankman's point. We are now all telling them on social media and that fact alone is about to birth a revolution.

Thanks to the advent of mobile technology and our 24/7 connectivity, if you have a bad customer service experience, you can tweet it out in real time. Companies' "social media answer" has been to offer the wronged customer a discount coupon off their next purchase, Shankman said.

Old Navy has done this several times with me now. The problem is, it doesn't improve the shopping experience on my next trip when the clerks are just as slow and unhelpful. Perhaps most telling was when my local Old Navy store told me that the $20 off coupon i tried to use "wasn't valid." It had just come in the mail from Old Navy's corporate headquarters as an apology gesture for the clerk on my previous visit not being able to get my discount coupon to work; I kid you not! And now guess where I'm not doing my kids' back-to-school shopping? And yes, I sent out a tweet about that too.

"Sending an apology on Twitter is not a customer service strategy," Shankman said. "They still haven't fixed the original problem. It's not about giving someone a 10 percent off coupon because you mistreated them. It's about having your customer do your public relations for you."

Because when we get outstanding service, we tweet and Facebook that too. It doesn't have to be a free Morton's steak delivered to the airport. I loved the Riviera Maya hotel in Mexico that offered us cool drinks at check-in. I'm a Nordstrom loyalist because they provide free shipping both ways and have a hassle-free return policy. Zappos gets my shoe orders to the door so fast that I think they have a secret warehouse at my corner; I once ordered online at 8 p.m. and the goods were there the next day before noon.

And what did I do in every case? I used social media to tell the world about my good experiences.

Shankman has a formula that he shares with his clients.

Right now, he said, customers are used to crappy service. "If you offer them one level above crap, they will become repeat customers. But if you offer them five levels above crap, they will become loyalists who not only are repeat customers but will bring you 15 new customers."

Me? I'd just be happy with someone at the gas station occasionally checking my oil.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Best Buy was in bankruptcy. That is not the case and the information has been removed. The Huffington Post apologizes for the error.