Our reaction to the calibre of customer service we receive is not at all the same, Mr T and I. My husband has endless reserves of patience and is rarely bothered by below-par service. I, on the other hand, am usually ready to blow a fuse.
I've noticed this for the past couple of years and, at first, attributed the difference in our temperaments to our contrasting personalities. My short-tempered nature means that a waitress in the wrong or a cashier mired in rudeness could very well ruin the rest of my day. Mr T's good-natured attitude means that not every little thing in the world will get to him.
Sometimes, it would bother me that I would be so outraged by poor customer service while my husband could just shrug it off and not give it a second thought. A few months ago, we walked into a store that had been recommended to us, to buy me a much-needed pair of trainers. I perused the shelves, picked out a few pairs that seemed on the right track, and asked the salesman for my size. He disappeared into the back room and while he was gone, a saleswoman materialised, picked up one of the more expensive variety of trainers, a pair I was waiting to try on in the right size, and waved it at me.
"This is the best model we have, madam, with the highest support and bounce, this is the one you need," she said to me.
Her persistence had nothing to do with good salesmanship; she wanted to thrust at me a pair of trainers that I had yet to try on. She would not stop chattering, not even allowing me a word edgewise to explain that I was about to try it on, and, if it fitted well, would not be averse to buying it.
My patience wearing thin, I retorted sharply, and told her that I was not going to buy a shoe without trying it on and that her colleague was just getting me a few pairs, so could she stop trying to sell me that particular one?
I don't know what it is about people who work in shoe stores in the UAE, but they don't seem to understand that a person needs a few minutes to peruse the merchandise, pick out a few pairs then ask for them in the right size and try them on. Which means a salesman or saleswoman pouncing on you as soon as you walk into the store, to ask you what you're looking for, and then follow you around with a serious disregard to personal space, makes very little sense. Customers, it seems, must be prone to grabbing a random shoe off the shelf and making a run for it. Why else do they have to be watched so closely?
Mr T, however, thought I was too harsh with the annoying saleswoman who would not give me the space and freedom to try on a few pairs of trainers without a running commentary on each one. He did not share my outrage that I had just been subjected to a spiel about buying a pair of shoes without even having tried them on. "She's just doing her job, it's not her fault that she doesn't know how to do it right," he said to me.
Whose fault is it, exactly? When cashiers are rude about a customer returning or exchanging an item, when someone working in a jewellery store treats you like a second-class citizen, when a waitress repeatedly messes up your order and giggles her way out of the situation instead of apologising, when a waiter has the gall to say, "That's it? What a boring selection" if your mezze order does not add up to his expectations - who is at fault? Is it the lack of a customer service appreciation in a country so saturated with consumerism, that it doesn't matter when a customer is lost; replacements are plentiful? Or is it the customer, for having such lofty expectations in a place with no customer code, where everyone comes from different parts of the world, where different rules are the norm?
It's neither our temperaments nor personalities that have Mr T and me reacting so differently to a botched customer service experience. It's our expectations that define the scale of good versus bad customer service.
Mr T was born and raised in the UAE, and despite travelling and spending six years in Cyprus, has not experienced the exemplary customer service that I found in North America. Having lived in Canada, I think the level of customer service I experienced there is the single most impressionable characteristic of the country: how polite everyone is, how ready to please, how much the customer is always right.
I have endless examples. I was about to pay for a dress that was marked C$39.99 on the sales rack, but in actuality was $49.99. Because it was the store that was at fault in this confusion, I was charged the $39.99, which the saleswoman insisted was only fair. Then there was the time I returned an item that had since been discounted, and I was handed over the difference in cash. A mix-up in a restaurant bill meant a voucher for a meal for two next time we wanted to visit. The examples are plentiful.
I can't wait until Mr T has a taste of exemplary, first-class customer service, where he is shown the appreciation he deserves for choosing to walk into a particular store and spending his hard-earned money on a particular item, instead of being made to feel as though he owes someone a favour for daring to ask for help, or taking up a salesperson's time. Then, I think, he'll join my camp and allow me to rant and rave without telling me I'm overreacting. Maybe.
• Hala Khalaf is the deputy Arts & Life editor at The National
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