That long-distance feeling? No thanks.

At the beginning of the lawn cutting season, I needed my mower maintained. So, I took my mower to its usual tune-up clinic – Uxbridge Small Engines. When I arrived, the place was humming with activity. In the workshop, mechanics were busy tearing apart boat motors. On the sales floor, the staff informed customers about everything from chain saws to ATVs. I rolled in my tired, little old lawn mower and was told it might be a few days before they could get to it. I winced and went home expecting to see my lawn grow to baling length. Next day, I got a call.

“Mr. Barris,” said Tania at the shop, “your lawn mower’s ready.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I knew had no excuses left. With the mower up and running I’d have to tackle the lawn that day. But I truly was surprised that the shop had completed the work so quickly. I really had witnessed how busy they were the day before, so when I picked up the mower I commented on its speedy return. Tania just smiled as if to say “it’s just a matter of customer service” and she was right. It’s not something we encounter often enough these days.

I might be considered ancient for saying so, but I really miss the good old days when the personal touch was included in the price of things. Remember when gas stations used to be called “service” stations? When receiving mail meant hand delivery to your door? When sales staff seemed to be waiting around every corner in your favourite store? Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather wait in line for a cashier than deal with an automated self-cashier system. I like being sold a pair of shoes, not trying on samples down an empty, clerk-less, box store aisle. And though I’ve adapted to Internet banking, I still prefer making deposits and withdrawals face-to-face with a teller.

That said, I know my preference for hands-on customer service is hopeless. In a world more focused on building profits than on maintaining relationships, when corporations often care more about satisfying shareholders than customers, and where globalized business means it’s most important to deliver products and service by the cheapest means possible, I realize my desire for a friendly smile, a human voice and a personal touch when I go shopping is fast going out of fashion. My experience just last week illustrates the point.

A good friend of mine has recently helped me build a website. It’s not necessarily the way I’d prefer to make contact with a public that might want to know more about my writing, broadcasting and teaching, but more and more there are people – in distant places – wishing to use the Internet as a means of introduction.

At any rate, with the site assembled, I approached the same company that handles my telephone service, you know, the one whose namesake is reported to have said, “Mr. Watson, come here I need you” on his original communications invention. Armed with all the computer programs, user names and passwords I thought I needed, I called said company for assistance (it took me several attempts, the lines were too busy).

“Thank you for calling, sir,” said the woman with a east-Indian accent (when I asked, she said she was indeed in Delhi, India, but I thought, if she didn’t mind being awake in the middle of the night, that was fine with me). “This call may be recorded and monitored for quality control purposes,” she added. No problem, I said.

Then, when I indicated I wanted to launch a new website, she went off the line once, then again, and again. When, after I had repeated the problem several times, it became clear that my telephone company’s customer service department wasn’t that at all, I tried using the Internet Q-and-A method. Same result. What proved most offensive in the conversations, however, was that my request might be an attempt to breach their corporate security, they said, and worse, that ultimately neither she nor any of her customer service colleagues had been trained to remedy such a problem.

You mean, I’m the only customer who ever asked to launch a website on the biggest telecommunications company’s server in Canada? I felt privileged, momentarily, then entirely flabbergasted. Needless to say, I have since contacted a service provider closer to home, with a human spokesperson, and with service almost as close as my lawn mower maintenance clinic.

I only wish Tania, at Uxbridge Small Engines, knew how to launch websites.

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