Patronizing the patron

As a consumer, you are loved. That's the message companies big and small want to get across to you. They really want the relationship to work. Now as never before, retailers are coddling us with a new touchy-feely lingo of customer service.

Recently, while running a few errands, I walked into a department store to exchange the couch that was delivered to my apartment for the one I'd ordered. Rather than being referred to the customer service counter, I was directed to the "customer care" counter. Apparently, the establishment wanted me to know that I wasn't just paying for a product or a service, but was getting some genuine goodwill for the future, as well as sympathy for any past sofa-buying traumas I might have suffered.

My next stop was a clothing retailer. I expected to see that old familiar sign posted on the walls: "Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Instead, I found one that read: "You are being videotaped for your own protection."

I suppose the benefit of this change is that now I, the potential shoplifter, can rest assured that I won't have to worry about any armed robberies interrupting my looting.

When I came home, it was to a ringing telephone. On the other end of the line was a telemarketer pitching the latest unprecedented credit-card deal. I'm always up for more credit, so I decided to listen to what he had to say.

Grasping that I was interested, he promptly stated: "This call may be monitored for quality purposes."

Putting things this way, the company almost had me convinced that the taping was being done in my interest. But then it occurred to me that the real goal was for the retailer not to appear paranoid that I might one day deny ever placing the order I was placing.

In step with modern society's struggle to not offend, assume, presume, or insult, the great retail race to patronize the patron is on. But so as to not leave their employees out of the euphemistic trend, companies are boosting the morale of the help, too. To that end, the position of salesman has been terminated to make way for the superior-sounding "sales associate." I wonder, is this an attempt to make the help forget they're earning only $5.15 an hour?

Some sort of self-esteem injection? A trick to make the toiler think that somewhere there is a desk for him to sit down at if he gets tired of being on his feet for eight hours? Will there be a Broadway revival titled "Death of a Sales Associate?"

Syms, the national discount designer-clothing chain, has taken it a step further. While its motto has always been, "An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer," it has now elevated the "sales associate" to the status of "educator."

During one of my biannual visits to the store, I ran into one of these educators. I really just wanted to walk around the shop, but he made me sit down and take notes. I listened patiently as the employee infused his vast retail knowledge into my naive, impressionable shopper's mind.

When I was finally freed a few hours later, I realized I'd forgotten to open up the checking account I'd been meaning to start ever since signing up for that new credit card.

I stopped at Chase Bank, where "the right relationship is everything." There, instead of an account manager, I had to see a "relationship manager." I learned the relevance of the change in nomenclature when this manager explained that I'd be charged every time I talked to the teller, every time I wrote a check, every time my balance got below $3,000, every time I used an ATM, and every time one of these services didn't go smoothly. But the relationship manager will be there for me so that, rather than break it off with Chase when I've had enough of its fees I can, instead, try to work things out through this intimate-sounding and selfless counselor.

All this craziness is enough to get a consumer down! But making sure that my consumer confidence doesn't waver is the financial world. It wants me to know that any investments I may have are secure. After all, there's no longer any possibility of a market crash. The worst that can happen is a correction.

*Julia Gorin is a stand-up comic in New York City and a contributing editor to the online magazine

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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