Bring back customer service

Neighbourhoods like the Church-Wellesley Village don’t change as much as people think they do, urban planning expert Jane Jacobs once wrote. Rather, people’s feelings about their neighbourhood change.

There has been a lot written of late about so-called inevitable changes coming to Toronto’s gay village and its environs. Some say big bad Loblaws will crush smaller businesses with its lower prices and greater variety; others that the tired, complacent attitude of long-standing Church St businesses will eventually do them in.

I lean toward the latter. When Xtra has reported on changes to the Village, numerous comments on our website and social media pages have noted that many downtown retailers and restaurateurs seem to have stopped caring. They provide poor service and expect clients to return simply because they have no other options.

This bad attitude isn’t unique to the Village; it trickles down from elsewhere in the city.

Take our mayor. Despite all his political flaws (and there are too many for this space), the quality that irks me most about Rob Ford is the one thing council can’t alter by outvoting him — he just does not seem like a nice man. I do not get the impression he likes his life or his job — or that he cares if we care.

What about the much-maligned TTC? What an embarrassment; what a farce. The TTC has had numerous discussions about how to progress. Every time it comes up with the same priority: improve customer service. Yet the fact remains, coming upon a friendly TTC staffer is as rare as finding a story worth reading in a Sun Media newspaper. If you really want to feel depressed about the state of our city, visit a subway station.

Finally, my oldest bugbear: phone companies. I have lived and worked in dozens of places and nowhere been provided with such shockingly poor customer service as I have received from Canadian phone companies.

It’s no surprise that when confronted with ineptitude and poor service in these other aspects of our lives, it hurts that much more when we gay folks also receive it in our own neighbourhood.

It’s also bad business.

Thing is, as a customer, I don’t require the type of saccharine, phony customer service that has to be spread on with a serrated knife. I am quite happy to simply feel that business owners (not just frontline staff) care about my needs, listen to my complaints (when I have them) and make me feel that I am important and my money is important.

A recent experience with the management at the Dundas Square Extreme Fitness helps illustrate this point.

While the gym at first seemed to offer plenty of space and services, I increasingly became frustrated with my workout experiences. I was usually there between 5 and 9pm, and it was always packed to the rafters with long lineups for equipment and weights. I sometimes waited 20 minutes just to find a free bench or machine. The gym was also regularly equator-hot and out of towels (and because a towel service is offered, I wouldn’t bring one from home).


When I wrote a complaint email to the manager and head-office staff suggesting they turn down the heat and buy more equipment, I was ignored for almost a week. When they did write back, they responded with snark. “We hope you are aware that in [sic] retail environment there are peak and non-peak hours,” wrote the marketing department’s Mukesh Gupta. “May we suggest you adjust your schedule?”

To me this is like a restaurant seating your table of five, taking your order and your money, and then not serving you food.

The gym manager later wrote to say all my problems had been fixed. But when I visited the gym a week later, nothing had changed — the lineups were worse, no new equipment had been purchased, the gym was out of towels, and the staff ignored me, as usual. They were too busy trying to sell even more memberships.

I spoke to friends about my experience and have found many feel the same way. Three of us will cancel our membership as soon as our contracts allow.

There has to be a better way. What type of business model suggests it’s acceptable to treat customers with disdain? Do downtown businesses like Extreme Fitness truly believe Toronto has an endless supply of new customers who will accept poor service?

Most surveys suggest the opposite: that service-driven companies grow faster, stay in business longer, and can charge more for services. Makes sense to me.

Until downtown and Church St businesses realize this, the chatter about mass closures and devastating neighbourhood changes will not subside. Nor will people’s feelings about the neighbourhood trend back to the positive and proud.

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

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