Seniors value good customer service

Exceptional customer service — you know it when you see it.

As we age, shopping can be more difficult. No matter whether you’re buying peaches at a local market or negotiating the replacement of an automobile. Some of the reasons are obvious. Others, not so much.

Let’s start with recognition that our old ears have more difficulty hearing young, soft-voiced, fast-talking clerks. Old eyes cannot easily read the nutrition labels on a can of soup or a box of cereal and might need assistance from sometimes-impatient store personnel. Add to that, many elders with decades of buying experience recognize when a retailer is trying to represent a product in a way that doesn’t ring true. And we don’t like it.

It seems to me that customer service training should focus on how to satisfy and create loyalty in the exploding demographic of retired adults — many of whom have a fairly large amount of disposable income and treasure a good buying experience.

When there’s a positive exchange, thoughtful elders will chat about it with their age peers. And when they do — budding entrepreneurs, take note — it reportedly takes “12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.” A 2007 survey with a huge sample size says it like this: “Happy customers tell, on average, nine people about their experience.”

And for those who are selling products to aging women, remember, “older adults do not think of themselves as old.”

I found myself reflecting mightily on that phrase when reading a recent article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It was titled “Old Money.” The focus was on the beauty industry’s apparent resolution to “end anti-aging” marketing approaches and replace them with “celebration of growing old in your own skin — wrinkles and all.” Or differently put, "you are fading just a bit.” Not sure about that strategy. But it means marketers are thinking about this.

I have concluded that quality customer service and marketing to the aging buyer involves being respectful, positive and other-centered. It requires a focus on minimal “hype” and no patronizing. As one successful retailer puts it, “Take the time, just listen.” As illustration, more online websites seem to offer a happy-voiced, problem-solving person as an addition to point and click.

My best example of excellent customer service occurred many years ago when we were traveling in another state. I have written about his before, because it is embedded in my recollect. I had developed a headache and went into an unfamiliar drug store saying, “I need some aspirin.”

The clerk asked the pharmacist to get involved in order to recommend the most appropriate nonprescription pain reliever. At the point of purchase, the clerk brought me a cool glass of water, so I could tackle that headache immediately. Then she asked whether I might need sunglasses to protect my eyes from glare that sometimes accompanies headaches, which I, of course, bought. That incident happened more than 30 years ago, and I still remember the moment positively.

— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at

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