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Attention shoppers: Better service on aisle five

Want service with a smile the next time you shop? "Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky offers tricks for faster, friendlier customer service.

In a perfect world, you could roll out of bed, forget to run a comb through your hair, head to the toniest stores on Madison Avenue (or Rodeo Drive, for that matter) and still know that the salesfolk would cater to your every whim.

In the real world, however, you'd likely get the same belittling "Pretty Woman" treatment Julia Roberts did.

To get the fastest and friendliest customer service at clothing stores, women should look fashionable and well-groomed.

In other words, much of the responsibility for getting good customer service lies with you, says Jack Burke, author of "Get What You Want: An Industry Insider Shows You How to Make Good Complaints, Fix Bad Service and Convince Companies that You're Right" (Silver Lake Publishing, 2004). "We as consumers have delegated the responsibility of our satisfaction to the company. We expect them to make us happy without us putting forth any effort, and it doesn't work that way."

All of which is not to say that getting good customer service needs to be another item on your to-do list, says Burke, president of Sound Marketing in Branson, Mo. You simply have to meet stores halfway. You also need to choose the right stores to begin with. Research from the National Retail Federation about which stores consistently yield the highest satisfaction ratings can help with that.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Be honest. When you walk into a store and the sales clerk asks if you need help, most people say "No, thanks" or "I'm just looking." But clerks, customer service reps and other salespeople can't read your mind. You must communicate your needs, the problem you are trying to resolve or what you want to accomplish. Only then can you get a helping hand.
  • Be realistic. If you walk into a fast food joint and the food's just so-so, you may walk out feeling as if you've gotten your money's worth. But when the price tag for dinner is approaching three figures and the salmon is just fair or the steak only satisfactory, you may feel your blood pressure rising. This has everything to do with your expectations. It's your job to make sure that — before you shop — those expectations are in line. Yes, it's reasonable to expect good food, good service, good everything from a five-star restaurant. But if you go someplace that advertises itself as the lowest price, you can't expect the best customer service as well.
  • Understand that some stores do this better than others. There are some stores that have always put a premium on service (like Nordstrom), and others that have more recently risen to the head of the class. Shopping them will likely yield a happier experience if service — rather than price or convenience — tops the list of things that matter to you. According to the National Retail Federation's most recent service survey, these retailers provide the best service (in order): Nordstrom; Coldwater Creek; Marshall Field's; Kohl's; Boscov's; REI; JC Penney; Lane Bryant; Best Buy; and Eddie Bauer.
  • Shop online. Online retailers tend to provide better customer satisfaction than the overall retail industry, according to University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, with Amazon and topping the online class. Why? Because online shopping is more convenient. You can shop anywhere, anytime. And although you can't touch or try on products, you can zoom in, look at them from many angles, read user reviews and get side-by-side comparisons, explains Larry Freed, online customer satisfaction expert and CEO of ForeSee Results. Online retailers also provide a high level of consistency and quality. When you ask a call center customer service representative a question, you often hear a different answer from each person. On the Web you always get the same reply.
  • If all else fails, complain — effectively. First, before you open your mouth, decide what you want. What outcome will turn this experience into a good one for you overall? Then you'll know precisely what to ask for. Second, calm down. If you begin the conversation in a state of rage, that likely will alienate the people who can help you.
    Finally, if you don't get satisfaction from the first person you talk to, calmly work your way up the ladder until you do.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .