Sunday, April 04, 2004

What Peter Ustinov Taught Me About Customer Service

In the mid-90s, the independent bookstore I worked for managed to get Peter Ustinov in to sign his penultimate collection of memoirs. I rolled my eyes at this news, wondering who would possibly turn up to get a book signed by someone we were supposed to address as "Sir Peter."

The answer, as it turned out, was nearly everyone in Toronto. The store had never been so full, but it was a polite group that crowded the premises, and they parted on cue as Sir Peter entered with his personal assistant. We propped him behind a small desk, and his assistant quickly opened a Thermos and filled a crystal glass with something clear and suspiciously odourless. Ustinov uncapped his fountain pen, then held his hands out to his public, and got to work.

It pains me to confess I was an all-too-typical member of Generation X. I had just earned an undergraduate degree from Canada's finest university, and after all that time and expense, it seemed a humiliation to be earning a pittance and fetching books for whoever happened to walk through the front door. I looked around at the crowd, and swallowed my contempt. The way these people dressed! Folks I'd never seen before, but would recognize anywhere, with their coke-bottle glasses, their K-Mart threads, their complete lack of irony! I glanced at the knight behind the table, and saw that he, too, was not that far removed from these people - commoners who put the "oi!" into "hoi poloi". He wore a flannel suit we could have draped over our windows, and a brilliant turquoise waistcoat underneath.

He took his time, asking each customer their name, and expressing his gratitude whenever they mentioned any role of his they particularly appreciated. A middle-aged brother-and-sister team I'd noticed waiting impatiently, lunged forward when it was their turn, and gushed. Ustinov's smile grew until his eyes disappeared. "Do I detect an accent?" he asked. Indeed, they hailed from somewhere in the Steppes of Russia. "A-ha!" he cheered, immediately switching to their native tongue. They were ecstatic.

Over the course of the signing, I began to soften. A man who had excelled in ways I couldn't hope to, whose money and fame were entirely beyond my ken, was treating his customers with small but palpable displays of respect and gratitude. When the last of them had left, he drained his Thermos, then thanked each of us, and left with his assistant.

Peter Ustinov's visit was one of three episodes that got me thinking less of myself, and more about the people who frequented our store. This is provocation at its best - a worthy quality in any human being.

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