The concept and practice of customer service existed in 18th-century London, but the term itself wasn’t used until 1922, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes the automotive section of the Washington Post for April 16:

Joseph N. (‘Joe’) Thompson, in the accessory business, as well as distributor for Mason tires, a great stickler for customer service.

I love the name here in both quotes and parentheses. My interpretation is that he supplies his full name, with initial – Joseph N. Thompson – to give a kind of formal respectability to the business of selling tires, but once you arrive at the store he insists, “Oh, please, please. Call me Joe.” Beautiful.

Stores in the 18th century operated in some ways just as they do now:

They offered discounts for cash rather than credit purchases, delivered goods free of charge within certain areas … shopped and arranged shipping for customers in distant parts of Britain, and sent circulars to customers, alerting them to special items for sale.

Kirstin Olsen, Daily Life in 18th-Century England (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 195.

Email and online chat didn’t exist neither as practices nor terms, but without them this week my own experiences with customer service would likely have been been poor or taken a long time. (Send a letter? Get on my horse and ride to head office?) I got my web-hosting woes resolved through email and online chats with close to a dozen “technical support representatives” and “support agents,” all pretty efficient and friendly actually.

The real hoot and pleasure, though, were the customer service provided by a company in Europe from which I’d bought a product that wasn’t working the way I expected it to. I emailed to ask about it and was told that unlike the previous versions I had bought, the newer version lacked the function I was used to. That was fine, and really a minor thing, a “first world problem” as I told the agent. However, it turned out she knew a bit about language, too – and not only that, knew about Sam Johnson! Part of her reply was:

Meanwhile, I have seen that you are a follower of the excellent Dr Johnson. We owe him much in regards of the English language. I have read it, but don’t dare keep a copy of Mr Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson in the house for fear of my cats coming across the reference to Dr Johnson buying oysters for Hodge. Oysters are more expensive these days.

This is a pretty literate and witty customer service agent! The anecdote she’s referring to is one that Boswell recounts:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), p. 934.

We exchanged a couple of more emails and I did ask permission to quote her anonymously and not mention what company she works for. A lovely reply to that, too:

Quote away, but please let me know what you will be saying, and don’t drag me into anything untoward. My cats would never approve.

Consider my mind to be blown. 🤯

Caricatures or stereotypes or false assumptions are things that anyone writing a biography (or talking to customer support) should be aware and wary of. This is not a scientific analysis, but perhaps two of the words that you hear most about Sam – frankly, from those who know his life and work and from those who don’t – are curmudgeon and argumentative. For sure, he could be cranky and dismissive, and sometimes he could be categorical either person to person, or during one of the many debates he had at the pubs where he attended “clubs.” Sometimes, as in the case of the Scottish poet James MacPherson, who had claimed to discover a 3rd-century epic poem and was translating it – sometimes Sam’s vehemence was much deserved:

I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian. What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove.

Boswell, pp. 483-484.

Ouch.

But Sam was a gentle and generous man as well. He gave to the poor, and invited into his home, often for very lengthy stays, many destitute and otherwise disadvantaged people who would have lived a much worse life without his empathy raining down on them. A cat deserves oysters now and then, and a street beggar more often than not deserves whatever you can spare. These were clear lessons that Sam had learned during the course of his own messy life.

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