As Linda and I have traveled the state working on our new travel column, published in this newspaper every Sunday, we’ve been impressed with the high level of customer service in the tourism industry, from the largest hotels to small bread and breakfasts and from Portland’s high-end restaurants to inland community cafes.

In eight months of visiting these places, we’ve encountered exactly one — that’s right just one — person who was unfriendly. She was the hostess at a southern Maine restaurant and perhaps was just having a bad day. We gave her that benefit of the doubt.

Our experience last week riding the Maine Eastern Railroad’s train from Brunswick to Rockland is a good example of the extraordinary lengths Mainers go to welcome travelers — be they from away or next door.

Diana Forsyth, the ticket agent at the Brunswick station, greeted us upon arrival with a big smile. She answered all of our questions while directing others to appropriate parking places for their vehicles. The place was jammed with customers, yet she even took time to tell us about Terri Mason’s interesting artwork on the front of her booth.

But that’s not all. We were surprised to look out the window, as the train pulled out of the station, to find Diana on the walkway, waving to us with a big smile on her face. What a sendoff! And I’ll bet that is not in her job description.

The high level of friendly customer service throughout Maine’s tourism industry is impressive.

Alas, our personal experiences in the retail sector have not been as good, particularly with large national businesses that have a presence in our state.

I’ve been living a nightmare with Hertz. We hadn’t rented a vehicle from Hertz in years, but their offering in Costa Rica was the best price for the exact four-wheel drive vehicle we desired, so we rented from it.

After returning home from our trip and getting our credit card bill, I noticed we’d been billed almost twice the agreed upon price for the vehicle. And that’s when this frustrating odyssey began.

Others have doubtless suffered the same frustration of a “customer service” telephone number that falls far short of that definition. After a long period of punching this number and that number, I got into a repetitious message urging me, in between very loud bits of music, to stay on the line for an agent, and, after being served, to remain on the line for a customer service survey.

I put the phone on speaker and set it on the desk, while this message was repeated for more than a half hour. Finally, I heard a man’s voice and picked up the phone. He could find no record of my rental or the company’s charges to my credit card, and, noting my exasperation, suggested that I submit my refund request by email to Hertz’s website.

I did not stay on the line to complete the customer service survey, unsure if they’d accept profanity.

Linda got a dose of what passes for customer service in a large national chain’s store in Augusta recently.

Looking for plant labels, she wandered the store before finally finding a worker who, when asked where the labels might be, responded, “I have no idea. But I can call someone.”

That someone’s phone line was busy, so Lin was told to come back in a few minutes. When she did, the girl asked, “Did he help you?” Well, no.

Then the girl hollered Lin’s request for plant labels to a nearby staffer, who hollered back, “Used to be here but probably gone now.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” was the last thing Lin heard as she exited, probably for the last time, that particular store.

While some national businesses do provide good customer service (I’ve had good luck, for example, at Barnes and Noble), it seems the very best service is provided by locally owned businesses.

Lin reports fabulous service at Joseph’s Market in Waterville, for example. I’ve been a pest at Atlee Gleaton Eye Care in Augusta for years where Chris Atlee patiently answers all my questions and provides extraordinary service.

And last week, after an essential piece of my 7-year-old binoculars broke off, L.L. Bean’s staff helped me select a new pair and made the swap at no charge.

The swap took about one minute at customer service. I doubt any other retailer in the world provides this level of customer service.

We are now determined to shop only where we get the level of service we expect. Lin found her labels at Longfellows. And oh yeah, Hertz is no longer No. 1 with us.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at

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