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A salute to the saints of patrons

Oprah, whose pop culture wisdom trickles down to me largely through errant issues of her magazine, 'O,' once defined failure as God's way of telling you that something Ñ a relationship, a job, a pursuit Ñ isn't right for you.

She was undoubtedly inspired by my former duties on the selling floor of a major Northwest retailer that shall remain nameless. (For the curious I will allow that the Seattle-based company is not Starbucks).

It would be an understatement to say that my manager was horrified when she overheard the following exchange between a customer and me:

Customer: I'd like to return this dress. My husband

doesn't like it.

Me: So don't let him wear it.

While I was allowed to keep my job after promising dramatic improvement in the area of customer relations, it had become clear that sales was not my forte.

That's why I am duly impressed by people and businesses with a firm grip on what it means to deliver great customer service. By that I don't mean the full-on assault that often occurs when you enter an establishment, but rather the ability to quickly summarize customers' needs and assist them in a genuine manner Ñ or not, if that's what the situation requires.

This is easier said than done, as anyone who works on commission will tell you. Because most managers have an unwavering eye on the bottom line, less than barracudalike tactics are perceived as ineffectual or lazy.

This means that for most salespeople, relating to customers in the patient, light-handed manner that most people appreciate is tough when there's pressure from above. And because the customer is always right Ñ even when he or she hasn't spoken Ñ it also requires a modicum of psychic ability, for that moment when 'I'm just looking' segues into 'What does a person have to do to get a little help around here?'

Despite these challenges, a number of people in the Portland area stand out for their stellar customer service. If you've ever exited a business feeling as if you've been emotionally mugged, you know that good service is enough to keep you coming back indefinitely, regardless of what the competition does to woo you.

Shoppers with more taste than time turn to Denise Grimes, manager of the Saks Fifth Avenue Club, the store's personal shopping service. Last minute soiree? She'll find the dress. Job interview? Grimes provides the polish. Once she gets a handle on your look, needs and sizes, you're set. Best of all, the service is free.

Megan Klein, owner of

Aequis Spa in Northwest Portland, gets the same high marks for customer service that she does for skin care. In fact, she travels around the country telling other companies how to create Ñ and keep Ñ satisfied customers.

Nick Lammerman, who tends bar during the day at the Red Star Tavern and Roast House on Southwest Washington Street, is the kind of guy who remembers your 'usual,' regardless of how unusual it is.

Shelly Singer at Zelda's Shoe Bar on Northwest 23rd Avenue knows that humor is a great way to grease the wheels of commerce. Singer's ready wit compels her customers to stop in for a laugh Ñ and hopefully a pair of sling-backs. Customers may also get phone calls that go something like this: '911! 911! Jill, this is a fashion emergency! A pair of sandals just came in that have your name all over them!'

Good news for the masses who'd rather have molars pulled than shop for groceries: Michael Mingl at the Hollywood Fred Meyer. The sitcom-worthy entertainment that Mingl provides explains the invariably long lines at his register.

Often, the best litmus test for great customer service is being told to go away. Joy Cohen at the Mimi & Lena boutique on Northwest 23rd has no qualms about telling you when something

doesn’t do you justice. The result? You may not get the item you originally wanted, but you'll wind up with something much better.

And isn't that brand of savvy what you want from a salesperson?