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- 10 Sep 2009
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An Intimate Affair

Luxury connoisseur and customer service expert, Mark Tungate, gives a highly personal account of how benchmark brands go the extra mile to provide unforgettable service.

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When it comes to great service, I have a very personal benchmark. It’s called Consorzio Motoscafi and it’s based in Venice. As with every example of first-class service, the system is elegantly simple. The day before you catch a flight to Venice, you visit the firm’s website and tap in your name and flight details. Almost instantly, you receive an email confirming your reservation. When you arrive at Marco Polo airport, a young man in a smart suit is on hand to meet you. He whisks you by car to a jetty about ten minutes away. Minutes later, you’re scudding across the lagoon in a Riva motorboat: a symphony of lacquered wood and cream leather. The boat burbles to a halt outside your hotel, where the porter lofts your luggage onto dry land. Everything is stylish, effortless and delightful — and it has the power to make your loved one fall for you all over again.

A Venice water taxi is a pricey, but hardly inaccessible option for touring the city. What makes it a prime example of luxury service is that it perfectly utilizes the killer combination of technology and the human touch.

As many undoubtedly know, Louis Vuitton long ago came to the same conclusion. The company has a department called Private Client Relations, whose mission it is to target the fabulously wealthy. Louis Vuitton estimates that there are around eight million people worldwide with immediate access to one million dollars or more. Many of them are already Vuitton customers— but the brand is very keen to attract those who are not. In order to seduce this elusive market, Louis Vuitton draws newcomers via special events and social occasions.

Once these customers have been lured to the stores, they’re made to feel comfortable with extra attention and advice. Home or hotel visits can also be arranged. If all goes to plan, the target will join Vuitton’s existing database of around 5,000 VVIC (Very Very Important Clients) around the world.

For a view from the Vuitton sales floor, I set up an interview with Samuel, an acquaintance who’d done a stint as a vendor at a branch of Louis Vuitton in Paris. I wanted to know which traits distinguished real luxury clients from the more idle browsers. “One thing is certain: everybody knows when an important customer is in the store,” he says. “Louis Vuitton has a heightened sense of client relations and the store managers are fully briefed on who is who.”

Samuel’s flair for languages — in particular Arabic — meant that he was often asked to help wealthy visitors from the Middle East. He notes that they preferred to deal with the same vendor each time. “At first, they tend to see you as domestic servants,” says Samuel. “When you approach them, their initial facial expression is one of disinterest, or even disdain. But once you’ve shown you’ve got a brain, a bit of charm and a sense of humour, they usually warm to you… the crucial thing is to develop a relationship with them, so that they feel as if the store is somehow an extension of their social circle.”

For customers like me who buy luxury products less often than the “VVICs”, good service is one detail that makes the expense worthwhile. High on my personal “good service” list is J.M. Weston on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, where I have been known to purchase expensive footwear. Not only do the vendors have a reassuringly avuncular air, they also spend hours shunting shoeboxes back and forth without complaint and are mines of arcane footwear lore. But here’s the best part: about three months after I bought my last pair of shoes, what turned out to be the sales assistant from J.M. Weston left a message on my mobile phone. “Monsieur, I just want to check if everything is well with your shoes. If you have any problems with them, or if they need to be polished, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

“Service is the future of luxury,” confirms Emmanuel Isaia, personal shopper at Paris department store Printemps and author of the blog Luxemode When you’re travelling light and you need an ensemble for tonight’s cocktail party in Paris, Emmanuel will fix you up. But there’s a lot more to him than that. He can also tell you about the hottest new restaurants, the trendiest art galleries and the singer about whom you should be talking knowledgably.

Emmanuel will modestly tell you that his regular customers adore him because he saves them time. Frankly, I’m almost certain that the clinching factor is Emmanuel himself, as he makes his mostly female clientele feel special with advice, flattery and a stream of informative chatter. The human touch, again.

And here I must add a word of praise for Elisabeth at Le Comptoir de l’Homme in Saint-Germain. Is this male-grooming emporium a luxury store? Since nobody really needs to spend hundreds of euros on fragrances and skincare products, I think it befits the category. Go there on a quiet Saturday morning and Elisabeth will fix you an espresso as she chats about all the wonderful things you can buy. Did you know, for example, that Hammam Bouquet by Penhaligon’s was the favourite fragrance of film director Franco Zeffirelli? He personally saved the firm from ruin when he heard it might be going out of business. Or that Winston Churchill wore another Penhaligon’s fragrance, Bleinheim Bouquet? Like Scheherazade, Elisabeth spins enchanting tales.

It is the intimate, sincere experiences like these that distinguish real luxury service from service that happens to accompany a luxury brand.

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Mark Tungate is a Paris-based British writer who’s forthcoming book, Luxury World: The Past, Present and Future of Luxury Brands, comes out in October.