Having left it too late to buy a birthday present for my wife and having succumbed to the reflexive male response to such a circumstance, I found myself standing sheepishly at the diamond-strewn showcase of a high-end London jewellery shop preparing to spend my way out of trouble.
I was certainly not under the illusion I represented a significant customer, standing in my ripped jeans and knackered Converse at a counter under which glinted small, shiny things of greater value than everything I ever have, or ever will, own. I stumbled up to the smart man behind the counter, scratched my cheek and told him, conspiratorially, that I was not likely to be his best customer of the day, and did he have anything I might see in silver. Rather than waving me away, he stepped around the counter, introduced himself and treated me with deference and dignity. Now that is customer service. And I think we are seeing it in a lot of places today.
We expect to be treated well, whether we are buying a bracelet, a car, a cupcake or a pen. We, the modern consumer, want our opinions heard and our needs considered. And we want a nice cup of coffee, free of charge, and a leather sofa to sit on. And, most of the time, we get all of these things. Why, then, is the business of buying a motorcycle still rooted in the burger-van and beer-gut culture of 30 years ago? I'm about to replace my bike with a newer, better version costing 10 times what I spent on my wife's bracelet - oh, I wish I hadn't said that - and spoke to the man at a huge motorcycle dealership in Stoke. Russ has many fine qualities; he is funny, bright and loyal. He is not, with the best will in the world, the most crisply turned-out of individuals. He will not mind me saying this, or if he does, he will mash me to a pulp and I shall be expected to laugh about it afterwards.
I have shopped around for this bike, and many more before, over my quarter-century of biking and the experience has been pretty uniform. There is a tatty desk, there is a squeaky chair, there is the ever-looming horror of the finance forms to be completed and there is a range of shiny, wonderful, exciting, life-enhancing bikes clustered around you. I spoke to Russ about this. Where is the corporate carpet and the free wi-fi? What if I, the motorcycle customer, want a tall-skinny-mocha-choca-cappuccino while wondering if the Kawasaki ZZR1400 is for me? "You can get lost" is what Russ didn't actually say, but what his fabulously faded T-shirt and amiable grin told me without words.
I remember a new type of motorcycle dealership being launched some 15 years ago. It had a cafe with leather sofas. You could get measured for a race suit, choose an expensive crash helmet displayed under custom lighting on glass shelves. And it went bust pretty quickly. In my town, Ross-on-Wye, Lucas Motorcycles is run by three generations of the same family. The guys generally stock about three bikes, there is a kettle but it's covered in oil, the workshop is well-equipped but draughty, and it hasn't gone bust in its four or five decades of trading. And Russ cleared it all up for me: that's how we, as bikers, want it.
When we buy a car or a cupcake, we do so as the accountant, shop assistant, solicitor or nurse we are the rest of the time. When we buy a bike, we do so as bikers, regardless of our jobs, and we want to be treated as such. Indeed, as we go through the difficult process of deciding which steed best fits our needs, self image, abilities and budget, we are more intensely a biker than at any other time. And this revelation fills me to the brim with a powerful joy.
I had worried that biking was going to become the preserve of city brokers who want to be greeted by an obsequious man in a suit when they buy their expensive adventure bike, and set off in matching jacket and trousers across the wilds of Kensington. But this will not happen. Bikers are a self-righting bunch.
Many city types play five-a-side football. And when they do, they do so dressed in football kit and they spit and sweat. They do not expect to be escorted onto the pitch by a man in a suit and offered a posh coffee. And if they are also a biker, then, when they ride or buy a bike, they wear jeans or leathers and eat burgers and drink coffee in polystyrene cups. And then it's back to the office, with the new bike sitting outside getting the dreams warmed up. And that's the point. The new Ducati Panigale goes on sale about now. The top-spec version costs quite a bit, and anyone asking for a fancy pen to sign the cheque or a leather sofa to sit on should be told to bugger off out of it and buy an Audi.