Customer Service: From the Other Side of the Counter (Part 1)…


(George) My Other Half blogged earlier about crappy customer service she recently received. Being a customer, like her, I empathize with her plight – especially after hearing this pretty much in situ shortly after her encounter with customer service from hell.  To provide some context that might explain why she encountered what she did, I would like to present a slightly different aspect of customer service – from the other side of the counter…

As part of my feverish attempt to keep the wolves from the door, and also to honor my financial commitment to my children, creditors, and the like, I have a second job working part-time evenings and weekends in a major department store. Now, I could have looked for an office job, or something in a warehouse or factory where I wouldn’t have had to deal with people. But I didn’t, precisely because I could see things wrong with customer service in retail and I felt that  perhaps I could make retail and customer service a better place by getting involved and doing things differently. So I joined the retail “team”. And herein is the first problem I encountered in customer service: The Illusion of Team.

It is true that there is no “i” in team. There is also no “team” in team in a lot of retail establishments. Why? Because team-building takes an investment of time, energy, effort, and a bit of coin. And you have too few in management, working too hard, for too little, who are too jaded and cynical over their own lot in life (or over their own past failed attempts to change the system), to motivate them to want to create a team. Teams can do amazing things in retail. You work off of your individual strengths, recognize and mitigate for individual weaknesses, and support one another to do the best job possible. If you hold team meetings where everyone comes together as one, then you ensure that everyone gets the same message about policies, pricing, promotions, product knowledge, etc. One of the banes of a customer’s existence is to be given contrary messages about any of the foregoing by different members of a supposed retail “team”. This can easily be corrected by creating a true team.

Customer service problem #2: Unknowledgeable Product Knowledge Specialists.

I work in a department within the store that requires a LOT of specialized product knowledge. We deal with tools, seasonal products (lawn and garden vehicles and equipment, winter equipment and vehicles, patio furniture, barbecues, etc.), fitness equipment, and sporting goods. I admit it: my product knowledge in more than one of these areas leaves something to be desired. Now the store does have online training that you can take by computer. Problem is, the modules are outdated, and they focus more on developing SELLING skills than on product knowledge. Right. Tell me how I can use these valuable new selling skills to sell something if I don’t have the proper information about the products that I am supposed to be selling? It’s true that management does provide us with selling aids, like brochures. Often times, however, these arrive too late in the season to be of much use to us at the critical START of the season. I’ve asked for hands-on training and product knowledge in several areas. I guess I’m still waiting for hell to freeze over, because there is no hands on training. So, I resign myself to picking up what I can from other sales people, from reading instruction manuals, and from the brochures that arrive too late in the season to be any more useful than the paper they are printed on.

Customer service problem #3: Computerized, “Just In Time” Merchandise Orders

I don’t have anything to do with ordering stock. We get boxes delivered to us in carts that magically appear in our back room from time to time by the folks in receiving. One of my tasks is to open the boxes and put stuff out. Let me tell you that there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the merchandise that we receive. The other day I opened up a box that contained several sanding discs. Fine. Let me just put these 3 sanding discs on the peg with the other 6 discs that have been there and haven’t sold since hell last froze over… Meanwhile, the latest weekly flyer advertises a very good deal on “weed trimmers” – something that will draw customers to our department where they will likely find other things with higher gross margin/profit they will want to buy. Do we have any weed trimmers to sell? Nope.

Stock shortages = lost customers. The big box stores can operate on a hell of a lot less overhead than we can, and every customer we lose to the big box store is another nail in the coffin of our department store. Gotta wonder if someone higher up takes the merchandise order that is prepared by department management, goes into the warehouse and takes a look at all unsold crap sitting there, then ships every store a portion of that crap in an effort to try and get rid of it. Oh, all the while cancelling the order for legitimate items that customers want and that WILL sell, because your department has a buying budget that is now being used to solve a warehouse overstock problem. Well, it could be a person making the decision but it often isn’t nowadays: it’s a computer doing the buying, based on historical sales levels, current sales budgets/targets, and programming designed to minimize inventory by placing “just in time” orders. Just in time is fine in theory, but it supposes that there are no manufacturing or logistical hiccups that will get in the way. Uh huh. Think “Murphy’s Law” here, people…

Customer service problem #4: Lack of Staff Empowerment / Direction / Motivation

Sales policies and procedures are designed to cover 90% of “best-case” scenarios that occur between 9am and 5pm, when you: have the greatest chance of finding someone empowered to interpret the policies and render a judgment to solve a problem in the customer/store relationship. Remember Murphy’s Law…? Well the remaining 10% of worst case scenarios are always the most perplexing, and are guaranteed to occur after 5pm or on weekends when your chance of finding someone to resolve an issue immediately range from fair to impossible. I have only limited empowerment to solve difficult issues. The people with that empowerment work weekdays, so I am going to have to inconvenience a customer by telling him/her to come back on Monday, when the only free time they have to resolve the issue is in the evening or on weekends. Maddening. From both the customer’s point of view, and from my position being caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Lack of empowerment to problem solve, and lack of  team approach, mean that we are provided with no consistent direction to solving problems, and no motivation to want to go the extra mile to solving a problem for a customer.

Customer service problem #5: Society’s Acceptance of Mediocre Effort (Good Is Good Enough)

Mediocrity is everywhere in society. It used to be that people took pride in a job well done. Well, we’ve had that pride stripped away over the years in our need and desire to compete with others that can do the same job as we can, both faster and cheaper than us. We’ve had to cost cut to compete. And you know where the cost cutting hits first: human resources. Proper staff training, and ensuring a high degree of product knowledge are now frills, where once they were considered essential. With retail wages so low, staff are disposable. So there is no longer any expectation that staff will excel at what they do. Just showing up, and getting money into the till, seems all that most retailers are interested in. Staff that do go the extra mile to provide excellence are not recognized or encouraged. So what is the point?

Oh, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, people – regardless of which side of the customer service counter you are on. But as customers, and as employees, we do have a choice: to lead, or to follow…? The right choice can make all the difference to satisfaction in either role…

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