Tag Archives: Customer Service

Spend A Little Time With Me*

Been shopping lately? By the looks of mall parking lots and the bruises on my knees from shopping bag laden pedestrians, there’s a reasonable chance that you have in fact been shopping lately. It’s early enough in the season that you may have been aware of your surroundings. In three or four weeks your shopping awareness will narrow to whatever stands in your way of finishing your list. But right now, unless you’re shipping gifts around the world or creating eight nights for eight people in two weeks, you still have hold of your senses while shopping.

If you’ve shopped more than one store you may have noticed a dichotomy in customer service. There are shops; chain, department or independent, that subscribe to the “we want to help you spend your money” retail mission statement. You will know relatively quickly if you will be a serviced customer. The clue is not the robotic yet eerily chirpy; “Hello” or “Welcome to _____” as you walk through the door. That unfortunate selector of the short straw is not there to help you. They are there to give the party line and watch who’s sneaking out with a mysteriously lumpy mid-section. The first indication you have of a customer service oriented staff is being able to identify individual staff. If they are in a huddle you’re on your own, good luck to you. If they look no different than a shopper (gazing around without intent, checking their phone, playing with their hair/clothes/make-up) you’re on the ice floe. This distracted disinterested display is not distinct to seasonal staff. All through the year you can walk into many stores and be ignored. (Ex. I asked for a smaller size four weeks ago and would still be waiting hopefully in that dressing room of “unnamed chain store” if it wasn’t for a pesky eating habit.)

No doubt some of this disinterest in extracting money from customers (via some modicum of service) is due to a non-commission structure. But it’s also simply a matter of corporate (or independent owner) philosophy. There is at least one chain store (to whom the First Lady is rather partial) that must use commissions. The sales person mentions his/her name far too many times for it to be anything else (the staff exhibits no other shared tics.)  They know the inventory and can assess one’s size in a second (a sure sign that a customer is actually being seen.) This particular chain is really no different (in style and market) than many other retailers. Yet shopping there is a dramatically different experience. You could walk in off the street and ask; “I’m in need of a sweater, but not a really sweatery sweater, just something that makes you think: sweater” and be shown several options. Try making this request in the BananaTyalorGap and you will receive a glazed eye; “uhm you need to find a manager.” (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that I need to find a manager. I need to. As if I work there.) There are independent shops and department stores that vary as dramatically as chain stores in their customer service philosophy. It’s always fun to walk into a boutique filled with exquisite one-of-a-kind odor absorbing clothing and hit a wall of curried lunch. The sales person is eating at the counter while engaging in an impassioned and excruciatingly personal phone conversation and glaring at you for listening. If that doesn’t make you want to hand over your hard-earned money, I don’t know what does.

That is why when you hear those words; “May I start a fitting room for you?” “Is there anything special you’re looking for?” or “I brought you a few other things I thought you might like.” you never want to leave. The rarity of this shopping experience is all the more baffling as online shopping becomes more robust and ubiquitous. It would stand to reason that customer service is how you lure people out of their homes. Yet sales staff training seems to consist of 3 parts folding lessons and 1 part cash register lesson. I dare suggest that the job would be more interesting if there was an actual sales component. Employees might just stick around and perhaps consider retail as a career. The majority of sales staff eating, chatting/texting and sulking are doing so out of boredom (the minority just dislike people and should seriously consider a move to a health insurance call center.)

Retailers: in a world of indistinguishable goods and competitive pricing the way to differentiate oneself is through the shopping experience. Make it easy for customers to happily part with their money.

*Big Spender – (1966) Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields

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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Holiday


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One Size Never Fits All

I’m all about staying present, counting my blessings, seeing the glass half-full and all that malarkey.  But sometimes, in my weakest moments, I find myself coveting a celebrity or fictional character’s life.  We’ve all done it.  Standing in that interminable depressing line at the D.M.V., who hasn’t thought “I bet Cher never has to do this?”  It’s not that we really want to be Cher (really. Did you see those towns she played for her “farewell tour?”  After year two, she was probably fantasizing about being me!)  We just want to feel for a moment, that we aren’t part of some populace blob.  Who doesn’t bristle or whimper at being reduced to a statistic?  Which explains why lately, as I tackle big banks, chain pharmacies or my cable provider, I’m prone to fantasize.  Yes dear reader, there are moments when I wish I was Aunt Bee.  It’s not the ample bosom or indistinguishable accent I covet, but the way of life.

Aunt Bee was never told that her $63 check couldn’t be cashed after she had just handed the teller a $400 cash deposit.  Aunt Bee would not have to fill out three bank forms (uniformly dotted with typos) confirming that yes her legal name is in fact her legal name.  Everybody at the bank knew Bee, and if they didn’t they certainly knew Andy. In my pursuit of Bee-ness, I patronize as many small and local businesses as possible.  I enjoy a familiar face that acknowledges they’ve seen me before (and the shopper in me appreciates the variety that comes from independent shops.)  My weekly trip to the flea market is a great outing for my Bee avatar.  There’s always a warm greeting and brief chat with the pickle guys.  The (costume) jewelry lady was a tougher one to crack (I think she has that facial recognition disorder) but she’s up and chatting now!  The pretzel man has a nice smile and knows I like the broken pieces.  He always sends me on my way with a bonus “one for the road.”

There is nothing inherently unfriendly about big business.   Friendly, well-trained staff can be employed in any industry.  The issue is one of implementing policy.  Any time guidelines are instituted for large amounts of people they are going to be very generic and rigid in nature.  The customer is seen as an amalgamation of millions.  You can toss around words like “client” and “guest” but what we really are is just a speck in the blob.  For the record, the “people as blobs” strategy can be quite effective in areas of; crowd control, public health, and emergency preparedness.  In other words, it works well in a crisis.  But everyday, it can be soul crushing.

Any large organization (public or private) needs policy and strategy.  The issue is how these policies and strategies are communicated along the chain.  If the organization has decided (consciously or not) that policy will take the place of critical thinking on the part of employees, my $63 check will go uncashed.  But if people are hired because of their problem solving skills and ability to translate policy into practice, we all have a chance of being Aunt Bee.

Everyone just wants to be recognized.  Navigating the public school system should not be a competitive sport (for parent or child.)  Talking to an actual human in the customer service department should not be seen as a tactical victory.  Apparently our fastest growing industry is the service sector.  If this really is the case, attention must be paid.  While offering any color of car, as long as the color is black, worked for the automotive industry, it does not work for the people industry.

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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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We’re Paying For This?

When they told me to pump my own gas, I took on Lady MacBeth characteristics, but I pumped. 

When they told me to please listen closely to all available selections as options have change, I listened as I manically punched “0.”

When they told me to swipe my own credit card to complete the most sacred of rituals; shopping, I swiped, and I silently wept.

And when I am expected to supply my own towel, paper towels, cleaning solution, and noise canceling device to enjoy the few machines that work in my sweltering gym, I do so.

I do all these things.  But not without speaking up, which I see as a moral imperative and those around me see as another excuse to label me as “difficult, high maintenance, crotchety” or any other label that allows them to distance themselves from the fact that silence equals complicity.

Having most recently spoken up to gym “management” regarding the ephemeral opening times of the gym (the pool opens when its waters can no longer stand the glassy top to their surface and the gym opens when someone decides that the hang-over is not in fact life threatening.)  I was treated this morning to being followed into the rest room by a “old enough to have recently graduated high school, but let’s be serious, she was most likely asked to leave” who “works” the desk.  I heard her muttering, not making eye contact of course; “Tobias,Tobias.”  It had a rather eerie “The Prince of Tides” quality to it.  I’m not sure when it occurred to me that she was actually trying to address me,  “Tobias?”  Had I not changed my name when I married, I no doubt would have been having some serious 8th grade gym class flashbacks.  Safely ensconced in my married name, I told the tot “I’ve never been addressed that way.  It’s Mrs. Tobias.”  She continued that the gym is no longer open at 5:45, it opens at 6:00.  This time change of course, the result of my compaints regarding opening time.  Fine.  I’ve no problem with shortening the gym day.  I’m not sure that I even mind being chased into the bathroom.  What I DO MIND is being spoken to as if I am a schoolyard homie, or posse, or BFF, or whatever the hell they call them.

I am a customer damnit.  I just want to be treated as such.

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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Cultural Critique


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