Customer Service is for the Birds

Customer No Service

Customer Service is no longer for customers. Did you know that? Do you feel that? Whenever I mention a positive customer service experience, everyone says “oh, wow! that’s so awesome!” with just a bit of surprise in their voice. Whenever I mention a negative customer service experience, I am apparently preaching to the choir.

Let me be clear. There is a paradigm shift going on. Customer service hasn’t gone away. It simply has a new face and a new motivation. Here’s what I mean:

When anyone talks about marketing these days, you hear words like engagement, social media, online evangelism. I believe in all of those for a successful marketing presence. Online marketing presence.

People shop online. People talk online. People share online. But those people also leave their house once in a while and those people actually have to interact with people in a retail environment. Here’s where we have gone all wrong.

Retail is a service industry. Something I think they forget to tell people when they embark on a career, or simply take a part-time job, in retail. They are there, typically, to engage with customers. To help, to serve, to sell, to take your money and hope you come back another day. Because if you don’t, then the store might not be there tomorrow and neither will their jobs.

It doesn’t seem to matter. People don’t seem to care. They don’t care if you walk in or if you shop or if you buy $5 or $500 worth of merchandise. Customer service has gone by the wayside. There is no commission structure anymore. Employees have no vested interest in helping you or making a sale, and I know whereof I speak.

I’ve spent my time in retail. If I hadn’t, I might not be making these statements. But I’ve walked in those shoes. I know what it means to be working for minimum wage while someone that is less educated than you tells you that your “break” is up. I know what it means to wear a polyester smock in an awful shade of light blue. I know what it means to have customers bring you to tears with their horrible words. Unfortunately, it’s all in a day’s work.

I worked in a drug store many years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, called Medic Drug. I’d love to link to them but my googling skills make me suspect they may have finally succumbed to the big chains. What I did find was a 1999 article with Medic executives that talked about why they were different:

“…smart expansion, as well as sidestepping costly industry fads and a commitment to customer service, has ensured Medic Drug’s success and survival.

Instead of trying to provide the best price for a bottle of aspirin, (Marketing Director) Zlotnick focuses on the tradition of a friendly and knowledgeable staff to build traffic to the store. After customers get through the door, front-end sales take care of themselves.”

- Smart Business Cleveland

I spent a few years working for Medic Drug as a part-time cashier and service counter rep. I got a full day of offsite customer service training. I got medical benefits. I attended a large catered Christmas party every year. I hated the job but not the company. They valued the employees and the customers. If someone asked you a question, you stopped what you were doing and helped them. You didn’t point to a product. You walked them to the product. It made a difference.

Where can you get that kind of treatment on a regular basis? Sure, we all have an experience once in a while that gives us pause and makes us think “gee, what a nice waiter.” Because we’ve changed our expectations and good customer service experience in person is the exception and not the rule.

Hi! Remember me? I'm your customer!

I went shopping last weekend. I stopped into a retail store that I frequent quite a bit. I’m a bargain shopper and I can usually find some pretty good bargains there. And in fact, I did. I walked past the handbags and purses and one caught my eye. It was on clearance for $16.00. It felt like an expensive handbag. I checked to see if someone had peeled the sticker and stuck it on there. Nope. It looked like it belonged. I checked online. This was an expensive handbag. I thought I’d take it to the front and if the price was right, I snag that bargain up.

I laid the purse on the counter and the cashier looked at me and said “That price is not right.” I looked at her and said “I thought it seemed awfully low but I thought I would bring it up and check on the off chance that the price was right.” Of course, I could have been that customer that insisted that the price was there and it’s not my fault if they priced it wrong.

I told her to just forget it. If it’s not $16.00, I don’t really need it. She made me wait. I waited while someone went to fetch another bag that was sort of kind of similar so that they could make up a price of $99.00. She told her supervisor that I was waiting to buy the purse. I explained that I didn’t want the purse. Only if it was $16.00, which it wasn’t. She told me the new price and asked if I wanted it and I, of course, answered no.

What bothered me about the whole transaction was the accusatory tone she had towards me. I found myself standing there feeling guilty, like I had switched pricetags. I tried to agree with her on the price and move on but I felt as if she wanted me to wait to ridicule me into say no to a $100 purse. I bought my son’s slippers for $5.99 and was on my way, head hanging low.

Then, I went to the warehouse club next door to return my milk. I had bought a half gallon of organic milk like I do once a week. In fact, I buy a lot more than that once a week. I spend a lot of money there. I walked into the store and the door checker pointed me to the customer service counter. Then my son said “Mommy, I have to go potty.” If you’re a mom, you know where my priorities are.

After a quick trip to the bathroom, we returned to the customer service counter. I explained that the milk had a leak and I wanted to exchange it. She looked at me suspiciously and asked if I had checked in at the front door. I explained that I had just come from the bathroom with my son. Again, the tone was almost accusatory as if I had caused the leak in the milk and was somehow trying to pull a fast one on them. Because that’s how I like to spend my time and my $3.50.

I finished the exchange. It didn’t go the way I wanted. It went downhill from there but it’s irrelevant at this point.

I was left with my thoughts swirling. Didn’t they understand that I had woken up to a carton of milk that had leaked all over my refrigerator? That I had to spend my entire morning emptying the contents of my refrigerator and cleaning every shelf? That I had to drive all the way back to the store just to exchange this carton of milk? And yet, I was made to feel like I had done something wrong.

The future of my shopping excursions?

As for that paradigm shift I mentioned, I seem to find more and more that I have outstanding customer service experiences online. But at what cost? As a marketing professional, I have to wonder if and when customer service will return as a strategy for customer acquisition. Because if it doesn’t, customer retention will continue to be their biggest challenge.

  • http://www.butterscotchsundae.com Nichole

    Experiences like that are one of the many, many reasons I try to shop in locally owned places, preferably even where the owner is involved in the day-to-day operations. That isn’t always possible — there aren’t all that many grocery stores that are locally owned any more, for example. But it’s nice when you can actually interact with the person who was inspired/passionate enough about whatever they’re peddling to start a business.

    • Anonymous

      It’s a tough call. I’m a bargain shopper so I love the big box stores for that reason. But that’s about it. I’d rather shop smaller if my wallet could stand it.

  • http://www.butterscotchsundae.com Nichole

    Experiences like that are one of the many, many reasons I try to shop in locally owned places, preferably even where the owner is involved in the day-to-day operations. That isn’t always possible — there aren’t all that many grocery stores that are locally owned any more, for example. But it’s nice when you can actually interact with the person who was inspired/passionate enough about whatever they’re peddling to start a business.

  • http://www.butterscotchsundae.com Nichole

    Experiences like that are one of the many, many reasons I try to shop in locally owned places, preferably even where the owner is involved in the day-to-day operations. That isn’t always possible — there aren’t all that many grocery stores that are locally owned any more, for example. But it’s nice when you can actually interact with the person who was inspired/passionate enough about whatever they’re peddling to start a business.

  • Anonymous

    I was just thinking about this exact thing the other day. There has been a definite shift and I was thinking it is because of the economy — it’s like businesses now have the attitude “if buyers don’t have the money than why bother treating them like they do.” I worked retail and customer service positions throughout my life and in the 90’s especially the customer was always right, nowadays you feel lucky if you’re treated with any degree of respect.

    • Anonymous

      It seems that with the change in the economy, workers would be more thankful to be working and perhaps more pleasant? Maybe people are just miserable because working in retail is underemployment for so many of them. I don’t want to be treated like I’m always right. Just like I’m valued.

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  • miss tejota

    That is highly annoying. If you provide decent customer service, you tend to get repeat business. I would be willing to let your supervisors know how well I was treated by that person. I know it’s not my fault, but I apologize for her poor behavior. I’m sorry you had to go through that experience.

    On a similar note, I do notice that in my personal life customer service on-line tends to be better, but only when the clientele are not students. Those companies barely respond to me, when they do, rarely do I get actual answers to my questions. It’s very frustrating and I find myself writing letters of complaints because of it (which is a waste of time because I get no response). In my professional life the customer service on-line and via the telephone more times than not, it’s always professional and efficient.

    • Anonymous

      I’m always the first to report great customer service and the last to report the bad stuff. Because typically I find that management doesn’t care any more than the workers! It’s apathy I guess. Maybe I do need to shop smaller.

  • http://www.adailypinch.com/ Lisa

    The customer is always right. Now, we don’t take abuse from the customers, however after many, many years in the retail sector, I can tell you that the service I receive can make or break my decision to ever return to a store.

    Fantastic post and I agree, 100%

    • Anonymous

      There you go. One bad experience can spoil the WHOLE BRAND for me. I wish companies realized that. Especially where I live, I have grocery stores and clothing shops on every corner. I DO have choices. Thanks!!

  • http://www.mommyniri.com Niri

    Sounds like my day at the salon the next day when I told them the color did not stay. They suggested I put something on – and then made me wait – did they think I had nothing to do for another fer hours and that I LOVED having my hair exposed to chemicals 2 days in a row.

    • Anonymous

      Good for you for going back to the salon! That’s one area in which I’m likely to hang my head, say oh well, and never go back. You did the right thing even though you didn’t get the service you deserved.

  • http://twitter.com/justprecious Julie

    The saddest part is that every one of us can add several stories similar to this experience. Your post is so right. I wonder just what it will take to make stores change their expectations of employees and start focusing on serving the customer.

    • Anonymous

      came back to add that like so many things, I think this comes down to education and funding. People aren’t educated to respect any more. And there’s very little funding allocated. If you can pay the people on the cheap, who care’s what they act like, right?

      We’re in a sad, sad situation. And by we, I mean our society.

      • Anonymous

        I’m sorry to say that I have more to add to this story. But you’re absolutely right. It’s about companies expecting more of their employees so that every customer gets the experience they deserve.

  • Jessica Rosenberg

    I work at Tiny Prints where we pride ourselves on our customer service. It never ceases to amaze me how amazed people are when we do the bare minimum to make sure their experience with us are pleasant.
    I agree with you that good customer service has all too often gone by the wayside. I kinda wish you HAD made a stink about that purse. By law, they should have been forced to sell it to you at the marked price!

    • Anonymous

      Maybe I would have pushed for the purse, but I didn’t really like it that much. I just wanted it if it was a steal!

      You’re right though. It’s amazing how many people are surprised by good customer service because we seem to have lost all expectations of it. Glad to know Tiny Prints values it!

  • http://mommythisandthat.com Melisa

    You are lucky I was not with you…you would have gotten the purse for 16$. For all the years I spent in retail, the customer is always right, end of story.

    Today I went to return a pair of shoes, that I paid cash for and was asked if I wanted to look around. I said I would but just wanted to do the return. They called the manager (or a manager that could do the return.) He asked the same question and I gave the same response and was told it was easier if I would look first so they could do an exchange rather than a return. I sighed and said fine..normally I would have stood my ground but I was in a good preggo mood and decided not to rock the boat.

    • Anonymous

      Damn – don’t make me regret leaving that purse in the store! But by the same token, I would have made YOUR store give me my money back. Just on principle. Well, if you move here, we’ll make a good shopping team.

  • http://wordgrrls.com/ Laura

    I was a cashier in a department store chain for over 3 years. I was tech support/ customer service over the phone for a few years at different places. I have even been a volunteer working the front desk at a hospital. I have customer service experience to the point where I am burnt out. It is not the customer or the customer service person that causes the problem with customer service.

    It is the company marketing department which comes up with more and more rules for how customer service people must handle things. How phony we must be, how we must PUSH credit card sales in particular but sales of any kind. How we must repeat a script to every customer whether they buy a stick of gum or a computer. It is how we are treated like someone who doesn’t matter, not so much by store customers but by the store itself. When you work at customer service you are given one message on paper and another in fact, in practice. It is demoralizing.

    No matter how people oriented you are you can not survive working customer service and not lose your good will. Every day I get told I am going to be fired if I don’t…. sell credit cards, give the entire marketing spiel to every customer, etc. I was fired from my last tech support job. Not because I was bad at customer service. I won awards/ kudos from customers. I handled tough calls and worked through until I left the customer with a renewed faith in the company and the people behind it. I was fired because I could not stick to the script. I could not make the marketing sales pitch come out of my mouth word for word every day, every customer. I skipped parts of it in order to provide better customer service.

    I have had my own dealings with poor customer service people. I have been ready to pull out my hair at stupidity. I’ve been ready to walk out of a store and leave all the merchandise I was going to buy on the counter. But, I keep my patience and usually I work it out. Because I know the customer service person is mainly a puppet who gets told she will be fired every day and who listens to her supervisor bitching at her for taking an extra two minutes of break time, she also dealt with at least one aggressive, ignorant, disinterested, or cheating/ stealing customer today.

    • Anonymous

      Laura – I don’t know how I missed your comment but I’m glad I came back. Yes, there is a type of customer service that is TOO demanding. But it’s not customer services. It’s sales. Companies don’t realize the difference. Every time I call GoDaddy, I get great customer service. But I always know at the end they will try to upsell me. I listen. I’m polite. I expect it. And then I decline.

      Sometimes, when the script is so obvious, I feel bad wasting people’s breath and will actually cut them off. I’m not rude about it. Just trying to save them some breath. My mom worked in telesales and she was let go for the same reason. She was building relationships with her customers but they simply wanted call numbers up. Seems you can’t win these days :(

  • http://wordgrrls.com/ Laura

    I was a cashier in a department store chain for over 3 years. I was tech support/ customer service over the phone for a few years at different places. I have even been a volunteer working the front desk at a hospital. I have customer service experience to the point where I am burnt out. It is not the customer or the customer service person that causes the problem with customer service.

    It is the company marketing department which comes up with more and more rules for how customer service people must handle things. How phony we must be, how we must PUSH credit card sales in particular but sales of any kind. How we must repeat a script to every customer whether they buy a stick of gum or a computer. It is how we are treated like someone who doesn’t matter, not so much by store customers but by the store itself. When you work at customer service you are given one message on paper and another in fact, in practice. It is demoralizing.

    No matter how people oriented you are you can not survive working customer service and not lose your good will. Every day I get told I am going to be fired if I don’t…. sell credit cards, give the entire marketing spiel to every customer, etc. I was fired from my last tech support job. Not because I was bad at customer service. I won awards/ kudos from customers. I handled tough calls and worked through until I left the customer with a renewed faith in the company and the people behind it. I was fired because I could not stick to the script. I could not make the marketing sales pitch come out of my mouth word for word every day, every customer. I skipped parts of it in order to provide better customer service.

    I have had my own dealings with poor customer service people. I have been ready to pull out my hair at stupidity. I’ve been ready to walk out of a store and leave all the merchandise I was going to buy on the counter. But, I keep my patience and usually I work it out. Because I know the customer service person is mainly a puppet who gets told she will be fired every day and who listens to her supervisor bitching at her for taking an extra two minutes of break time, she also dealt with at least one aggressive, ignorant, disinterested, or cheating/ stealing customer today.

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