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.
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.
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.