Monday, August 8, 2011

Customer Service

Customer service seems to be a declining art. I don't pretend to know all the causes - people seem angry all the time, and they take it out on their customers; the carrots and sticks available to managers no longer suffice to induce good service; there's a sense of entitlement that is at odds with a substantial work ethic; some customers can be jerks, and salespeople have had enough and are fighting back - but I've seen it often enough to think that I haven't just seen a few people on bad days.

The other night provided a good example: I was in Sears, looking for filters for a fan. Problem one: the shelves were not well-stocked or well-labeled. I finally settled on a box that had no price associated with it, figuring that I would see at the counter what the computer thought the price might be. The young lady behind the counter was eating a hamburger, and put it down long enough to ring up my transaction. Holding aside the sanitary consequences to her of handling cash and then putting her hands on her food, I was clearly interrupting her important business of eating with my silly desire to purchase a product from her employer.

My local Safeway provides other examples weekly. The older staff (and by older I mean people in their 30s and 40s, not Roosevelt-era holdovers still manning the butcher's counter in their 90s) are knowledgeable, courteous, and friendly toward regular customers. (A little too friendly, at times, as I'm not keen on hearing a running commentary on my purchases. "Oh, another one of those itches again?") (Okay, that was made up. But I did have a checker comment on a piece of meat I was buying that she thought was outrageously expensive.) They know all the codes for the produce, even the weird kinds of fruit and rarely-purchased herbs. They know how to bag groceries. In contrast, the younger people, in their late teens and 20s, appear uninterested in being at work - an attitude I often have, but choose not to share with the public at large - are aloof, have no idea what some of the produce is (one couldn't identify Brussels sprouts, not exactly an obscure vegetable), and think that it's perfectly fine to put heavy items on top of eggs in the shopping bag.

One last example involves a trip to Staples. In the checkout lane, as I was waiting for my items to be rung up, the cashier said to her friend, "I really wish I didn't have to be here." Same here, lady, but I'm not insulting you by saying it to your face.

Dealing with the public is hard. I've been fortunate in not having to make a living that way. I have meetings with people outside my agency a half-dozen times a year, and it's often a strain to be polite in what is usually an aversarial relationship. I have sympathy for people who work in retail jobs, so I don't ask much of them. Furthermore, it's true that I can come up with examples of good customer service from young people (and of bad service from older people). But the fact that those examples stick out suggests that they're the exception rather than the rule, and that's a shame.

It seems to me that part of the problem stems from a collective view from the employees that their parents oversold a vision of their future. They were raised in nice houses by people with decent jobs, and instead they've come to the labor force at a time of great uncertainty and lowered expectations. Such a reversal of fortune would make anyone upset.

Another part of the problem is that the trend away from thrift toward instant gratification has resulted in people viewing a job as a way to occupy eight hours before the next social event. My grandparents were young adults during the Depression, a decade that surely shaped their attitudes toward work and saving. My parents became adults during more prosperous times but were close enough to the prior generation to learn some of the same lessons. My generation, in contrast, has spent freely, borrowing money whenever possible, to finance a lifestyle beyond that which is wise or, at times, sustainable. (I suspect that this stems in part from the unfortunate fact that U.S. productivity growth slowed between the 50s and the 70s and has never really regained its higher level. It's become harder for people to achieve much upward mobility when, at the same time, television reinforces the view that conspicuous consumption is a desirable goal.) People in their 20s have grown up under that attitude, and it has created a mindset - again, not universally - that every night is a good one to go out and have a good time. Technology, which allows people to remain connected to their social group even at work, has only added to this problem: whereas helping customers was once a way to make a dull day go faster, customers are now interfering with the ability to talk or text to one's friends.

I find interesting the fact that, despite all of the above, some retailers manage to find employees who are hard-working and enthusiastic and to train those employees to provide good customer service. High-end retailers are good at this, possibly because they can afford to pay more (and likely pay sales commissions or bonuses to reward effective customer service), and so my local pen store (Fahrney's) always has a helpful staff, as does every Apple store I've been in (now those are some enthusiastic nerds!). But other, less tony places seem to attract helpful staff, too: for example, several of the local Au Bon Pain locations, or my local Borders before its untimely demise. I don't know what magic the managers of those stores have, but they consistently hire and train employees that provide good customer experiences, so I'm convinced some magic is involved.

Traditional retail stores and chains have lost a considerable amount of business to online retailers over the past decade, and a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to understand why. Lower prices are of course a large part of the explanation. Part of it, though, is that shopping isn't fun any longer, and if it's a chore we may as well skip the store and buy from the comfort of the couch whenever possible. The folks at Sears may want to think about that.


Fogwoman Gray said...

I spent many years working in customer service. The fact is that that the basic philosophy of customer service has changed. Lip service is still paid to the old philosophy, but it is not supported or enforced.
Back in the day, Nordstroms was the gold standard of customer service. Returns accepted, no questions asked. The Japanese model was in vogue, with empowered employees and management that took ownership of failures as well as successes.
Todays models are the online FAQ, the phone tree, the "knowledge base". Your issue must be one that is in the script, and that does not require human judgement or responsibility. Employees are treated as interchangeable cogs with no ownership or responsibility, and react predictably. "Customer Service" has been sent overseas and is now the venue of people who have lost their names and are merely reading from a computer screen the canned responses cued by the programmed algorithm.
Young people do not have any examples of what good customer service looks like, since they are so rarely exposed any.

Fogwoman Gray said...

Re: Sears
My grandmother worked in the Ladies department of Sears for decades. For those too young to remember, in those days there were salespeople who worked in each department. They stocked the items in that department, knew what was there, offered to help you when you came to shop. They would take things to your dressing room and cart things away. You told them what you were looking for and they took you to what they had that might work. Then when you had everything you needed they rang up your sale. They handled returns as well. The stores had staffs of folks who were experts in their individual departments. This was replaced by the giant cashier stand in the center of the aisle, staffed by low wage part-time employees (this was initiated to save having to provide health coverage).
I can't help but think that these retail industry changes, which saved money and improved stockholder returns on the short term, contributed to the demise of so many large retailers over the long term.
If your customer is now weighing the convenience of shopping from home in her pajamas, shouldn't her alternative be coming to your store where knowlegeable, courteous and helpful staff will assist her in finding exactly what she needs? Perhaps the day of the small boutique retailer has returned, the Main Street Ladies Shop and the Gentleman's Haberdashery! One can dream :)

Rhianon Jameson said...

Ah, Nordstrom! I don't buy a lot from them because...well, I didn't hit the lottery. But their service has always been impeccable. Down south, Dillard's still does things the old-fashioned way.

I ended up having to call Verizon tonight, having received an alarming note about "unusual activity on your account." I didn't expect it to go well, but it was almost...pleasant. (As it turned out, the concern was over a work-related phone call made to the UK one evening that lasted a very expensive 40 minutes.) So not all is lost.

In contrast, I had the most God-awful phone tree the other day. None of the choices were what I needed, and there was no "Press zero if you want to speak to a real person." I ended up having to leave a message with my phone number, but never got a call back. Same thing the second time. I got a live person the third time, but she couldn't help me. It took two more calls to get things straightened out. Ah well.

Breezy Carver said...

Oh my goodness the replies are just as lovely as the original Post !!
Miss Rhianon .. I just typed up a rather long vent On Customer Service and What happen to being Polite ?? ( for my own blog last week ,alas chose not to post it) .. You ladies are inspiring me to do so.

It just seems to me that Americans in general have gotten quite lazy . Accountability seems to be unobtainable !

It is if it is now way too much trouble to

1) Get a Job

2) Keep The Job

3) Do and actually show up to the Job ..

I am a firm believer that at one time or another everyone should

Make a bed (( chamber maid))

Wait on a table (( waitress))

Park a Car (( Car attendant))

Work a Cash Register .. ie work Retail for at least three Christmas seasons !!

Ah Deliver something .. (( was the Liggett Rex-all Gal my junior and senior year in high school !! ))

Answer Phones for an office ..

These are all entry level no education needed jobs .

To be done summers in high school .. in or summers going to college ..

Heck I had a degree and still was a banquet Sales Manager for a huge Hotel and Life Guarded the Pool !
and I loved my Jobs !!!

I sold and managed air time full time for over 17 yrs .. The highest turn over profession I ever experienced !!

My point is it all starts with customer service ..

How on earth can we all get along if we can not do and understand the basics ourselves ..

More to this I might add but I believe I shall share it on my own blog ..

I will say this .. I am relieved now when I get Comcast Reps In Canada .. cause ah They do know what they are doing and enjoy Their Jobs !!!

I find the Utility companies, when one gets a real live person on the line are far more kind the land and cell phone companies !!

Grins on The Staples Saga I happen to have one of my very own .. From just last week ..

Ladies we should own Stock !!!

The point is . People talk about second life as it's a game should be fun ..

lets talk about Real Life as it should be Appreciated , Cherished and Lived !!

IT all starts with being polite and respectful .. ah manors .. good old fashion CS .. Customer Service !

ever Breezy Carver Fabre ..

Breezy Carver said...

PS my Mother in law .. God Rest her Soul and Yes I loved her .. Worked at Sears for 25 yrs . Heck she retired in like 2001 making 26 bucks an hour .. Yes in the Ladies undergarment department . How Ironic !!! .. :)

Rhianon Jameson said...

Post away, Miss Breezy! I always find that I feel better when I get it off my chest. :)

I will say, somewhat guiltily, that I've never worked any of those jobs - I consider myself lucky in that way. I see how hard those folks work and how much crap they take from (fortunately a small subset of) the public, and try in my small way to help out people in those jobs.

Breezy Carver said...

smiles, you are indeed tenfold in " all the more lovely" :)
As You turned out Stunning .. mho of course :)
I don't mean to sound like some slave master here .. I just *smiles* .. enjoyed each of The Learning experiences in " my little jobs" along the way ..
* I never parked cars .. but I did do all the others .. It was a valid Learning curve and helped me in traveling . Both paying for it and respecting others :)