Business Articles

Three Lessons in Customer Service: A Saga of Shoe Shopping

When my daughter visits, we enjoy certain father-daughter activities. One of them is going for walks. Unfortunately, I’ve lately been skipping this, not due to a lack of interest, but because blisters would be the painful result.

We were both dismayed about this, but my daughter took the lead in finding a solution. “We’re going to need to get you a new pair of shoes.” I knew she was right, but I groaned. Shopping isn’t something I enjoy. If I can’t buy it online or talk my wife into picking it up, I often go without.

“Where will we go?” I dreaded the answer.

“The mall.”

That was precisely what I didn’t want to hear. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to any mall in the past ten years – and I wouldn’t even need to use all five fingers. I gathered my courage and we headed off.

She selected the optimum entrance, designed to minimize my exposure to the hostile mall environment. Guiding me to the escalator, we descended into the belly of the beast. She led me through a maze of turns and corridors, deftly emerging at the entrance of a large shoe store. Overwhelmed, I took a deep breath and stepped into its bright lights and imposing displays. Not knowing what to do, I had an impulse to flee, but my shopping-savvy daughter guided me to the men’s sneakers section.

The two clerks both attended to other customers; we were on our own. As I tried on pair after pair, one concern permeated my thoughts: how would I know which pair would not cause blisters? I already owned two blister-inducing pairs and had no interest in a third. Eventually a clerk wandered over. Looking right past me, she addressed my daughter. “So, are ya still finding everything all right?” She stated this in such a way that any response other than “Yes” would admit inadequacy. Before I could voice a plea for help that wasn’t too pathetic, she retreated behind the safety of the register counter. From that bastion, she and her coworker resumed a seemingly important conversation. Realizing the likelihood of buying shoes from either of them was low, my daughter suggested we try another store.

A scant fifteen seconds later we strode into the next shoe shop for another round of futility. Three staff members huddled around the register as though protecting it from outsiders. Two uniformed guys never even paused their animated conversation to acknowledge our arrival. The third, a smartly dressed twenty-something female, looked up, flashed a broad smile, and demanded, “Hi ya, how ya doing?” Given my diminished mental state, I responded as positively as possible, only to realize she wasn’t looking at me but at my daughter. Apparently not hearing us, she repeated her greeting, this time, louder. We recoiled at her vocal intensity and veered to the perimeter of the store. There were only displays – no stock – so without assistance from the staff, we had no choice but to retreat.

By now, I was more than ready to leave, but lacking any hint of how to find my car, I was left to the whims of my shopping buddy. Around the corner was a third shoe store. It was the smallest of the three and crowded with people. Even so the manager politely greeted us, and for the first time I wasn’t invisible. Although the clerk made overly assertive recommendations and talked incessantly about all things footwear, he at least helped us.

As soon as the goal of blister-avoidance came up, he quickly zeroed in on the problem. He offered an unexpected, yet convincing explanation, along with a “guaranteed” solution. Within minutes, we left with a shoebox in hand and smiles on our faces. The return trek to the car wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. Soon we were home, trying out my purchase.

Reflecting on this, we experienced three scenarios.

Primarily configured to facilitate self-service, the first store offered only passing assistance. The second one offered no assistance, barely acknowledged our presence, and was arranged to make self-service impossible; no help, meant no sale. The final shop provided useful assistance through staff that actually wanted to help.

I presume the goal of all three companies was to sell shoes. Furthermore, I suspect they hired and paid employees to facilitate those sales. I also imagine each organization provided employee training. So what was the difference? Quite simply, the implementation.

I’ve seen these three scenarios played out many times. For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine three operations that sell widgets over the phone:

I call the first company. An automated system answers. After endlessly pressing options without any result, I have the option to talk to a real person. I press zero but nothing happens. After more frustration, I hang up.

I call the toll-free number of the second company. An enthusiastic rep abruptly answers, but she can’t hear me. Maybe the connection is bad, perhaps I need to talk louder, or more likely, the idle conversation of her coworkers is either too noisy or too interesting for her to hear me. Regardless, she repeats her greeting, this time louder. She pauses for a second and hangs up. Then she complains to her coworkers about stupid callers.

Discouraged, I call the third company. A person answers. He listens. Once he knows what I want, he offers assurance, “Let me help you find the right widget for your situation.” He does – and I’m glad to place my order.

The goal of companies is to make money; effective customer service is the way to accomplish this, with employees hired and trained for that purpose. Don’t let ineffective automation, poor supervision, negative work environments, or other barriers get in the way, whether selling shoes or hawking widgets.

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