Great Customer Service: The Art of Saying No

Discussion
May 23, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

It’s a unique approach to selling more goods at retail — tell the customer not to buy something.

It might sound odd, but sales associate Mickey Hopkins’ suggestion that out-of-towner Mark Taylor of the Roanoke Times hold off on purchasing gear for a trout fishing trip to a local lake may have been the first step in making the writer a customer for life at the Greentop Sporting Goods store in Glen Allen, Va.

As Mr. Taylor recalls, Mr. Hopkins told him not to buy anything but instead referred him to an expert on the local fishing waters for advice. “There’s a guy you need to call. His name is Neil Renouf and he’s a Moomaw (local lake) expert. He’ll tell you exactly what you need.”

According to the writer, “Attitudes such as Hopkins’ are among the things that make Greentop special, and why I try to visit the store every time I’m in the Richmond area.”

Moderator’s Comment: What customer service lessons are there to be learned from this case? Do you have a personal experience you can relate where the
service you received from a particular store associate increased your loyalty to that retailer?

George Anderson – Moderator

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16 Comments on "Great Customer Service: The Art of Saying No"


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David Livingston
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

I do this all the time. Sometimes I wonder what the heck am I doing talking a retailer out of doing a big consulting project. But I know it will pay off in the long run. It’s just good business not to take advantage of someone. Otherwise they won’t trust you, and certainly won’t recommend you.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 9 months ago

Mickey demonstrated that the needs of the customer were important to the retailer. He established trust between the store and the customer. Moving forward, the customer will always go there first, knowing that they can rely on the advice given.

I had a similar experience buying ski boots. Not only did the store make no attempt to oversell me, but then spent – literally – hours molding a custom footbed. I have to believe they lost their profit margin after about the second hour. Despite the fact that this store is more than 1.5 hours from my house, I buy all expensive ski equipment at this store, and have sent anyone willing to trust me (and make the drive) to them.

Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
15 years 9 months ago

That’s a very nice story but it’s more the exception than reality. In order to survive, local businesses often keep the customer’s interests as a priority, which sometimes means saying no or end up with a referral. When I visit “Al’s Hardware” they are very helpful with purchasing the right goods I need for whatever crazy task I may be trying to accomplish, so I keep going back.

I would imagine that an employee at Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, etc., who would refer a customer somewhere else wouldn’t last real long by management’s perspective. They would expect the sales rep to find a suitable replacement, even if it’s not exactly the best item for the customer’s needs.

Doug Fleener
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

The lesson here for all retailers is to be more customer-focused and be less product centric. Successful retailers know that while what they sell is important, focusing on WHO they sell it to is even more important. I see it in my own shopping experiences as well as when I’m visiting client’s stores. Retailers will always be more successful when they focus on their customers’ needs, what they are saying, what’s taking place in their lives, what other retailers they shop, you name it. Even telling the customer what not to buy or somewhere else to buy will pay dividends by creating loyal customers. The more customer focused the retailer is, the better and more different they are from their competitors, obviously this is critical to independent retailers competing with the large big-box chains.

Ron Margulis
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

This is the old “Miracle on 34th Street” story, in which the Santa Claus at Macy’s refers customers to (then) competing Gimble’s when the store doesn’t sell an item. The interesting point here is that the reason these types of experiences leave a lasting impression is that they are rare. It makes one wonder – if all customer service was really first rate, where would the differentiation be?

Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

Bottom line, as Tom Zatina said — relationships are always better than transactions.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

By the comments, it seems like I am missing the point here. What it sounds like to me is that the customer wasn’t told NOT to buy, or wasn’t told to go somewhere else. They gave him an expert to talk with – that’s it. The likely result is that the customer will buy more and buy right. That’s a good thing – always.

Sure, there was a risk, but it was low. It’s not Santa sending the customer to Gimble’s. What it is…

Well check the results and see what you really think it is. It sounds very much like a typical experience at a retailer like Nordstrom or others of the like. It’s just that it’s so rare that we don’t quite know what to think about it – do we?

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 9 months ago

I think Michael is right that there is a difference here between small retailers and large chains, and maybe there should be. It would be nice to think that every sales associate at every store would be a consultative salesperson, guiding you toward the right choices and making sure your purchase was the right one. Call me cynical, but at a huge discount store, that’s not really the point.

The small retailers should act like the one in the story: that’s the value add they bring, and their customer relationships must be strong enough to withstand the pricing and selection of the huge chains. But should we really expect a large discounter to act this way and still provide rock bottom pricing? It would be really nice, to be sure, but is it realistic?

These experiences are far more common in private shops, in my experience anyway, and that is the way it should be.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

Such experiences are so rare that they’re unforgettable, and you wind up telling everybody about it — which also helps the business, I’m sure. I must have told a zillion people about how the owner of United House Wreckers in Stamford, Conn. spent close to an hour with me finding the proper spindle for an antique doorknob on the Victorian house I owned at the time. Or how the guy at Dan & Whit’s general store in Norwich, Vermont did the same finding an obscure piece of hardware I needed. I’m loyal to these places, I recommend them to people, and tell people about the superior service. We often focus on how one bad experience will lead a dissatisfied customer to tell 20 people. But these good experiences can be powerful, too.

Franklin Benson
Guest
Franklin Benson
15 years 9 months ago

I am baffled as to why the sporting goods store didn’t take the next step and make some of their own employees into “experts” and have them be knowledgeable about the local waters so they could steer customers into the correct purchases in the first place.

Well-intentioned customer service employees are a great first step; knowledgeable customer service employees are a great second step. My take on this is that they only took the first.

Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
15 years 9 months ago

Establishing a relationship or positive shopping experience
is extremely important (as noted by some)! Relating this type
of situation to our supermarket business, an alternative food
product would be needed to be mentioned by the clerk.

Our industry’s very slim margins and the need to always
generate dollar sales, compete with supermarkets teaching its
store personnel to create a positive shopping experience, and
loyalty! Hmmmmm

James Tenser
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

Great retail service anecdotes like these are inspirational and they make for terrific PR. Institutionalizing this as a service practice is a great challenge, however. How should we write the page in the retail clerk’s training manual to cover this situation?

Manual: “If a customer’s question makes it appear that he or she is about to purchase the wrong SKU for his or her needs, decline the sale and instead refer the customer to an outside expert.”

Clerk: “Lemme see now, what does SKU stand for again?”

There will always be talented individual merchants whose instincts are so good that they wow customers. A few stores will succeed in hiring “content experts” with the know-how to guide customers in making specialized purchase decisions.

The lessons offered by their successes are worthy of study. If the service practice in question can be defined, trained and measured, there is hope that it can be implemented in a chain retail setting.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 9 months ago

Information is power, especially for consumers, and more is better regardless of the source. The bulk of successful customer service is information provision, not friendliness, because it helps shoppers decide and find what they want. They generally don’t shop to be entertained by clerks. Successful customer service can even eliminate human clerks from the equation, as long as signing, aisle scanning stations, and information kiosks provide the level of information required by shoppers. Yes, friendly human interaction is required when handling customers’ problems, but that’s generally less than 5% of all transactions. For the rest, information is the most important thing.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 9 months ago
It makes me wonder whether Greentop is part of a chain or an independent retailer and whether Mickey has any stake in its success. The Amenity Association in the village where I live recently asked all residents what they would want to see improved about the village. More shops, perhaps? My response to that one was to improve the shops we already have, particularly their service levels. Perhaps there is something in the nature of the people who choose to work in small local shops that means they are generally unambitious and indifferent to their responsibilities and opportunities. But more of the sales staff in our village are unacceptably poor than otherwise. On the other hand, we have a fish van that travels up several hundred miles every Sat from Devon, owned by a lovely man who cannot do more to recommend the best buys even if it means the sale is worth less rather than more. He knows the value of this – more margin on the cheaper items even if a few pennies… Read more »
Tom Zatina
Guest
Tom Zatina
15 years 9 months ago

One lesson to be learned is that it is more important to create a customer than merely to create a sale. One shows a long term view while the other is simply for the here and now.

victor martino
Guest
victor martino
15 years 9 months ago

Without a doubt, this consultative approach builds relationships—always superior in the medium to long run than a mere sales transaction. Now, will corporate retail management compensate retail workers in a way in which they can facilitate this superior approach? I have my doubts—it is the retail corporate management in general that encourages the transaction rather than the relationship. This is one good reason that independent retailers of all kinds can still survive—in fact, thrive. I still buy most of my books at my independent book seller—It’s a relationship stupid!

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