Retail Customer Experience: Why good customer service is like billiards

Discussion
Aug 24, 2009

By Bob Phibbs, president and CEO, The Retail Doctor & Associates

Through a special arrangement, presented here for
discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience,
a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping
experience.

Ever played pool? It starts off with all the balls together. The cue ball
comes along to break them up, they scatter and the game commences. That’s
what I expect in a retail store. In fact it’s one of my pet peeves when employees
stay clustered, like a beehive daring someone to come in and be stung.

I went into a Home Depot recently in one of the most torrential rains I’ve
ever been though, looking for a particular panel I’d seen over the weekend
to build a backsplash. The place was dead and devoid of customers.

I returned to the display, discovered that it only had 10 pieces, and began
searching for someone to check back stock as I needed a total of 18 pieces.
I looked around to the left and saw nothing but empty work desks. Then to
the right. No one was there either. The computers were on and stuff was stacked
in front like someone had been there.

I went around to the right, then left, then to the right and discovered
three male employees standing around a workstation desk and a fourth employee
sitting back in her chair. She was chatting about the lack of customers,
I think.

I came within 10-feet of the desk and they kept talking. She remained tilted
back in the chair and looking at me. No one said a word.

“Excuse me,” I said, “can I get some help?”

The woman without moving said, “What are you looking for?”

“There’s something over here…”

She jumped in, “Well what is it?”

In frustration I blurted out, “If you would get off your butt, I could
show you.”

She got up and moved towards me and I led her back to the display. As I
explained what I needed I felt bad and said, “Sorry I didn’t mean to say
that.”

She replied, “That’s okay, people don’t always get what we’re saying.”

I don’t think she got my problem. It’s not up to the customer to respond
correctly. They should have broken up, one of them come over and offered
to assist me. Instead they clung together making the customer uncomfortable,
trying to spit out the correct name of the product.

When I was starting in retail, I had done the same thing. I was just out
of high school working at the Nunn Bush Shoe Shop. I was talking to my boss
behind the counter while a customer looked through all the shoe displays.
Instead of breaking and talking to him to assess his needs, we kept right
on talking.

Finally, the customer came up to us and asked, “Is this all you have?” I
guess I was feeling my oats that day when I said, “No, we have three floors
above us — we want people to guess what we have.” The customer said, “Next
time take your bad mood out on somebody else!”

I truly had been a jerk that day and it wasn’t until later that I realized
why and how. I think it started by allowing there to be a wall between myself
and the customer. I think I considered myself as the great resource — people
would ask for my help. But that incident stayed with me for a long time as
an example of how not to behave behind the counter.

A few days before the rainy day incident when I was at the same Home Depot,
I had looked at an appliance. The guy (who was part of the gang of four this
past Friday) had offered to print out the sell sheet for me. When I asked, “Should
I buy this from you or online?” he replied, “I’d appreciate it if you’d buy
from me so I could keep my job.” After this past experience, I’m looking
anywhere but Home Depot.

Discussion Questions: Is associate congregation a significant inhibitor
to customer service at the store level? Given the natural tendency to socialize
and even the positive impacts of collaboration, what can store managers
do to encourage employees to provide greater individualized attention at
the store level?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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23 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: Why good customer service is like billiards"


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Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Bob’s story is all to common in retail shops these days, except in those of course where schedules have been cut so badly there’s only one person on the floor (who are they going to hang out with?).

The easiest and most powerful solutions for managers to adapt is to lead by example. Be the first one to break away from the group and wait on the customer. The staff will soon get the message.

Take this up a level…when senior management is touring stores, they should actively wait on customers. It drives me crazy when the ‘suits’ show up in a store and act like superstars, gathering everyone around them, and ignoring customers. My favourite CEOs and VPs are the first ones to break off from these informal staff meetings in the store and get to the customer. Not surprisingly, their stores often provide the best service.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The biggest reason why store associates congregate in “safe places” on the sales floor is that the manager is not on the floor to break up the little coffee clatches.

RSR’s benchmarks consistently report that the typical store manager is becoming a desk jockey–printing reports, creating labor schedules, reading e-mails and doing other activities in the office. In short, doing everything BUT managing employees on the selling floor.

There is no question in my mind that employees need to be managed, and store managers are not in a position to manage them effectively. Until the critical information store managers need is delivered to them on the selling floor (yup, through mobile devices), this situation will never change.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
11 years 8 months ago
What’s the saying? “Idle hands breed idle mischief”? I think it’s something like that. A store ops guy from one of the electronic gaming stores (I forget which one) said that they deliberately under-schedule their employees just a bit, because they find two benefits: one, that employees tend to step it up a bit when they’re busy and productivity is actually better than when they staff “just right” and two, it’s much better for shrink and for customer service if employees don’t have a chance to sit idle. That’s not even a case of trying to eke every last bit of productivity out of them, but simply a case of making sure that “wall” doesn’t get built up between employees and customers. Retail is hard, hard work. Any chance at down time is great, but if it gets to a point where the customer is an annoyance, then you’ve got a problem. If employees understand that they can have their chats during down time as long as the customer always comes first, then managing that… Read more »
Joan Treistman
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
The overarching issue is customer relations. The extent to which retailers encourage and train their staff on how to interact with shoppers is reflected in the kinds of stories consumers tell about the store experience. I remember an occasion years ago when I was shopping for a dress in Lord & Taylor. The store was empty. There was an associate standing at the cash register in the dress department and she asked me if she could be of assistance. I was elated as customer service was hardly something I expected at the time. I told her I was looking for a dress to wear to a wedding. She asked me what size and when I told her pointed to the racks where I might find the dress, not offering to help me further. I left the store without making a purchase and noticed the associate as I was leaving. She was still standing at the cash register looking as bored as could be. This is a story I shared with my daughters as a life… Read more »
Scott Knaul
Guest
Scott Knaul
11 years 8 months ago

You have to wonder how much the attitudes and behaviors of the staff change when they are given a stake in the revenue of the store. If they are able to receive a bonus for the store by making their sales goals, the entire game changes for them. Of course that’s not always possible and it’s not always going to work but it’s a good way to get the engagement level of the store teams higher and more focused on the client.

The flip side is that when a customer walks in, they don’t always see a customer…they see a dollar sign.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
If the associates in any store have nothing better to do than stand around shooting the breeze, their manager should be fired. Ignoring customers should never be the case, especially now when any traffic that comes in the door should be serviced with white gloves. It is intimidating to some and insulting to other shoppers to approach a gang of associates. The gang, as Bob described, can get that disdainful attitude and unapproachable look. I have observed customers timidly approaching knots of associates and apologetically asking for service. Ridiculous! Customers need to start demanding better service, but that’s a whole different discussion. I think a big problem is employee loyalty. A retail job is not a career; it’s a temporary job until something better comes along, or a discount. Turnover is over 100% in most cases. I blame selection methods and training, but also a lousy reward system for those associates who do make the effort. Most figure why bother going the extra mile, no one within the organization seems to notice or care.
Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
Way back in typewriter days my Master’s thesis compared nursing team relationships with their patient’s perception of care. Illogically, it turned out the stronger the team relationships the worse the care from the patient’s perspective. Explanation: When the nurses couldn’t tolerate being with the others at the nursing station where else could they go but to the patient’s room? Presto–patients felt loved and cared for. It’s not that we want lousy team relations on the shop floor, it’s that sales people forget why that team exists. What amazes me, and Bob is right on the money, is that they carry on conversations as if no one else can hear it. Happened on a flight the other day too. I’m in First Class and the Attendants are complaining bitterly about overtime, the company, etc. like we weren’t three feet from them. Finally I asked “Do we have to be part of this conversation?” They were almost shocked to hear another human voice. Note to floor sales professionals. You are ALWAYS on stage: how you look, walk,… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Can I take this one step further and say it’s also a huge problem at trade shows? I’ve seen retailers walk into manufacturer booths and be totally ignored for significant chunks of time while the sales reps stand around and chat. And I’ve seen retailers get steamed and leave. Nothing new about this; it’s been true for 30+ years that I’ve witnessed it. It totally puzzles me why this is allowed to continue.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

There are two different problems here. One is that employees stand around doing nothing and the other is lack of customer service. In regard to number one, show me a retailer that has enough staff that you can even find them standing around somewhere. In most cases today, it is not the fact that staff is standing around, it’s that stores are so short staffed that I can never find anyone to help me if I have a question. Or the staff that is their is tied up doing something other than being available on the sales floor.

Second problem is just lack of customer relationship training. If things are that slow and people want to talk for a minute, let them. But make sure they realize what their job is all about and why they need to make taking care of the customer the number one priority.

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

And one more thing…

I was close to another research project studying prison guards and the high level of stress, dissatisfaction and poor morale. Most of us assume such results are because of the danger involved. But the study found that it was actually due to boredom. Think about it.

One of our RetailWire colleagues noted that retail sales was “hard” work and the point being made was absolutely right. But I started to think this prison guard study might be relevant to retail sales. Could it be that for many, retail sales is just plain boring?

How often do we go into a store and come out thinking “That was fun, what a great experience!” Let’s give this challenge to the sales people: “Eliminate boredom in this store; for you and the customer!”

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
This is such a basic concept of retail that it’s just pathetic to see when it happens. Several weeks ago I experienced the very same thing at Home Depot, which is about as close to the Home Depot of old as Macy’s is. Likewise, I experienced it at a car dealer last month. Literally, there were four sales people crowded around a receptionist’s desk as I entered the showroom. My wife’s car was being worked on at a dealer less than a mile away and I inquired whether there was a sales person available to show me (and let me test drive) a new car. I also asked if they could drop me at the other dealer to pick up my wife’s car when we were finished with the test drive. After I posed the questions there was silence from every person there–all five! After another 15-20 seconds I suggested that perhaps I was asking too much and walked out of the showroom. Fortunately, my wife was still in the parking lot and she dropped… Read more »
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Guest
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
11 years 8 months ago

Is associate congregation a significant inhibitor to customer service at the store level? Of course, it is. What a store manager can do is make it clear that congregation, whether in view of customers or not will not be tolerated. Collaboration, should be of course, encouraged, however, just standing around and talking is not collaboration! The other thing a store manager can do is to offer incentive for customer assistance. I do not recall name of a store in Dallas area, however, when I went to the cash register to check out the cashier asked me who helped me and I did identify the sales clerk who helped me, and the cashier entered that into the cash register.

The point is the sales associate/store employees should get an answer to the question “What is in it for me?” before we expect them to help customers.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 8 months ago
There are many excellent call-outs listed above that contribute to negative service experience. They are all, in my opinion at least, symptoms of a much larger problem–a company culture that focuses more on the home office than the sales floor. Unfortunately, the larger the company, the more likely you are to encounter this indifference bordering on hostility. As companies begin to get larger, the individual customer can become a statistic instead of the source of revenue for the company. The home office becomes populated by specialists that, in many cases, have never worked in a store. This can lead to directives to the stores that make perfect sense in the home office, but make little sense on the sales floor. To make it worse, technology has lead to store managers increasingly becoming chained to their computer terminals responding to requests and directives from the home office instead of leading their associate teams. The irony of this approach is a store staff spending the bulk of its time (usually monitored and quantified) waiting on the home… Read more »
Bill Hanifin
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

As I walked up to order a Jamba Juice the other day, the server asked for my order and I gave it to her. Just then, a co-worker walked through the door and she exclaimed “Jeffrey”! She then reconnected with me and asked me for my order.

I usually exercise constraint but this time responded by saying that I had just given it to her. She blushed, said “sorry” and then made eye contact with Jeffrey behind me. I looked at her and exclaimed “Jeffrey” in the same silly tone.

She was suitably embarrassed and, I think, got the point.

All too typical.

To answer the question: congregation is poor practice and texting, talking on phones, calling out to friends is just plain rude.

The challenge is inherent in hiring the teenage set, but there is still a training opportunity to address. It can be done.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The major disconnect here is that sales associates don’t have skin in the game. Generating bigger cart size isn’t part of their job.

Until retail jobs become careers and not temp jobs, and until retail companies really begin to concentrate on what drives sales, customers will be constantly annoyed. Wonder why retail executives don’t get this.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

I started in retail in 1976. It’s now 2009…and we’re STILL talking about this?! C’mon, face it; all the ‘BrainTrust’ in the world hasn’t solved this yet. It’s even worse outside the US, with few exceptions.

Whether we’re talking about employee conversations, ignoring customers or just not caring, Cathy Hotka’s right, they have no skin in the game. However, that doesn’t mean that grocery clerks should be on a commission plan. It starts with corporate culture. We can all think of great retailers who demand that every employee acknowledges the customer when they make eye contact. This CAN be done, and it is the fault of field supervision and up the corporate food chain for not demand compliance consistently. People get excited about a new customer service program, and then the excitement fades, and it is back to bad customer service.

I’m not saying this is easy, but I am saying it is possible.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
11 years 8 months ago

What you are seeing with this tendency for associates to congregate together is an us vs. them mentality that views customers as a necessary burden to salespeople.

The key issue here is a combination of lack of mission and lack of empowerment. Salespeople need to feel a sense of ownership for the customer, the store and the brand to provide a superior level of customer experience. You cannot legislate commitment; you (the company) must earn it, both in the minds of customers and as importantly, in the minds of the field staff as well.

When the store team feels like the store is their home and they take as much (or more) pride in it as in their own front yard, then you automatically eliminate those behaviors.

To achieve such a goal, retailers must engage their employees like they hope to engage customers–by recognizing their needs and providing them with a compelling case to be retained. Remember, companies with the highest percentage of retained employees have the highest level of retained customers.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 8 months ago

Employee congregation is merely a symptom of the larger customer service issue that we address fairly regularly here. The problem starts at the top with senior managers who view store level payroll as an expense to be minimized rather than the cost of generating revenue. When payroll is an expense, people become a number to be quantified. When payroll is seen as an essential cost necessary to generate revenue, people become valued for their contribution.

But it’s also important to note that the problem isn’t confined to the major chains. Too often independents take the same approach. It costs one thing to employ a potted plant. It costs another thing entirely to employ a passionate, skilled, customer-focused salesperson.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 8 months ago

Yes, groups of associates chatting amongst themselves instead of helping shoppers does create a bad customer service situation. Merchants should encourage a friendly workspace, but associates also need to be educated that such collaboration doesn’t come at the cost of helping shoppers. The customer should always come first. And while there are plenty of ways to achieve that goal, the foundation must be solid, i.e., it starts with hiring associates who truly like retail and want to help customers.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

When I first entered the retail world I was taught that the customer is not an interruption of my work but the reason for it. As member of management I tried to instill that believe in those I worked with both by words and deeds. While the words might have helped persuade some, what I found most effective was that whenever I lead a management team on a store tour I interacted with the customers including recording their sales.

Teresa Allen
Guest
Teresa Allen
11 years 8 months ago

In a down economy, competition for the dollar is fiercest. The consumer would think that sales associates would be fighting for their share of the smaller pie. Unfortunately, one of the first budget cuts often comes in training, and especially in “soft skills” such as customer service. Managers and executives need to look at training not as an expense but as a revenue generator and a revenue life preserver.

In my presentations, I illustrate through a simple calculation the huge positive or negative spin which can result from even a small transaction. Unfortunately, due to human nature, the potential negative spin is five to ten times the potential positive spin. (see any positive stories above this post?!) The best way to control negative spin is to train on positive service skills, yes even in a tough economy…that is only if you want to make it to the good times!

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

It is fully acceptable that the employees want to gather and have an ongoing discussion, but when a customer comes within sight, they should break apart and connect with the shopper.

I thought I would send you a quote I read which is supposedly on the walls of the L.L.Bean Call Center. It says it all about customer service.

What Is a Customer?

A Customer is the most important person ever in this office…in person or by mail (or phone).

A Customer is not dependent on us…we are dependent on him.

A Customer is not an interruption to our work…he is the purpose for it. We are not doing a favor by serving him…he is doing a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

A customer in is not someone we argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a Customer.

A Customer is a person who brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them profitably to him and to ourselves.

Justin Time
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
All very good points. If any of you have seen either “Reaper” or “Chuck” TV shows, the underlying plot of both series is a spoof of the retail big box. While some points may be exaggerated, other scenes depicted are right on the mark. Slackers who are in retail make lousy sales associates. It seems as if they have the words “Stuck” and “Don’t Bug Me” invisibly tattooed on their foreheads. However, when you strike gold in a retail situation, it just sticks with you. The deli specialist at my local A&P/SuperFresh supermarket is a case in point. She always greets me with a smile, knows what I like, always gives me exactly the cut and quantity I want, and if she doesn’t have a particular item, she immediately orders it. One time I was at the fresh meat counter after having made my selections at the deli counter. The store was having a big sale on their private label America’s Choice whole chickens, but the shipment hadn’t arrived. I requested help from the meat… Read more »
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