Retailing Faux Pas

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Oct 19, 2005
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By Bill Bittner, President, BWH Consulting


We all have them – those encounters with a sales person that are permanently embedded in our memories. As I was hiking the other day, thinking about the approaching ski season, I recalled one that is a classic…


Several years ago, as a friend and I were coming off Killington Mountain in Vermont, we saw a “Big Ski Sale” sign posted on one of the shops on the main access road. My friend, Cathy, was a very good skier, probably in her early forties at the time, who spent most of her weekends at Killington in a Ski House she shared with several other hardcore skiers. She had been looking for new skis, so we stopped to see what was available.


As we entered the shop, a young salesman approached us. Cathy told him the brand, model, and length of ski she wanted. The salesman took us over to the ski rack and we looked around, but the proper ski was not available.


His reaction was to suggest a substitute with words to the effect, “I think you would like this pair.”


Cathy asked why he thought she might like the substitute and his response (no kidding) was, “It is the kind of ski my mother would like.”


Managing to keep her cool, Cathy asked, “What makes you think I would like the kind of ski your mother would?”


His response: “It must be the pink jump suit you’re wearing.”


Needless to say we didn’t buy anything.


Moderator’s Comment: Share your favorite recollection of an encounter of the strange kind with a retail salesperson. What will it take for retailers
to improve customer service levels in their stores?


I just can’t imagine what this guy was thinking when he made those remarks. Maybe he figured that, because Cathy obviously knew what she was looking for,
the sale was already lost when the skis were not in stock. I hope that was the reason, because otherwise he was just plain stupid.


I don’t know what kind of training they give sales people in the ski shops, but it seems the first thing they should do is determine what type of skier
they are addressing. It is more important to understand how customers perceive themselves than what kind of skier they might be actually.


A few quick questions, like “How often do you ski?” and “What kind of trails do you ski?” would go a long way to help a salesperson make the appropriate
recommendation. They also have to know their product. Only then might they convince a skier to make a switch.

Bill Bittner – Moderator

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20 Comments on "Retailing Faux Pas"


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Judy Feuerbach
Guest
Judy Feuerbach
15 years 4 months ago
My long term boyfriend and I decided to get married. Since we’d both been married before, we wanted a small, low key wedding. I hadn’t planned on wearing a traditional wedding dress but he wanted me to since he decided to wear a tux. This was two weeks before the wedding, necessitating a quick, off-the rack wedding dress. I stopped into a small bridal shop, explained the situation to the sales clerk, who directed me to an appropriate rack. I selected a dress that I liked. The clerk looked at the dress, looked critically at my figure and said, “Oh, honey *THAT* won’t fit you!” I asked if I could at least try it on. She agreed. The dress fit me, needing only very minor alterations. In the course of trying on the dress, the clerk provided me with a strapless bra and hoop slip for a wedding dress. When I gave her my bra size, she said, “Oh my! You *ARE* full of surprises!” I was so insulted. If it hadn’t been for the… Read more »
Lori Sudler
Guest
Lori Sudler
15 years 4 months ago

I am beginning to wonder if retailers will ever actually get it together in the customer service area. In my neighborhood, there is a certain home improvement store that always has absolutely everything I need when working on the house. The problem? It usually takes me about two hours to find all of the things that I need when I go there because their staff is so unhelpful. I constantly get the “that’s not my department answer” when seeking out help and I actually have had an employee run and hide when we made that all important eye contact and they knew I was headed their way for help.

I usually have about 20 hours a weekend to work on projects around the house and, if I have to spend two hours of that each time at the store, you are eating up 10% of my time.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 4 months ago
I would like to both tell a story and build on Mark’s comments. I was car shopping (a woman alone in a car dealership, you know this is going to be ugly). I will keep the story as short as possible, but in the time it took me to test drive one of two models I was deciding between, the salesman: 1) could not answer a single question about dimensions of the car and questioned my information when I told him; 2) wouldn’t let me park the car as he was “certain I wouldn’t do it right”; 3) answered every question about the higher-end model with, “That’s more expensive.” When asked how much more expensive, replied “More.” He told me I shouldn’t buy a stick shift as I would burn out the transmission. (In 30+ years of driving manuals, I have never had a transmission problem). He said I wasn’t as bad a driver as he expected me to be, and then refused to negotiate price at all until I went to other dealers. (That’s… Read more »
Mitch Kristofferson
Guest
Mitch Kristofferson
15 years 4 months ago
For all but the more extreme cases – and our leadoff ski salesman is certainly a great example – I think of management as the root cause for most of our retail experiences, whether they be very unpleasant or unbelievably positive. An example of unbelievable service received on the positive side – I recently returned from a week-long retail conference in Tokyo. The level of service I received made all but the best service in the US seem barbaric by comparison. Being accustomed to having bags, food, etc. casually tossed in my direction after the sale, I nearly cried over what seemed like royal treatment everywhere I shopped or stayed. After I left my passport in the hotel lobby and went out shopping, the hotel called me on my cell phone to alert me to the fact that they were keeping it safe (this made the need to fill out a form upon check-in suddenly much more palatable). Cultural differences aside, it was obvious they take the business of retail and hospitality very seriously with… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Many retailers do not consistently measure customer service quality, so they can’t tell if it’s improving or not. The most common “method” is totally anecdotal, based on the few customer letters and phone calls received by the upper management. Or the upper management assumes that stores and zones with higher sales trends compared to last year have better service. The best companies either use shopping services or take customer surveys on a wide, consistent daily basis, all year round. For example, Border’s Books gives surveys to 45,000 shoppers a year, and rewards the responders with 15% off coupons. Burger King gives out a toll-free number with an automated phone survey, and rewards the responders with free food coupons. Mercedes used to survey every new car buyer after the sale, asking about the dealer’s performance. I’ve received customer surveys after I contacted the help desks for Canon and Kodak and HP. There’s an old saying, “If it isn’t measured it can’t be managed.”

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
15 years 4 months ago

Rather than share an anecdote, I’d like to share a dream. In this dream, a world exists where the management of service institutions create a culture where actual customer service is a given.

At the core of today’s service issues are the beliefs management has about what is and is not possible. If you really talk to them, you find that they’ve essentially given up. And it’s all about “them.” The employees just don’t have the communication skills, aren’t raised properly, have an entitlement expectation….etc.

I don’t want to live in that world. I want to live in a world where leaders create visions, take responsibility for culture growth and sustenance, and simply WILL things into being.

Executives at service companies take note: if you want to know what’s wrong with service at your company, start with the person in the mirror. Get passionate about your vision, and then make it happen. Stop making excuses.

Natalie Marsh
Guest
Natalie Marsh
15 years 4 months ago
I had the most remarkable and memorable customer service experience at a local discount store (part of a national chain). Let me preface with a bit of history – this store has been open in our community for about 15 years. I have been a customer there since the beginning (though with decreasing frequency…the “why” will become apparent in a moment). I went in for a quick purchase (a small Rubbermaid style storage item). I found the item fairly quickly but noticed it was really dirty – as though it had been left out in the rain. Being frugal and in a hurry I decide to buy it anyway, knowing I could clean it up. I also picked up a blouse (on impulse, I admit). When I approached the check out lanes I saw 2 were open but only one CSR was present. I approached the lane and the women looked me square in the eye, turned off her register light and turned her back without a word. I was stunned – but went to… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
Maybe it’s time for a new book on customer service, “Tales Too Terrible to Tell.” My personal “favorite” is the hotel night clerk that informs me upon a 1:00 AM arrival that he gave away my room, even though I had guaranteed it with a credit card and phoned ahead to inform that my flight was delayed. This has occurred three times that I can recollect. In each instance, the offered solution was a free room at an inferior hotel miles away in the suburbs – saving my company a few dollars, but leaving me with less sleep, less comfort, and a long commute to my meeting the following morning. This is an instance where the hotel’s ill-conceived policy works to defeat even the best intentions of its customer-facing employee. Another winner from the lodging industry is the hotel customer “disloyalty” card program that cancels a customer’s account along with years of accumulated points after an 18-month period in which the customer did not stay with the chain. The behavioral change was caused by the… Read more »
Carol Spieckerman
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

My favorite keeps happening . . . at my local health food store/chain. The pleasant-but-clueless checkers always ask, “So, did you find everything okay?”. . .(usually looking away/at the ceiling dreamily). Since the store is often out of stock on items I routinely buy, I’ve commented, “Actually, no” more than once, which I’ve realized elicits “…mmmm sorry” nine times out of ten. But my favorite was “Really? What were you looking for?” When I perked up at this unexpected inquiry and shared, the checker responded “hmmm. . .well, if it wasn’t out there, we probably don’t have it…sorry.” Priceless! Now that I’ve changed my response to, “No but it’s cool,” that really seems to agree with them.

Randall White
Guest
Randall White
15 years 4 months ago

For the last six years of his life, my partner of 13 years was rendered paraplegic as the result of cancer treatments. Other than the fact that he was a bit gaunt and could not walk, he was more normal than you and me. However, he was wheelchair-bound. I cannot begin to tell you how many times, when seeing him in his chair, retail and restaurant service professionals would either: 1) start talking loudly and slowly when addressing him, or 2) bypass him totally and ask me what he would like. I have subsequently noticed other wheelchair-bound customers being ignored by service personnel. Needless to say, today I get involved in, um… memorable ways when I encounter this business faux pas.

Yvonne Scott
Guest
Yvonne Scott
15 years 4 months ago
My most memorable experience came while shopping for a new car. My husband and I decided that we really wanted to get a specific model of car but were concerned about the price tag and whether we could afford it. We decided that if we could justify each of our concerns, we would buckle down and get the car. My husband was concerned with more of the “aesthetic” things – color, interior ergonomics, and, most importantly, the stereo. I, on the other hand, was interested in the engine, gas mileage, safety recall history, and roominess in the back seat as we were planning on having a family soon. Upon arriving at the car dealer, the salesperson who approached us asked us what model we were interested in. We expressed our desire without mentioning specific points. He began showing us the car and was careful to point out the engine capability, gas mileage, etc. to MY HUSBAND and the sun visor with the make up mirror and the flexible side mirrors that won’t break off when… Read more »
Joe Delaney
Guest
Joe Delaney
15 years 4 months ago
One issue is that Good Customer Service appears to be defined by retailers as: 1) Greeting the customer; 2) Responding to the customer; 3) Using the customer’s name wherever possible; and 4) Capturing add-on sales. The sad reality is that Customer Service is the genuine, sincere act of 1 through 3 above as a part of responding to each customer’s questions and needs. It is the sincere and genuine part of this that really makes the difference between customer service and good customer service. I prefer not to be waited on by automatons whose service is presented to merely meet their company’s minimum job requirements. Having managed stores for two retailers over almost 20 years, good customer service is possible if you hire the right people; treat them in a way that would make Tom Peters proud; inculcate a retail philosophy to them; manage the store, not by handling papers in an office but rather using MTWA – Managing Through Walking Around; set the example as managers of what customer service is all about; and… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
How many times have you approached an associate in a retail environment seeking assistance, such as, “Where is the artificial sweetener?,” only to receive a reply like “aisle 5” or “I don’t know”? This is symptomatic of a larger problem. Retailers like this do not view the customer as the reason for existing. In retail settings like this, the customer is more than likely viewed as an interruption of work rather than the purpose of work. Likewise, such retailers don’t develop a sense of culture, let alone invest in employee training and development. We do not have a crisis of employees when it comes to customer service. We have a crisis of management. By the way, when the associate replies, “I don’t know” when you ask a legitimate question, don’t let him off the hook. Instead of wandering away in search of the artificial sweeteners, ask him “when he thinks he will know their location.” Part of the problem of woeful customer service is that we as customers enable it rather than express our dissatisfaction.
Tom McGoldrick
Guest
Tom McGoldrick
15 years 4 months ago

There is no reason for bad service to be tolerated or to go unnoticed by management. It is too easy to survey customers and simply practice management by walking around to learn what is going on.

As an organization that receives over 4,000 completed surveys every day, I get to read more than my share of service horror stories. When a customer is truly outraged, it is usually about service. Conversely, the vast majority of people who go through the trouble to leave a positive comment are describing a positive service experience.

People providing great service create customer loyalty. A surly or bad sales person is as big a problem as a power outage or inventory shortage but almost never is treated with the same sense of urgency. Unfortunately, front line managers rarely have the authority or training to recognize and deal with bad service.

Richard Layman
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
To me, there is what I think of as a pathetic op-ed in the current issue of Restaurant Hospitality. It’s written by a part-time broadcaster with waiting experience, and it’s all about how waiters need to be focused on guests if they want to make money. I wait tables. The first time I did it, my very first shift, when I was 17 years old, I figured out that I worked for the guest, because most of my money came from tips. I thought this was a pathetic piece for two, maybe three reasons. (1) Clearly, there is a management failure both in terms of hiring and training. (2) Probably the waiters aren’t making much money, which is another management failure in not recognizing that income significantly influences motivation. Because restaurants pay reduced wages to wait staff, they aren’t too concerned about over-scheduling and waiting income. Then they turn around and wonder about high turnover. I have repeated in messages on this forum about the book entitled, “The Customer Comes Second,” which makes the point… Read more »
Michael Tesler
Guest
Michael Tesler
15 years 4 months ago
Of course I advocate friendly, informed, empowered employees who always exceed customer expectations but I believe the real issue is that too many stores define this as “Customer Service”… enough said, difficult task completed. This is not the case and customer service today needs a broader definition; one that includes a web site that makes it easy for people to pre shop the store, and then a store that makes it easy to find the desired product and that those products are always in stock. This store know what questions customers are likely to have and what information they need to make a purchase and provides it to them through attractive, branded, non verbal communications (signage, graphics, video, kiosks, etc.). Many of the problems that have been brought to this discussion could have been avoided if the stores had provided this kind of service – including the ski shop incident…..she may have quickly found out on her own that the ski’s she wanted were out of stock or not carried but also been given a… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

When my daughter was about 13, I used frequent flier miles to fly her to Japan so she could visit a friend there. I arranged for her to be met by someone when she got off the plane, and directed to where she could meet her friends. United Airlines told me it’d be $50 for this service, and I said fine. But try as they might, they couldn’t get the ticket to go through. After a full day of trying to figure out why the computer rejected the ticket, it turned out that Air Nippon, the partner airline, couldn’t understand why there should be a $50 fee “for something that is just the polite thing to do.” And they were refusing to accept the $50 charge, which was messing up United’s computers. My United rep repeated this story just as you see it. I still smile when I think about it.

Jan Owens
Guest
Jan Owens
15 years 4 months ago
My service encounter complaints are from a source that you wouldn’t think would engender them: Neiman Marcus. In one incident, I diplomatically tried to get the attention of a cosmetics counter rep. She was obviously taking a personal social call, so I THOUGHT that if I moved more in her field of vision, she would excuse herself to wait on me. No, she actually turned her back on me and went on with her phone call! I decided to find the cosmetics elsewhere, even if I had to order online. The second incident occurred while I was traveling, but stopped into a N-M after a business appointment about a half hour before the store’s closing. The store was quiet, and you can understand that the sales associates might try to tally and look through receipts before the end of the day. Apparently, one associate found some kind of error in receipts, and quietly (but audibly) said to herself, “Oh, sh*t.” Sorry, but I like to pretend that I shop at a classier store. A more… Read more »
Sid Raisch
Guest
Sid Raisch
15 years 4 months ago
A great many customer service issues would be entirely erased with good basic sales training by good professional sales trainers. No professional salesperson would assume anything about their prospect or customer. They might take cues from appearance, words used, etc. but would always continue to ask the questions they know they should to fully determine the customer’s situation rather than to confirm assumptions. They would then analyze what they’d learned, comparing it to their product knowledge, inventory, etc. to make a truthful, educated recommendations or suggestions for the customer to decide. At that time, they would close the sale by asking the customer if they agreed that it was right for them, or had other buying criteria (objections) that should continue to be addressed. BUT, too many companies fail to understand what professional selling is, and fail to invest in their people accordingly. Makes you think that sales training companies should be better at selling their own product, doesn’t it? Therefore, I say that lack of training salespeople is the root of most “customer service”… Read more »
Matt Roher
Guest
Matt Roher
15 years 4 months ago
Even though I’m not directly in a customer service field, I always keep my sales/CSR bible close at hand: Jeffrey Gittomer’s “Customer Satisfaction is Worthless: Customer Loyalty is Priceless.” (It’s on Amazon for $19.80.) I’ve even found myself sending a complimentary copy to the executive overseeing the CSR lines (if the service is that bad, I see it as bad management and bad training and not as bad staff). I’ll send the book and attach a quick note suggesting they take a few minutes to read some passages and how they relate to a concatenated preview of the horror story I just encountered from speaking to one of the CSRs under his/her domain. One of his best tips I’ve used in management: Be your own customer. If overseeing a call centre, call in randomly and pose as a customer with a few questions. Be a Mystery Shopper in your own store or restaurant. Gittomer recants a tale of staying at a full service hotel, receiving no service, only to be greeted by a card placed… Read more »
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