What Does It Take to Get Some Service Around Here?

Discussion
Aug 05, 2009

By George Anderson

Customer service stinks. Not exactly a news
flash but despite all the time spent on the topic, improvements are hard
to find when looking across the broad retailing business.

According to a new website, CustomerServiceScoreboard.com,
only 13 percent of
all companies rated by consumers to this point managed to get grades of acceptable
or better. Of the companies rated on the website, only two
retailers (Victoria’s Secret and Netflix) achieved acceptable or better scores.

Some companies generally known for service
such as Nordstrom failed to make the list. This was because the site had
not received enough comments to include them in its rankings.

The You’re the Boss blog on The
New York Times
website linked the poor customer service received
today to three primary factors:

  1. An increase in unskilled part-time workers and a decline in full-timers.
  2. Staff levels out-of-sync with
    shopper traffic in stores.
  3. Stores being run by people who wouldn’t know a merchant if he/she
    walked up and smacked them.

Discussion Questions: Is customer service really that much worse today than it was in the good old days, whenever they were? If so, why does customer service stink today and why do so few seem ready to fix it?

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33 Comments on "What Does It Take to Get Some Service Around Here?"


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David Livingston
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

Customer service stinks because consumers tolerate it. And to some extent, retailers encourage it. Consumers vote with their dollars. As long as consumers continue to patronize businesses with poor service, poor service will continue.

Some retailers are telling me they are over-hiring right now because the quality of workers in the job pool is getting better due to all the layoffs. They want to enter the economic recovery with better employees. So I am encouraged that customer service will begin to improve overall.

Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

It’s hard to condemn “bad customer service” with such a broad brush, without understanding the consumer’s definition of “good service” in one retailer or another. A retailer like Nordstrom has built its business model on a “high-touch” approach to customer service. When it disappoints due to lack of staffing or product knowledge, the premise of the model falls down.

On the other hand, expectations are much different for a customer at Target or another mass retailer: Is the store clean and well-stocked? Can I navigate the shelves easily? And, most importantly, is the checkout process fast? Most consumers seeing a mass retailer operate at its best are going to feel satisfied with the level of “customer service,” even if they didn’t encounter a sales associate along the way.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I started my retail training company over 20 years ago and I don’t think customer service is any worse now than it was back then. In some cases its actually better (certainly not all). What has changed is that consumers are more demanding than ever before. That’s driven by a number of things; time crunch, internet impact, incredible level of competition and competence in the marketplace, demographics.

Retailers have spent a lot of time and money becoming wonderfully sophisticated on the back end of the business. The last frontier to tackle, and the one that seems to scare retailers the most, is front-line staff performance. It doesn’t have to be scary or difficult. Humans (yes, retail employees are humans) are typically predictable. You just need a systematic approach to hiring, training and coaching to get better staff performance, and happier customers.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

The worst part is we have all settled for this instead if demanding better by walking. Stores won’t change until they see this and have to.

Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
11 years 9 months ago
Customer Service is obviously worse in both quantity and quality, though over the past decade a few categories, such as office products, have actually gotten a little better from their formally abysmal levels. But department stores, for example, clearly were staffed even before the recession at levels well below years past. The issue is primarily one of customers voting for lower prices over good service. That’s why the local town hardware store often (not always) goes out of business when the big-box chain moves into town. It is partially also related to sheer store size. The mammoth category killers simply present some barriers to staffing and customer service. It is also very hard to quantify the value of more and better staffing, while it is easy to see the bottom line impact (in theory, at least) from reducing head count. The only answer it seems to me is smart use of technology where store staff and product experts can be accessed quickly, on-demand, when a customer needs help–even if that expert is hundreds of miles… Read more »
Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
11 years 9 months ago

Customer service has never been that great among most retailers. Everyone talks about how important it is, but only cursory–and temporary–efforts have been made to improve it. It’s always been a matter of talking the talk–not walking it.

The problem is that with cutbacks in the stores due to the economy, customer service is even worse. Where I see the greatest improvements are among small retailers which seem to understand that engaging customers is the only thing that will help them keep the doors open.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

It is not that customer service has changed that much in the last 10 years, it is the fact that it is easier to complain about it and get heard.

When someone has a problem and is unhappy they look for a place and a way to complain. If someone is satisfied and happy and maybe even ecstatic they just appreciate the good service but do not take the time or effort it takes to report their satisfaction.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I believe there are two parties to this definition of good customer service: the consumer and the retailer. The definition of good customer service varies by customer and the retail establishment that they are in. What is good customer service in a c-store is likely to be defined differently in a high-end clothing store. Yes, the basic elements are the same, but the importance of each will vary.

The needs of the consumers (and therefore their definition of good customer service) vary from individual to individual and are also changeable based on the occasion and the overall environment. In our experience, the customer’s expectation regarding customer service have changed as we have gone from boom times to today’s economic environment. So has the retailer’s.

I agree with Mr. Graff, I am not sure customer services levels have gotten worse, but they have changed.

Jerry Beaudion
Guest
Jerry Beaudion
11 years 9 months ago

When it comes to customer service, do you think it would be worth the investment of a corporate retailer to invest in training their associates, engaging their associates and having them take ownership of their job duties?

When economic times are tough, the first thing retailers do is cut payroll and inventory. Controlling inventory is important, but taking a chance on poor customer service that may lead to customer loss, is a chance I would not take. I would rather have more associates on the floor selling more products and services to customers. This in itself will pay for the extra payroll and bring even more profits. But I must stress that you have to make the investment to train the associates and keep them engaged, otherwise their will not be any ROI. People are the best assets, and will always be.

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
There is really no disputing the data: retail customer service, and most customer experiences in the brick and mortar channel, are terrible. Beyond retail stores, most consumer service firms offer similarly low levels of service. Customers have lowered expectations and settled mainly due to things like price, promotion and time-savings/convenience. The recession is helping shake things out a bit but there are still fundamental problems and they are not abating. We agree with several things contributing: 1. Yes, there are too many unskilled, under-trained employees.2. There are also merchants and store management personnel that likewise don’t understand what it takes to serve customers.3. Mass retailing is generally not conducive to service. This “mass retail” concept applies to more than mass merchants but to any very large chain with a strategy of size over quality (and/or low price, low retail standards over quality). This gets deeper though ironically, more “fixable” than the two above and ties into these large chains’ strategies and lack of customer centricity. This is cured with boards and senior executives, starting with… Read more »
John Fermann
Guest
John Fermann
11 years 9 months ago

There are several components of service–quantity, quality and perception. Last year, Circuit City decided to cut costs by getting rid of the higher qualified sales people and replacing them in part with lower cost associates. We all know how that turned out.

On the other hand, a supermarket that relies on the customers to help bag their groceries can “improve” customer service by adding a couple low cost baggers during peak times and appear to be doing something to help their service.

So the same lower-cost associates result in different results since they are being used to fill different needs.
With Hannaford, the perception is that checkout will speed up as the one line seems to move quickly. If the same number of checkouts are open and the same number of baggers are present, does the checkout experience really improve or is it an illusion?

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I’m continually amazed by this. Customer-facing businesses really need to be examining the customer experience, need to shop their own stores, need to put someone in charge of taking care of customers. Not rocket science. Until they do, they risk being at the bottom of this list, the “I hold my nose when I shop there” part of the list.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
11 years 9 months ago

Customer service starts at the top just like everything else. In companies where the CEO respects the consumer and makes sure that attitude permeates their thinking, it is evident at store level. If the high level belief is that customer service is just an expense that needs to be lowered as much as possible and whenever possible, it also shows. When you see long checkout lines and poorly motivated employees, you have your answer as to what kind of CEO runs that company. Then you have a decision to make.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

Several have mentioned the point that customer service is bad because consumers tolerate it. That doesn’t go far enough. Customer service should be bad, because most consumers in most retail sectors WANT bad customer service (at lower prices) versus good customer service (at somewhat higher prices). (Of course, there are business models like Nordstrom that are the exception, but those constitute a small percentage of retail sales.) Consumers aren’t just getting what they pay for, they are getting what they want to pay for. The very best example of this is airline service levels, which have been beaten down by relentless price pressure coming from the consumer.

Steven Collinsworth
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Customer Service is at its lowest level ever. I agree there are some positives in limited pockets of the country. Some may be due to a smaller regional chain with more control. Others are due to the company’s culture, which fosters their high marks. Mostly, Customer Service is defined by the consumer/client/account/and even vendors who experience it first hand. Perception is reality for individuals and that carries a rather large stick for “whacking” some retailer’s business. Because, everyone talks to someone at a point in time and voices their POV. However, when a retailer or store location gets good marks for customer service, it is usually the store manager and staff who drill it, nurture it, and train it. The store’s associates give good customer service when they feel good about their employer and their job. Customer Service suffers when there is no reward system in place to foster the higher expectation. It also suffers when a store or chain has a strained relationship with its employees. Hopefully, more companies will realize sooner than later… Read more »
Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
It’s become this vortex of self-fulfilling prophesy. People generally walk into a store expecting lousy service and they get it. Many sales people come to work thinking that life sucks and customers are cheap, demanding and ignorant and their beliefs are confirmed. The Universe gives us what we think about. We create the very things we fear. Our wounds are self-inflicted. This observation may not get me a Nobel Peace Prize, but all this lousy service stuff is a spiritual problem, not a mechanical one. All the measurement and training in the world isn’t going to change it. We’ve got to get back to believing again. In seeing our infinite possibilities and the power we have to create our most desired circumstances. But first we need to clear ourselves of the negative and pervasive programming we see all around us and stop wallowing around in misery just because someone said we’re supposed to be miserable. Here’s one simple thing to try if you’re in retail. Every morning take five minutes before the doors open to… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

Service is no worse, however when costs need to be cut, service is the first thing to go. That’s because it’s difficult, but not impossible to measure its effectiveness. Driving a true service performance management process can turn a company around. That has been proven. The technology and best practices are out there.

We are, in the US, fortunate to have retailers who at least think about service levels. Most other regions don’t care. And the consumers don’t expect it.

Dave Wendland
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

It is my belief that consumers have become so exasperated in an attempt to find ‘acceptable’ customer service that they have all but given up. However, I think there is a shift in how customer service can be delivered and shoppers are more willing to receive service.

Look first to the Internet and the pre-homework done in advance of a shopping trip. Consumers now come into a retail setting more knowledgeable about available options and in essence are much better informed.

The next technological phenomenon that is gaining steam is well-placed in-store kiosks. These touch screen systems can help further guide consumers and help them in their way-finding of the right products for their particular need. I see this emerging as not only a cost-saving answer for retailers but a welcome time-saver (and customer service tool) for shoppers.

t.j. reid
Guest
t.j. reid
11 years 9 months ago

As a small store consultant for fashion retailers, this is a prime topic in my career right now. Fortunately for my small stores, they are finally succeeding in a category. Most only had a few employees anyway, so they did not have to make major cuts in staffing. Shoppers seem to be returning to the smaller individually-owned stores for that warm fuzzy family feeling. They enjoy a happy “hello, how ya doing and what can I get for you today?” I say it’s a “pleasure to open the purse” mode of shopping. It is just a joy to see “customer service” as it should be again, and these smaller stores are getting the job done right!

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 9 months ago

I agree with Phil. There are companies out there that have lost the focus, interest, or commitment to engage their customers. Customers want and will find the organizations that listen to them, respond to them, engage them, and therefore will create loyalty and profitability.

With the advent of number social and emerging technologies that allow for the immediate interaction and response, companies will have to dedicate someone or some team to this initiative. Listening to the “Voice of the Customer” is imperative; if Circuit City would have done so without being omniscient, we would not have had this problem.

We are trying to provide a forum that will enable those to create those engagements, create and sustain loyalty and increase commitment and long term profitability from each customer interaction.

Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 9 months ago

I blame the success of the big box concept for lowering customer’s expectations which subsequently tricked retailers into thinking they could get away with either poor or no customer service at all. Think about it; how was that experience you had at the home improvement box? The discount box? The electronics box? Great, eh? CS is so bad now, you’re actually shocked when it’s good.

People always ask us, “Why is Apple doing so well?” Number one answer is: customer service. Starbucks too. But in the end, as suggested above, we all vote with our wallets…so, are we going to put up with it or change it??? It’s ultimately up to us consumers.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
Let’s talk apparel retail. When shopping for apparel where do customers need access to service most? Correct; the fitting room. Where does the apparel customer have the least access to service? Correct again; the fitting room! Customers standing in most fitting rooms can connect with a friend in another city via their cell phone easier than they can connect with a sales associate twenty feet away! Apparel retail bristles with technology except in the fitting room! Why? No pain! The customer doesn’t punish the total lack of or lousy fitting room service by not returning and complaining to their friends. Instead, they service themselves or bring their sales associate with them; mom, friends, significant others. And why should the retailer care? How about these facts: • Customers who use the fitting room are 71% more likely to buy than the shopper who browses at 28%. • 97% of all shoppers at one time or another have redressed and left a store without taking the time to find the right size or color of the garment… Read more »
Bob Livingston
Guest
Bob Livingston
11 years 9 months ago
Not a day goes by it seems where we don’t read about a company embracing Service Excellence as a plank in their “economic recovery program.” Sears and Delta Airlines are two of the recent converts. Over the past month the list is quite impressive. Many companies are blending accepted practices (Service Training) with today’s tools (Twitter.) We all know before we can start recovering we need to hit our bottom. I agree with much of what has been said above, relative to the State of Service in America but in my opinion, change is coming…perhaps the future can belong to those who: • Truly transform as opposed to just change;• Actually listen as opposed to just hearing;• Position service before efficiency;• Consider Loyalty the best means to profitability;• Recognize associates as equals and treat them as such;• Embrace new technologies as enablers, not stand-alone solutions;• Recognize and reward service zealots; Anticipate more than react Respond with urgency• Empower everyone to serve well;• Give amnesty for mistakes;• Never be satisfied, with “what is”;• Continually get better… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 9 months ago
One must take great care with broadshot commentary like this. There is a tendency to make binary judgments with regard to “Customer Service.” A measure or perception of customer service is a combination of expectation and acceptability. Both elements must be measured for a retailer to make appropriate decisions with regard to how “Customer Service” is affecting their business. An experienced shopper does not expect the same level of customer service at Macy’s and Nordstrom. Therefore the disappointment level will always be greater when it falls down at Nordstrom rather than at Macy’s. Though it sounds like that sort of judgment would give Macy’s an edge, the shopper is sophisticated enough to determine which retailer provides the best customer service offering. If asked “Did the retailer meet your customer service expectations?” Macy’s may in fact score more affirmatively than Nordstrom. However, if asked, “Was the level of service acceptable?” Macy’s might score very poorly. But the shopper also makes these judgments/tradeoffs across different types of retailers. The expectation is that one should get more service… Read more »