Customer Service From Behind the Counter (Part 1)

Tools in a hardware department

I had posted a version of this explanation of customer service from the employee’s side several years ago in another forum on the Net. Given the state of customer service these days, I thought it might be timely to dust it off, make a few slight changes to it, and repost it here…

Several years ago, when I lived back in Canada, I was forced to take a second job working part-time evenings and weekends to help make ends meet. I could have looked for an admin job, or something in a warehouse or factory where I wouldn’t have had to deal with people. But I didn’t. Because I could see things wrong with customer service in retail and I felt that perhaps I could help make the situation better by getting back involved in retail and doing things differently. So I joined the retail “team” at a local department store, only to discover that I was behind the eight ball right from the start with

Customer Service Problem #1: The Illusion of Team

While it’s true that there is no “I” in team, it’s also true that there is often no “team” in team either in a lot of retail establishments nowadays. Why? Because creating a team requires an investment of time, energy, effort, and a bit of coin, and you have too few in management, working too hard, for too little, who are too jaded and cynical over their own lot in life — or over their own past failed attempts to change the system — to motivate them to want to create a team. That’s even if senior management sanctioned the spending of the necessary cash to do so that might otherwise be paid out as dividends to shareholders.

Teams can do amazing things in retail. The best ones work off the strengths of individual members, recognize and mitigate their weaknesses, and support one another to do the best job possible. If you hold team meetings where everyone comes together as one, then you ensure that everyone gets the same message about policies, pricing, promotions, product knowledge, etc. That’s crucial to customers whose bane is to receive contrary messages about any of the foregoing by different members of a team “team” that are supposed to all be working together to achieve the same goal.

Customer Service Problem #2: Unknowledgeable Product Knowledge Specialists

I worked in a department within the store that required a LOT of specialized product knowledge. We dealt with tools, seasonal products (lawn and garden vehicles and equipment, winter snow clearing equipment, patio furniture, barbecues, etc.), fitness equipment, and sporting goods. I admit it: my product knowledge in several of these areas left a lot to be desired. While the store did have online training that you could take by computer, the modules were outdated, and they focused more on developing SELLING skills than on developing knowledge of the products that customers might be willing to spend good coin on. So how was I to use these valuable new selling skills to sell something that I didn’t have any knowledge of?

We did have some selling aids like brochures, but all too often these arrived too late in the season to be of much use to us when we needed them most, which was at the critical START of the season. I asked for hands-on training and product knowledge in several areas but just about had to wait for hell to freeze over until someone was sent from another store to educate us about lawnmowers and snowblowers. And guess what happened to our sales and customer satisfaction when we were actually able to talk intelligently to customers about what we were selling…?

We weren’t so lucky with fitness equipment, however, so I resigned myself to picking up what knowledge I could from other sales people, from reading instruction manuals, and from customers who knew much more about our products than we did.

Customer Service Problem #3: Computerized, “Just In Time” Merchandise Orders

I didn’t have anything to do with ordering stock, aside from alerting our department manager to what we didn’t have that customers were asking for. From time to time, though, carts and boxes full of merchandise would magically appear in our back room, courtesy of the folks in Receiving. One of my tasks was to open the boxes and put stuff out on the shelves. Let me tell you, there was no apparent rhyme or reason to what we received. One day we received some sanding discs. Fine. I put those 3 little suckers on the peg with the other 6 discs that had been there since the days of Genesis. Meanwhile, the latest weekly flyer was advertising a very good deal on “weed trimmers,” a product that was sure to draw customers to our department where they were likely to find other things with higher gross margins to spend their money on. Did we have any weed trimmers to sell? Nope! SIGH…

Stock shortages = lost customers. Since the Big Box stores were able to operate on a lot less overhead than we could, every customer we lost to them was another nail in the coffin of our department store. I wondered on many occasions if someone higher up took our department’s merchandise order, went into the store’s main warehouse somewhere, took a look at all the unsold shit sitting there, then shipped every store a portion of the crap to try and get rid of it. In the process, he/she would cancel our order for legitimate items that customers wanted and that would sell, and instead use our department’s replenishment budget to solve their own warehouse overstock problem. But it was actually more likely that the person making the buying decision was a computer, buying based on historical sales levels, current sales budgets/targets, and programming designed to minimize store inventory with “just in time” orders. “Just in time” is fine in theory, but it supposes that there are no manufacturing or logistical hiccups that will get in the way. When Murphy’s Law kicked in, however, we were left with empty shelves and very disgruntled customers…

Customer Service Problem #4: Lack of Staff Empowerment / Direction / Motivation

Most sales policies and procedures we had were designed to cover the 90% of “best-case” scenarios that occurred between 9am and 5pm, when customers and staff would have the greatest chance of finding someone empowered to interpret the policies and render a judgment on an issue in the customer/store relationship. Remember Murphy’s Law? Well the remaining 10% of complex, worst case scenarios were GUARANTEED to occur after 5pm or on weekends, when students with ZERO EQ, motivation, or customer service skills were on the floor, and the chance of finding someone with the authority to make decisions and immediately resolve issues ranged from fair to impossible. As the people with that authority and power to work miracles worked weekdays, sales staff were forced to inconvenience customers by telling them to come back on a weekday, when the only free time that customers had was in evenings or on weekends. It was maddening for customers, and left those of us on the floor caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Lack of empowerment to problem solve, and lack of a team approach, meant that there was no direction or consistent way to solve problems — and no motivation to want to go the extra mile to do so.

Customer Service Problem #5: The Acceptance of Mediocre Effort (Good Is Good Enough)

It’s sad to say, but mediocrity is everywhere in society today. It used to be that people took pride in a job well done. Well, that pride has been stripped away over the years by the need to compete with others that can do the same job as we can, both faster and cheaper than we can. Many companies have had to cost cut to the bone to remain competitive, with the first hit being to human resources. Where once they were considered essential selling tools, proper staff training and ensuring a high degree of product knowledge are now seen as frills. Worse, with retail wages so low, staff are disposable, and no one — except customers, perhaps — expects them to do much more than occupy space and watch for shoplifters. Just showing up and getting some money into the till seems good enough for many retailers nowadays. Staff that do go the extra mile to provide customer service excellence are seldom recognized or encouraged, so are not driven to do any more than the minimum.

Oh, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, people – regardless of which side of the customer service counter you are on. But as customers, and as employees, we do have a choice. Are we leaders in expecting and setting high standards, or are we followers resigned to accepting what industry thinks we deserve? The right choice can make all the difference to satisfaction in either role.

George Bohlender

About George Bohlender

Writer | Entrepreneur | Advocate for Islamic/Responsible Finance & Entrepreneurship | Economic Developer. Particularly passionate about helping MSMEs, NGOs, communities, and youth develop their organizational capaaity and human talent to achieve success.

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