What Happened to Customer Service?
The State of the Union - Spring 2001

by Rick Sidorowicz

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to leave the cool rainy spring weather of Toronto, Canada to visit the malls and the mills in Dallas, Houston, Buffalo, Chicago, Phoenix and Las Vegas. And on the way I had the wonderful opportunity to stop in at Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. I experienced melting in 100 degree plus in Vegas and Phoenix, major sweats in Houston, tolls and traffic in Chicago, airport connection fatigue syndrome, aircraft mechanical breakdowns, flight delays, airport rage - but Buffalo was rather pleasant and Dallas - what a treat! I love Texas!

The purpose? High performance retail - specifically - recruiting and performance improvement with a lot of questioning and observing customer service thrown in for good measure. The bottom line? If you are an executive running a retail enterprise please listen slowly. The state of the union is pretty pitiful - honest! Service sucks! And it's not "I am Canadian" and pointing fingers. It sucks in Canada too - but I thought the leading edge in the US malls and mills would have something more solid to offer. I was disappointed and with all due respect, the state of customer service in retail - is absolutely abysmal. It really bothers me. We are missing such an amazing opportunity!

Believe it or not - the most memorable service I encountered was with the airlines! Imagine that! Over the four weeks I flew American, United, Southwest, US Airways, America West and Air Canada, and of all my service encounters in the malls and mills, the airlines stand out as the only enterprises that are "trying" to make service a strategic or operational factor. It's a little bizarre and I expected different. I've got one experience at a hotel in Houston that stands out, but as a group the airlines are at least working on a program - it doesn't look or feel like anyone else is.

Southwest Airlines was clearly the standout - and their efficiency at check in and the genuine personality and charm of their people were very memorable. They didn't seem to be "trying." They seem to "be" that way. No delays, good value, efficient procedures and smiling and helpful people - seems to be quite 'natural' for them. No wonder they are doing well, and I hope they will continue to do well.

American came a very close second - and you can tell they're "trying" very hard. In general they seem to have a more service oriented 'script' but I did receive very memorable service from a very friendly associate. Here's the story. If you travel often you might appreciate my need. I wanted peanuts. Sure the snack mix is good but when I sit in the seat I need real peanuts to be comfortable. Maybe it's just something I've developed over the years. So I say to the young lady, "The snack mix is OK and I don't need a drink - but I must have peanuts!" A few minutes later she brings me cashews (wow!) that she was able to 'swipe' from first class. What a memorable experience! She did that for me and made my day! Yes I'm a simple man - but little things do make a difference.

(A little learning here if I may. I paid hundreds of serious $US dollars for the flight and the 'wow' factor is a couple of packages of cashews. Sounds rather insignificant. But then again, if the stats for this site are correct the two packages of peanuts will have led me to tell about 30,000 people this month about the wonderful experience I had flying American Airlines. Gotta chew on that one for a bit.)

(A little more learning. So the young lady had to 'sort of' break the rules to satisfy and inadvertantly 'wow' a customer. Gotta think about them rules. I hope she doesn't get into trouble because from now on American will always be my first or second choice - right up there anyway. Have to let that one sink in a bit - have to break the rules to wow a customer ... hmmm.)

So I'm thinking that Tom Peters bashes the airlines - I know he travels a lot. But here I am telling stories about memorable service. My point is that the service provided by the airlines - however inconsistent - is far better than what I experienced in retail stores! How bizarre! But before leaving the airlines I need to talk about one very memorable but very negative story.

United Airlines - generally very positive service. You could tell they also had a program and were trying. Except for one rather inept lady. Picture this - about 60 Chinese tourists making a connection to Las Vegas - I think in Philadelphia. They seemed anxious and a little confused. I can't tell who is or if they have a tour guide. They call for boarding and they line up. I don't know if they understand the English announcements - I presume not. This very stupid ground worker working the flight takes it upon herself to rag on the group and chastize every one of them. Here she is yelling at the group in English about row numbers and boarding protocal (which they obviously don't understand) and is very abusive. What an atrocious display of insensitivity and stupidity. A few if us managed to clarify the boarding sequence to the group and all went relatively well after that - but it was absolutely amazing to witness the complete lack of regard and common sense in dealing with the customers of your employer. I hope she is exited quickly.

So the airlines in general were the best in service, aside from the bizarre episode above. And I didn't even mind the mechanical problem that resulted in my flight being cancelled. As a former private pilot I don't want to fly in defective equipment. I'm just a little pissed that instead of getting home Friday evening, I had to re-route through Los Angeles and take the red eye to arrive at 7:00 Saturday morning. But the airlines at least have a program for service, and are doing quite well, in my humble opinion. At least they are "trying."

OK - so what about retail in the malls and the mills? Here are my most memorable experiences, mostly negative, but a few positives to keep the faith:

*
Big brand store - three associates sitting on the cash counter, one on the phone, the other reading a book, the third doing her toenails. (The toenail girl did at least say hi.):
*
Another significant branded store, in response to a question - "We don't really work here - we're just putting in hours."
*
Yet another branded store - as I walked up to the cash - "Sorry I'll have to call the manager, I don't know how to work the register."
*
Ordered a regular coffee at Starbucks - and was told they only had specialty coffees and decaf - no regular coffee - bizarre!
*
Retail stores with no associates! The stores were open, no customers (obviously) but no associates to be found - for over an hour!
*
Kiosks open for business - with nobody there!
*
An attendant at IMAX - who couldn't add up the cost of a popcorn and coke when the machine went down - (Didn't see a movie - I like popcorn when I walk the mall.)
* I said no when asked if I wanted extra butter, only to find out that by saying no I didn't get any butter, but it wasn't really butter anyway.
*
Cab drivers who incessantly complained about their owners and working conditions, and then expected a tip.
*
Walking into stores and being ignored (and it's not like I was a totally inappropriate customer - hey! I buy stuff for my daughters!
*
Asking for a bit of product info and being told - "I don't know." (Very often.)
*
Absolutely no evidence of direction to greet customers - no eye contact, no hello, no welcome to our store, no I see you and acknowledge you. (nothing ... except for the girl doing her toenails.)
*
Slow and very uninterested service in restaurants, except one where the server actually read the script to us - (but that's a good thing - they're trying.)
*
Kiosk attendant - talking to customers about how bad their product really was and why they shouldn't buy it..
* Hotel desk attendant who, after I refused a room on the 26th floor and asked for a room on a lower floor, asked me for a photo ID. I asked why he needed that - he said he didn't know and looked very anxious. I thought there must be some kind of rule operating here - but I wanted to relieve his discomfort and showed him the ID.
*
Lights - many out in almost every store - very few exceptions. Is there a light shortage somehow related to the power blackouts?
*
Housekeeping - reasonably clean - but in several the biggest dust bunnies I have ever seen! (They grow them very large in Texas!)
*
Staffing levels - generally very sparse except in the high margin brand stores where they were doing their toenails.
*
Selling skills - S&K, Bachrach a bit - I suppose they are on commission - elsewhere - very little interest.
*
Consistently a lot of very disinterested sales associates. Not many happy or energized people.
*
What is the Burlington Coat Factory? I didn't get it. Why not change the name?
*
A few interesting stores - Abercrombie, Express, Spencer Gifts, Bed Bath and Beyond, Linens and Things; I think the Teddy Bear store - where you can make your own - was fun. Not much fun elsewhere.
*
A few very friendly and interesting cabbies, especially the one from the Bronx in Vegas.
*
Two absolutely wonderful young sales associates who picked out a few things for my daughter, after probing me for questions as to approximate size but also what music she liked, what activities she was into, the colour of her hair, complexion, etc. - and the gifts were a great success. Rather superb selling on the part of these two - they had fun with it and did very well - very nice to see.
* A wonderful server who after she asked how I was doing today and I said, "I'm melting!", proceeded to theatrically describe the locally brewed, iced cold draft beer she had on tap - knowing I couldn't resist. (And I didn't.) A little theatre is a good thing in retailing.
*
A wonderful hotel desk person in Katy, Texas, who after we were dropped off at the wrong hotel, found us rooms, checked and honoured the rate we expected to pay, and gave us coupons for breakfast. And for the record it was the Holiday Inn in Katy - great service, thank you.

So the moral of this story is that in general customer service remains an opportunity for most retailers. There are more memorably negative stories than positive, and it's not that I am such a negative person. It is easy to 'externalize' about traffic and the economy and whatever - but it is all just externalization. Any time you can come up with the answer to your woes - and rationalize why it is like it is - you will never even begin to start doing something about it. There is so much that is 'left on the table' or ignored and it is such a shame that very few retailers have grasped the enormous potential impact of improved customer service on their sales and profits.

On a similar note, a common set of comments had to do with the difficulties in recruiting and retaining 'good' people. Based on my observations the only reason you have difficulty recruiting and retaining 'good' people (as in skilled, knowledgeable, committed and energized) is that you are providing very boring places to work. Boring places to work with a lot of boring rules and restrictions seem to create rather uninspired sales associates and rather feeble customer service - that create the 'realities' that are so easy to 'externalize' about.

You must know by now that there is a better way. Make it fun to come to work. Inspire your associates with a mission to be the best and empower them to provide outstanding service to your customers. Talk about the "wow factor", get "obsessed", think "adventure" and get with a 'program' to make service a strategic imperative. Based on what I've seen there is an enormous void and opportunity out there - just waiting to be filled. If you need help with a good look in the mirror and a roll-out of "customer obsession" - just call. We will be there for you.


Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives

   


Copyright 2001 by Rick Sidorowicz. All rights reserved.

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