Why Retail Customer Service is So Blah

I’ve seen a lot of articles lately about how retail customer service needs to step up its game to compete with online retailers. One of my friends – someone who excels at building teams who deliver outstanding customer interactions – replied to one, “Why do we experience so little good customer service, let alone great interactions?”

We’ve all got horror stories about outrageously awful customer service (like the employee who pulled a knife on a customer – a story worth telling in full some other time), but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about blah customer service, totally unforgettable interactions, not even worth calling customer service.

Some people are what I call service-blind – they don’t really notice customer service unless it’s particularly good or particularly bad. If this is you, you may have gotten so used to bad service that you’ve come to expect retail interactions to always be like that.

For those of us who practice customer service as a kind of religion, bad service is like fingernails on a blackboard. We can walk into a store, any store, anywhere, and sense it – it feels like a huge black cloud hanging over the sales floor. Oh, the shelves may be impeccable, the employees may be neatly dressed and responding to customers, the phone isn’t ringing off the hook, the aisles are clear, but the air feels heavy like a thunderstorm is imminent.

Then you start to focus in on the details: the employee restocking shelves who doesn’t notice you browsing next to him; two employees chatting with each other instead of the customers around them; the employee you hear on the phone saying, “Well, the computer says we have several, but I can’t find them so I guess we’re out. Yeah, ok, bye.” The employee who rings you up without saying a single word, other than to ask you to sign up for the loyalty card – uh, no thanks.

What causes this?

Well, it could be that retailers are hiring service-blind employees but I don’t think it’s that. Unless a retailer’s in a totally desperate AWB (Any Warm Body) situation, they’re not going to hire someone like that on purpose. At least the big chains train against this and boutique-owners are hand-picking their salespeople. Even McDonald’s expects some level of service. And, the last I saw, some of the biggest mystery-shop customers were gas station chains – gas station chains. Is it possible that it’s a hiring or training problem – sure. Especially in low pay / low availability situations where, as I said, the managers is in AWB mode. But that should be the exception, not the rule. What’s the answer?

Yesterday, I wrote about Givers, Takers, and Matchers. This concept was still fresh in my mind when I read my friend’s question. And I started to think about the front line retail employees that I managed and those that I know today. I’m going out to climb out on a limb here and make a broad statement: many people in retail customer service jobs are Givers. If you ask them why they work there, many of them say, “I like helping people. I like helping people find things they like.” Or, as one Director I worked with said, “My store is a Happy Box. No matter what people feel like when they enter, by golly, they’re going to be happy when they leave!”

Although I think we don’t try to hire a lot of Takers, I’m sure some slip through. We may be hiring a lot of Matchers, too.

So here’s my theory: The Givers are burning out. Why? Well, no one goes into retail for the pay because it doesn’t pay well. And it’s not the prestige – doctors, lawyers, celebrities, politicians, teachers, they don’t consider retail a profession. There are very few degrees – and almost no advanced degrees – in retail, and it’s hard to find certification programs. It’s not like your mom or dad is going to say, “Why don’t you work in retail, sweetheart? That’s a nice job – such a future!” The Givers are giving and society keeps taking without reciprocating.

So who is giving to the Givers? When you have a great customer interaction, where you give great service and the customer matches your mood or makes a purchase, that’s reciprocation – that’s makes work rewarding. When customers take your time and your recommendations, when they shop the displays that you spent time arranging and straightening, and then purchase online to save a few pennies, that’s Taking.

When your manager is put under pressure by the regional manager to make more money than ever before while cutting payroll like never before, and your shifts – the shifts you depend on to pay your bills or pay for gas to get you to work – disappear, that’s Taking.

When the corporate office tells you that the customer comes first and that you should spend your time talking with customers, but then allows the merchants to send down merchandise task after task to move the product that they over-bought yet again because they can’t admit that they made a mistake, that’s Taking. When corporate announces another new program on Monday, tells you to learn it on Tuesday and be perfect by Wednesday – all with OTJ training because you have to cover the floor and your main focus should still be customers, that’s Taking. When some corporate dweeb comes into your store and tells you that you’re doing it all wrong without asking questions to learn the reality of the situation, that’s Taking.

Here’s my theory: front-line retail Givers are burning out. Somebody needs to give back to them, to reciprocate their giving. I’m not talking money; I believe people should be paid a fair wage but I don’t believe in solving morale problems with money. There’s just too much data showing that it doesn’t work. I’m talking respect; I’m talking someone advocating on their behalf in the corporate office; I’m talking giving them a chance to do what they love doing: helping people find things they want to buy.

And it wouldn’t hurt customers to reward any great service that they do get with a purchase in-store instead of shopping online.

What do you think?

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