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Whatever Happened to Customer Service?

It takes a lot to rile me, but I’m also a Taurus. Whenever someone has the misfortune of pushing me past my limit, it can get messy for a while. It’s happened a few times, more frequently lately. It could be age-related, though that shouldn’t be an excuse. I’ve heard that older people have less patience. After all, who wants to die while waiting in a line. But I have a different take.  As I have gotten older the quality (or lack thereof) of customer service in some places I shop has gone from bad to abysmal.

Read my bio. I spent a while working in retail, long enough to know that the adage of ‘the customer is always right’ is absolute bullshit. And to an extent, extreme customers who have wanted to take advantage of stores’ pledges to put the customer first are to blame for the erosion. For 30 years I worked in retail. I assure you customers are often wrong, not that it matters a whole lot in the balance. As a manager, you still need to listen and try to see things from the customer’s perspective, if possible. If you don’t take care of your customers, you will lose them. Very likely they will tell their sad story to from 5 to 8 people and each of them will be less likely to shop at your store. A business will not survive losing 5 to 8 customers every time there is a problem.

It might also seem easy to blame the decline in customer service on Amazon and the lack of personalization rooted in the expansion of online shopping. But the long slide in customer service was well underway before the Internet exploded in the late 90’s and changed everything forever. Amazon’s customer service isn’t great but, compared to some stores I’ve dealt with in the past few years, they aren’t terrible, either. I could tell you some stories about Amazon, but then the online parts of traditional brick and mortar businesses are nothing to cheer about either.  I had one bad experience just this past weekend, in fact. But I can’t blame the lack of service on corporate culture except that most businesses, whether online or offline, seem reluctant to resolve systemic and often chronic issues they have. Amazon’s delivery drivers that support their Prime model are either stellar or forgettable with little between, from my experience. Perhaps the companies are trying to give the employee the benefit of the doubt in cases of customer dissatisfaction but when there is a pattern of problems, it indicates something else is going on. There are some people who have no business interfacing directly with customers. As Brent Woods, one of my characters, is prone to say, “A turd is always a turd.”

When I go shopping in a big box retailer, I’m there for price not service. Let’s be honest, you are too. But still, I should be able to expect a minimum acceptable level of common courtesy. I don’t expect assistance loading large boxes into my cart of onto my wagon. One must bring your own service for that sort of thing. But I can tell you, there are ways of creating the illusion of customer service in big box stores that doesn’t involve magic, smoke, and mirrors. It’s called putting a few bodies on the floor and telling them to interact with customers. It’s just the corporate bean counters with the MBA degrees have proliferated in businesses ever since I was in college.  They have made the strategic choice to skimp at the store level to maintain six-and-seven-digit incomes of those in the ivory tower. And if those people who made those choices earned their pay by fielding customer complains from time to time, maybe things would improve in the stores. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. It’s always easier to drop extra work on managers shoulders and let the front line people figure out how to get it done.   

The lack of customer service in large retailers and online should give rise to smaller shops, except their costs are higher and the prices are less attractive to those of us who count out pennies. If you need assistance, though, you balance that against the delivered price. Sometimes it’s worth it to patronize local, mom and pop shops. And those small store owners who understand how to compete with big box retailers, and even online behemoths like Amazon, know that you can survive by offering things the customer cannot get anywhere else.

Small Stores can compete with the big guys by doing what the customer expects, giving personalized attention.

I’m reminded of a competitor in the same segment of retail as Home Depot and Lowes. Ace Hardware survives and even thrives by offering items that require customer service to complete the sale. They are a convenience store for those who need a few things and don’t want to deal with the local Big Box. And frankly, the big guys suck at doing little things well. Ace has people working there that know their products, can give advice when necessary, and if you shop there frequently, they may even know your name. That level of service used to set Home Depot apart as well, but that ended around the time the bean counters in Atlanta decided they could save so much money on payroll by becoming just like every other retailer, shifting the preference in workforce to part time. In other cases, a small shop may include rare or unusual products in their assortment. Maybe even locally made products that have an immediate interest or demand.  Local bookstores come to mind, and some have picked up on this, giving their community’s authors a home to sell their books, do book signings and stage other events. As a result, not only does the store survive, but also local authors are able to grow a following organically, directing their readers, who want the immediate gratification of holding a book in their hands, to a shop with an intimate setting and the appeal of that printed book smell.

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