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Customer service - from both sides

Web posted on April 19, 2005

Attention Shoppers...

Well, I guess I didn't alienate too many people with my first column, since the editors asked me to write another one. Today's discussion is on customer service, from both points of view.

Your typical sales clerk juggles a lot of different things at the same time. Unless we work for a huge retail conglomerate which departmentalizes everything, the odds are that we have more than one responsibility. The smaller the store, the larger number of hats one has to wear. As an example, on any given day I have to deal with receiving deliveries, sales reps, staff questions, tracking down AWOL custom orders over the phone, customers comparison shopping by phone (don't get me started on it... that's another column) and serving the customers in front of me. The sales floor is my office. I multitask fairly well, and my staff do, too, but we all have our limits.

If I am assigned to cover a 10x12-foot floor area, that's what I do. It usually works out to about a 1:1 ratio, and I can justify spending quality time with my customers. On the other hand, if I am one of three clerks covering a total area of 7200 square feet in a busy store, I may not be able to devote 45 minutes to leading you around by the hand and showing you "just the pretty stuff that's kind of teal blue".

Busy clerks often resort to the "point and aim" or the "drop and go" techniques of dealing with straightforward questions. If a customer asks me where a particular item would be found, I can tell them which aisle it is in, and point them in the right direction, or, if the location is tricky to describe, I can walk with them to where the item is, and return to what I was doing.

Easy and straightforward, right? Wrong. Customers complain about staff not bothering to help them. My statistics indicate that at least 5 out of 10 of these complaints are based upon us not taking them by the hand and placing their item of choice directly in their shopping cart. I am being generous in these numbers, as in a recent one-week period I had 3 complaints that all were grumbles about us not being personal shoppers.

I know what personal shoppers charge per hour -- I have some staff who don't earn that much in a day.

But let's not get off topic. There are legitimate complaints about levels of customer service all the time, in every sector of retail. I've been at both ends.

Before you go yelling at your clerk, please ask yourself, honestly, if he/she is to blame. If what you want isn't on the shelf when you want it, ask the person responsible for inventory control why it is not available. Your minimum-wage teenage clerk likely doesn't tell the head office in Toronto what to order or when.

If the clerk assisting you doesn't have the answer to a question, ask to speak to his or her supervisor, and ask that person your question. Don't call your clerk a stupid idiot for not knowing something -- there may be a good reason he or she doesn't know. For example if they're not associated with the department you're asking about, or if that particular matter is not in their hands, such as ordering. The other possibility, and I am going out on a limb here, is that you, the customer, don't know what the heck you're talking about.

There, I said it. Millions of sales clerks can now give a huge sigh of relief. Thank you, that's what I'm here for.

If you walk into a shop, and you're truly out of your element, just admit it and ask for help. Clerks aren't just paid to stand there and look pretty -- we're there to help. If you insist on pretending you're an expert because you saw it on Martha last weekend, or read about it in Harrowsmith, well, you get what you get.

From the home office in Guelph, Ontario, the top five clues that your clerk suspects that you don't know what you're talking about: (with apologies to Dave Letterman)

  1. He or she asks you what you will be using it for. This usually isn't because they're being nosy, but because they're trying to figure out what you need. More often than not, it isn't what you asked for.
  2. He or she looks puzzled for a moment, then asks you a question about what you want. If your clerk knows his or her stuff, a few questions should put you both on the right track. Don't judge if they ask another staff member to assist you -- they know enough to know that someone else can help you better. And no, this isn't the only reason customers get handed-off to other staffers, but it is a legitimate one.
  3. He or she uses humour to break the ice. I've been known to come up to intimidated-looking men in the ladies' lingerie department and say something like, "Wow, the blue lace trim on that one really brings out your eyes."
  4. You're the tenth person in the last day asking for the same thing in the same way. If your clerk is able to name the HGTV show, date, and time, relax and let them lead you. They've done it before.
  5. It's near a holiday well-known for gift giving, and you have a deer-in-the-headlights look on your face.

I've said it before -- a dedicated and professional retail sales clerk is worth his or her weight in gold: the returning (and expanding) customer base and more smoothly-running sales floor alone shows this to be true. Now, if only the store owners would express their gratitude by paying staff what they're truly worth... but that's another column, too.

Bee has been working retail for 20 years, and has been shopping for many years more.

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