Never mind your experts, I just need a cashier


CustomerServiceRemember your last bad shopping experience? If you’re anything like me, even the thought of it makes your blood boil.

For instance: Last weekend, I made a trip to a major music retailer’s local storefront to buy a few odds and ends – some new guitar strings, picks, cords – mundane purchases, really. Yet, somehow, it turned into one of the worst shopping experiences of my life.

Queue the rant:
1. The store was a mess; nothing was organized, shelves were out of stock, there was literally garbage strewn about the floor, etc.
2. When I had a question, no fewer than three separate sales people told me that they were, and I quote, “Uh, not working today, bro.” Bull. First, my question was not a hard one. It would have taken him an equal amount of effort to give me the answer as it did to give me a dead stare through his lady-like bangs. Second, if you aren’t working, what the hell are you doing in the store? Go home. Or at least direct me toward someone who can help. Finally, please don’t call me bro. I’m not a friend or a peer. You, rude employee, should call me sir.
3. When I finally found what I was looking for, paid, and left, it had been an hour since I got there. An hour!

Marshall Fisher, a professor at the Wharton School, wrote about the consequences of such service in a recent blog post, “Retail Rage,” for the Harvard Business Review:

Losing immediate sales when customers can’t accomplish their shopping missions because of the problems listed above is a huge issue for retailers. It makes customers unhappy, so they’re more likely to go to a competitor the next time they need to buy something. And it’s bad for employee morale, leading to a downward spiral of unhappy customers creating demoralized employees, making customers more unhappy still, and the beat goes on.

Fisher postulates that the root of the problem is a fundamental flaw in business logic:

I think the root cause is business-school thinking gone wrong. We teach our students to be rigorous and manage by the numbers. Not a bad idea, except that it leads to over-weighting the measurable and under-weighting what’s hard to measure. In a store, what’s measurable is the payroll checks a retailer writes every week to its stores’ staffs. What’s hard to measure is the impact that stores’ staffs have on revenue.

This opens the door to self-delusion. Retailers can convince themselves that they can cut payroll by 5% in the last three weeks of a quarter to meet their profit promise to Wall Street and it really won’t impact customer service, because there’s probably people in the stores not doing anything anyway.

I agree that maniacal focus on metrics can be disastrous in terms of customer experience. Home Depot’s fall from grace in the mid 2000s is an excellent example of that phenomenon. But Fisher, like many companies, neglects the basic cause of poor customer service: crappy sales reps.

This particular retailer, for instance, is running an ad series touting its staff of musical equipment “experts.” But, as my colleague and fellow blogger Kristen Switzer points out in her post, “Happy Customers, Happy Employees, Happy Brand,” not all experts have personalities cut out for customer-facing positions, so a staff of experts translates, more often than not, into a nightmare of an in-store experience.

Instead of looking for employees that are an expert in any particular subject matter, perhaps more retailers would find success following the Nordstrom method of hiring Switzer describes in her blog. Nordstrom hires personable people that value working with others and fulfilling clients’ needs. Once hired, Nordstrom ensures employees feel valued, trusted, and respected.