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Out of Our Minds
Monday, August 23, 2004 3:14 PM
The Do-Something gap
David Weinberger on Culture

Anita writes about two constrasting experiences with customer service. In the negative case, Anita overhears a register clerk asking a customer how the shopping went. The customer complains that the story is confusingly laid out, and the clerk ignores the comment. (Anita tells it better, plus the comments are great, so go read it!)

My daughter's been working two retail jobs this summer and routinely comes home with stories of customers who get all huffy with her about some policy they don't like about the store. Each of the two stores is part of a national chain, so I suppose the best response would be, 'Thank you for your feedback. I'll pass that along to our manager.' But the truthful response would be: 'Why are you yelling at me? I work for minimum wage at this crappy job and even if I passed your idea along to my manager — now, read my lips — nothing is going to happen. You might as well tell Mayor Bloomberg you have a good idea for re-routing Broadway. Your opinion and my opinion put together matter as much to this corporation as the drone of a mosquito means to a deaf hippo. So, if you want to make a difference, engage in a political process. But if you just want to sound off because you've had a crappy day, go pick on someone who doesn't have a crappier job than you do.'

In short, complaining to a register clerk just pushes the alienation one step closer to its source. There's no smooth chain between the individual and the institution, so you feel marginally better but the clerk feels even less in control of her destiny than before.


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Aaron - 8/25/2004 8:17:13 AM
David, I see your point and agree. The gap you refer to is all to prevalant in today's marketplace. What I was getting at in my previous comment is that a number of companies have found a way to bridge that gap - providing front line employees with a way to pass along customer suggestions for improvement. More importantly, those who've built this bridge have been wildly successful.
Robert - 8/24/2004 9:32:26 PM
Absolutely, in certain situations, a cashier acting as an enlightened 'customer relationship director' can benefit everyone, from customer to the company to the employee. But there is something to be said for division of labor, and it's perfectly admirable for a cashier to just be a cashier. The point from the bookstore exchange (already reiterated above) wasn't so much that the cashier ignored the customers' complaint, but that she had raised the issue in the first place. Just stating 'thanks for coming in .... will that be cash or charge?' can be more than enough.

Aside from everyone's interesting insights, you've got to love a discussion on business that uses phrases like 'getting all huffy' and 'your opinion and my opinion matter as much .... as the drone of a mosquito means to a deaf hippo.' Keep it coming, David!
David Weinberger - 8/24/2004 4:28:13 PM
Aaron, I agree that some companies successfully think like customers, but that's different from having a way for the person at the register to move ideas up to corporate. As it stands, at most places - with exceptions like the one Anita points to her in comment - employees feel and are totally unempowered and alienated. When employees are polite and pleasant (as of course they should be) when a customer complains about something systemic, the customer may feel better, but the employee has been forced into bad faith because s/he knows that the complaint ain't goin' nowhere.
anita - 8/24/2004 12:46:50 PM
These comments are truly nailing the problem. After I overheard the conversation in the book store where the clerk had no idea how to respond, I recalled that this chain also offers customers discounts on books for completing a telephone survey about their shopping experience. Somebody,somewhere wants to know. . .

Why not also reward employees for bringing to light new ideas -- which are sometimes disguised as complaints?
Rex Hammock - 8/24/2004 12:35:14 PM
This morning on the way into work, I stopped to get gas for my car and went inside to purchase a cup of coffee. All I had was a $20. The clerk took my bill and turned to the cashier next to her and said (as if I wasn't there), 'These people are killing me with their twenty dollar bills. I don't have anymore change. I'm tired of it.' Then she handed me 16 one dollar bills and a palm full of change and with no apology said, 'That's all I have for you people this morning.' What? Had I conspired with the other customers to ruin this young woman's change-making ability? Did I need to apologize for the sins of the previous customers.

Bottom line: I don't think any feedback I would have given to this front-line employee would make it anywhere.
Jeffrey - 8/24/2004 12:08:28 PM
I'll disagree as well. The real issue here is why companies don't regularly ask their front-line employees what ideas they have for enhancing the business operations. Doing so only makes sense because of the exact phenomenon you describe: they are the ones hearing the feedback.
Aaron - 8/24/2004 10:58:44 AM
I'm going to have to disagree with your point here, because I've seen it done.

A number of companies have taken the mentality of the 'customer experience' and incorporated it into their business culture - even down to the minimum wage teenagers manning the register.

Obviously Commerce Bank has made waves with their fanatical commitment to customer service. Everyong from the branch manager to the part-time teller feels like it's their job to make the customer's visit something to remember. Commerce sometimes takes this to an extreme, but there's a middle ground.

I'd look at a Caribou Coffee (or Starbucks if you prefer) and a Best Buy for examples of part-time teenage register clerks showing a commitment to making my experience as a customer more enjoyable.

Create the culture, sell it, be it, and hire the right people. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Give them that opportunity and they'll surprise the heck out of you.


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