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Home > Blog > A Contrast in Customer Service
Out of Our Minds
Sunday, August 22, 2004 12:18 AM
A Contrast in Customer Service
Anita Sharpe on Business

I was behind a couple checking out at a national book chain and overheard this exchange:

Clerk: 'Did you find everything you were looking for OK?'
Male half of couple: 'Actually, we had trouble finding this book. We thought the store was a little hard to navigate.'
Clerk: 'I'm very sorry to hear that, sir. Your total is $18.68.'
The couple just looked at each other.

Later that night, I went to Houston's restaurant with several people, including


my mother (my personal policy, at least at this point, is to acknowledge companies that do good things; ignore the names of companies that fall short.) She mentioned that the decaf coffee was about the best she had ever tasted. The restaurant, as usual at dinnertime, had a long waiting list and all the employees seemed swamped. \n\nBut when I asked the hostess the brand of coffee, she first phoned the kitchen and finally left her station to track down the manager, who came out and gave a lengthy explanation of how they used an Atlanta company, J. Martinez, to craft a special blend.\n\nImpressive.


15 comments

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Jo - 9/30/2004 12:06:59 AM
Anita wrote: I just wanted to say that actually I am a Marketing/Public Relations Director from a management company that operates fast food chains and wandered onto here while doing research for a customer service seminar I'll be teaching.

I really appreciated all of the posts. I'm personally working very hard to get our employees to stop reciting the scripts and start listening aggressively and paying attention to details. It's an uphill battle but customer feedback helps tremendously.

Thanks again.
Laura Bergells - 8/26/2004 10:30:25 PM
Recently, my local Walgreen's check-out clerks have gotten into the hackneyed 'Do-You-Want-Fries-With-That' upsell. No matter what my purchase, after the final scan, they ask if I want to buy some cheap something-or-other, which is usually totally unrelated to my one-or-two item drug store sundries purchase.

It reminds me of spam. I'm a middle-aged woman buying a bottle of shampoo, and appropos of nothing, the clerk asks if I want to buy a belly-button light that's on sale.

It's nothing personal. They asked two people in front of me the same thing.

One day, the clerk made a particularly bad offer. I'm buying tampons and Midol, and the clerk asks if I'd like to buy a chocolate brownie with that.

'Is that some kind of tasteless joke?' I wondered aloud, knowing the answer was 'no.' It's nothing personal; it's just unwittingly offensive.

The clerk didn't understand my comment, until I spelled it out in humiliating detail, much to the amusement/embarrassment of the people in line behind me.

'I hate asking,' said the weary clerk. 'It's so dumb. Management makes me.'

I sighed with compassion.

'I know. I'm sorry. What can I say?' I said, waiving the Midol. 'Bad timing for both of us.'
lee - 8/24/2004 5:43:57 PM
My pet peeve on customer service relates to companies with a 'back at ya' philosophy. Example: Kroger with the Kroger plus card. You get special prices when you flash the card. Naturally, I often go to the store with the wrong key chain and then don't have the card and don't get the discounts. In my pre-therapy days, I would be furious with myself for forgetting the card. Now I shun Kroger because of the 'play by my rules' approach to marketing. So, I shop at Publix where I don't have to qualify for sale items. Another example -- HP has some help lines which are not 800 numbers. So I have to PAY to be put on hold?????? This is guaranteed to put me in a foul mood.

All of the rules and fine print which 'protect margins' tend to, in the long run, alienate consumers (take a hint, Delta).
anita - 8/24/2004 1:59:28 PM
This is all such great stuff! The comments are much more insightful than what I originally wrote. Every marketing/retail person should be reading these.
Mindwalker - 8/24/2004 12:57:50 PM
Bravo, Robert! I don't think you're over-thinking it at all. I've never been to Houston's, but now you have me incredibly curious. *grin*

Here's an example of where creating the customer experience is paramout to every aspect of its business: Rainforest Cafe. Most people would agree that the food they serve is crap, for instance, but I'll be darned if my little cousins (ages 5 and 7) don't ask me to take them there *every* time they come to Chicago. To them, it's the memorable experience they get every time they go that makes them want it again and again.

Another example: Apple (yet again). Their retail stores are the creme de la creme when it comes to creating a memorable customer experience. Yes, they are ostensibly in the business of selling computers - for a premium, too.

But when you walk into any Apple Store, you quickly realize that they're business plan must be 'to sell dreams.' You are instantly bombarded with a single idea: YOU CAN BE CREATIVE (using our tools).

Imagine what would happen if Apple started building a cafe inside each Apple Store? The experience becomes truly communal and shared.

Getting all your employees to buy into the 'real business plan' and helping create a memorable experience ... well, it sounds like a great Wortwhile article! *laughs*
Robert - 8/23/2004 7:32:04 PM
Responding to Mindwalker, it's unfair for me to judge, but it seems as if the Flattop Grill acts like it's only in the food business, whereas Houston's is thinking more broadly and recognizes it is creating and marketing a bigger experience (e.g., a pleasant evening away from home) as well as food. To someone who views himself as being just in the food business, rather than, say, in that 'experience' business, providing customers good food at a certain price value is the whole business strategy. In this mindset, placing a screeching baby next to a customer may not be intentional, but provided the customer is given, in your words, 'healthy eating at a great price' and in a timely fashion, the business doesn't perceive subjective services such as a 'quiet environment' as being critical. They're limiting their own potential as a business.

The innovative Howard Schultz of Starbucks, mentioned elsewhere in this site, always recognized he was marketing the experience of a 'coffeehouse culture,' and not just a cup of coffee. That mantra led to brand extensions such as WiFi and music which helped Starbucks surpass competitors who viewed themselves as merely in the 'coffee' business. I believe he wrote that when you are creating and managing any business plan, the first step is defining what business you are in, in the first place, which is more complicated than it sounds. Are you selling a product, or rather, are you creating and marketing a culture and an environment in which that product can exist alongside other products and services, each of which can fuel the others?

I admit I'm over-thinking this, but it seems that Houston's gets this, and that Flattop Grill might benefit from thinking it through. Anyone can ask 'how can I do things better?' but constantly asking 'what business am I really in?' can be more productive and inspiring.
Sally Sears - 8/23/2004 5:14:38 PM
I'm loving the restaurant example, and think the most Worthwhile thing about it is the idea of devotion to something that really stands out.
I think Martinez Coffee fits in that category. Whether its a particular coffee or a really good book, if both buyer and seller agree on an exceptionality, they share a great moment. It takes them away from customer service and into an equal relationship of appreciating something worthwhile.
Isn't that one of the best reasons to read, or drink coffee, or offer good customer service?

Mindwalker - 8/23/2004 3:05:42 PM
I've always said if you want to see dynamic customer service in action -- or inaction -- eat out at restaurants.

Last night, my fiancee and I went out and ate at Flattop Grill on Church Street in Evanston, Illinois (just outside Chicago). We live in town and eat there at least once every two weeks, so we've become 'regulars.' Most of our experiences have been positive and we *always* make sure to tip well.

The evening, however, was one of contrasts, service-wise:

- POSITIVE: The manager, who we've seen before, greeted us with a smile and acknowledged the familiarity. 'Hello! It's nice to see you again!'

- POSITIVE: He even cracked a joke about us being regulars: 'Boy, we haven't seen you in about two weeks!'

- POSITIVE: The place was not crowded, even on a Sunday night, so we were seated in a quiet spot in the back. Nice!

- NEGATIVE: Midway through our dinner, another party was seated right next to us. It was a party of eight -- five of which were children under the age of 5 (one of which was a newborn). Even though the children were unruly, restless, and loud, I normally have no problem with that. After all, that's what children do.

However, this was not 'normal.' We were out for a quiet Sunday evening dinner at one of our favorite eateries. The place was not even close to being full and there was a full staff. The manager clearly saw that we were rather perturbed at having what had been a quiet dinner disturbed.

Even though there were more than enough empty tables nearby, at no time did the manager or server ask us if we wanted to move to another table. The right thing to do, from a customer service perspective, should have been to ask us if we wanted to move to a quieter spot.

Yes, we could have spoken up and asked. But that would have made the manager feel uncomfortable and on the spot. We were the ones who would've come across as the complainers.

As Anita said, having a fanatical attention to detail separates certain companies from the pack. I believe that part of providing customer service is being able to listen to customers (especially what is unspoken). Being able to do so -- and act on it -- not only separates them from the pack, it puts them into their own category.

Don't get me wrong: my fiancee and I enjoy eating at Flattop Grill. It's healthy eating and the price is right. I just hope that in the future, the manager(s) might be willing to go that extra mile for their patrons -- even the ones who are considered regulars and don't have to be won over.
Robert - 8/23/2004 2:38:04 PM
One of the big national book chains just posted a 35% earnings decline (partly due to a financial restructuring), so something is off somewhere. What makes these service lapses more unfortunate, even if infrequent and unintentional, is they can paralyze the retailer's other marketing practices, which likely are highly impressive, smart and hard-fought. That same store has access to endless data about who its customers are, their attitudes and behavior. Understanding product sales trends, it perhaps quite intentionally placed that particular book in an out-of-the-way spot, as this increases the amount of time the customer spends in the store, which impacts sales (why the drugs in a drugstore are way in the back). Unfortunately it's all fruitless if the customer has a negative experience at the end of the process. It all counts.

Anyway, that said, my idea of customer service 'hell' is the polar opposite -- the customer in front of me in line expresses a straightforward concern ('I only see spearmint Tic-Tacs, do you also have peppermint?'), and the entire cashier staff then competes with each other to solve the problem, leaving the rest of us in line feeling bewildered and neglected. Good intent, unproductive execution. Looks like the restaurant has it right.

Aaron - 8/23/2004 1:38:02 PM
Anita has a good point here - too often you see retailers give lip service to customer service rather than living it.

Contrast this to a Publix or a CD Baby, where the full devotion to customer service turns the relatively mundane task of buying milk or a CD into an experience you actually look forward to.

The funny part is, training your employees to ask these questions consistently is usually the hard part. Taking it to the next step is just a matter of empowerment.


Brent P. Newhall - 8/23/2004 12:09:44 PM
I don't think this is a matter of 'making the best of a bad situation.' The customer wasn't being impolite.

The salesperson asked a question, received a reasonable answer, and then promptly ignored it. If I'd been the customer, this behavior would have prompted me to ask myself, 'Why did you ask me the question if you don't care about my answer?'

The salesperson could have replied, 'Oh? What were you trying to find? How was it hard to navigate?'
Hugh - 8/23/2004 11:40:14 AM
As a former ass't. store manager of a national book chain whose name rhymes with Darns and Bogle, I can tell you that we received that kind of question quite often. Not that I agree with that particular bookseller's way of handling the situation. I can completely see, however, that the bookseller, thought, 'Well, d'ya want me to rearrange the store for your particular psychographic profile?' Depending on the layout of the store, some books or sections may be harder to find. And, given the barebones staffing at some bookstores, the bookseller may not be able to leave the cashwrap and explain the general layout of the store, which in some cases might be completely arbitrary. For example, bad Christian Fiction is filed under Christian Fiction, and good Christian Fiction is filed under Fiction/Literature, except some C.S. Lewis titles may be filed under Religion.

All of this is to say that, rather than get into an extended discussion with no real hard and fast answers, the (part-time?) bookseller made the best of a bad situation, and chose the most attractive option open to him/her.
anita - 8/23/2004 7:50:50 AM
Dave, My intent wasn't to be harsh. I actually like this national chain and particular store a lot. My intent was to show how sometimes customer service training gives employees only part of the tools they need --i.e, the right question to ask, but not much in the way of answers.

Other companies, such as Houston's or Ritz-Carlton or Lexus, have a fanatical attention to detail and it really separates them from the pack.
Dave - 8/23/2004 6:32:39 AM
I can appreciate the message you're writing about here - YES, customer service is, or at least should be, #1 for any retail establishment.

But I think you might be a bit too harsh in your criticism here.

I recently had exactly the same thing happen to me at a bookstore. Same exact question too. Except I did find everything I was looking for - and after cheerfully being checked out, the person also recommended another book by the same author if I enjoyed my purchase. My point is this: I'm betting the bookstore was a franchise outfit. I wouldn't even be surprised if the person who worked the check out was not a professional fulltimer there. Contrast that with your experience in the restaurant... apples and oranges maybe? A better comparison would be with a locally owned bookstore - which unfortunately, are disappearing almost as quickly as the locallly owned coffeeshops.

I think the REAL story here is how tough it is to operate a franchise outlet and find good help who understands the value of customer service.

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