The Lost Art of Customer Service

This is what happened on my last trip to Staples:

serviceI needed a ream of 3-hole punched copy paper. I needed it right then. So off the old man and I went to Staples. I hadn’t been inside this particular Staples before, so when a clerk approached and asked if I needed anything, I told him: “I need 3-hole punched copy paper. Where–” He went loping off and I hurried to follow. He pulled a package of college ruled notepaper off a shelf. “No,” sez I, “copy paper. A ream of it. If you could just point–” Off he loped, calling over his shoulder, “Follow me!” Oh, come on, it’s a big store, but not that big, but apparently some brilliant joker in corporate decided “Show don’t Tell” is the new policy. So I hurried to catch up with the rapidly moving clerk. He ended up at a wall display filled with copy paper where he proudly shoved a ream into my hands. “No,” sez I, “I want 3-hole punched copy paper.” To which he gave me a disgusted look and said, snarkily, “We have 3-hole punches. You can put holes in it.” (I’ve been buying and using 3-hole punched copy paper for YEARS. I can buy it on Amazon. I can buy STAPLES brand on Amazon.) At this point I was ready to walk out, empty-handed, and buy it from Amazon, even if it meant waiting a few days. Then another clerk showed up and I told her what I wanted and she pulled a ream off the shelf. The first clerk gave me a filthy look and slunk away. At the cash register the checkout clerk asked if I’d been helped on the floor. I said, “If by ‘help’ you mean did some knucklehead try to make me feel like an idiot for wanting something I’ve been buying for years, then yes, I was helped.” She got that Oh please let this person get the hell out of my store look on her face, and I took my paper and left.

“This,” I told the old man, “is the reason I hate shopping in person.”

The other day I read this article on The Passive Voice, “Just How Many Stores Must Retailers Close to Beat Amazon?” I thought about telling my Staples story, but I was busy, so I didn’t. But I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about why I rarely go shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, even though I used to love, love, LOVE browsing office supply stores, bookstores, home improvement stores and craft stores. It all boils down to customer service. A lot of these stores are run by big corporations and whenever sales/profits are down it seems as if the first question asked is, “How do we make more money?” This is a bad–terrible!–question for any business to ask. It’s all about focus and attitude. And when one’s attitude is entirely focused on making money, then it’s NOT on customer service.

The Staples clerk had been ordered, I’m sure, to “serve” customers, probably via a corporate directive. The problem was two-fold, though. He didn’t know his inventory and HE DID NOT WANT TO SERVE ME. I don’t know how well Staples pays or how it treats its employees, but it apparently doesn’t hire people for their love of office supplies or desire to help people. Other than my local grocery store, it’s been my experience of late that the majority of people who work in retail establishments would rather be doing anything other than their jobs. I keep running into dispirited, grumpy, and put upon clerks who refuse to look me in the eye or listen to me while they’re spewing dull scripts about loyalty cards and purchased warranty plans. Whenever I have a rare good retail shopping experience, I am so astonished I blather on about it for days. For the most part, shopping in person is such a chore that I’d rather take my time (and dollars) to Amazon. Pretty sad state of affairs when a computer screen offers a more pleasant shopping experience than any brick and mortar establishment.

I have a suggestion for the corporate bigwigs: Visit your stores, anonymously, as a customer. Check out the customer service. Do to the floor clerks look you in the eye? Do they listen? Do they know the inventory? Do they WANT to help? Maybe instead of hiring people based on some computer generated algorithm or merely their willingness to work for minimum wage, how about looking for people who can love their job? You’ll never beat Amazon by cutting costs and closing stores–or by forcing scripts on your employees that are as meaningless to them as to the customers forced to endure them.



22 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Customer Service

  1. This. This. This. I keep having this same experience over and over. Ironically, the worst offender is my local indie bookstore. And I keep having one pleasant shopping experience after another at Amazon.

    • My list of places to go shopping is steadily shrinking, Alex. The last good experience I had was at a DSW shoe store, of all places. The young lady at the checkout was so happy to help me I had fantasies about my new best friend and almost asked if I could buy her a cup of coffee so we could keep chatting. Heh.

  2. You are so right. Words can’t even describe how infuriating this is. I’ve personally found Home Depot and Best Buy to be the two worst offenders in my neighborhood. I won’t go to Best Buy anymore. Most recently, I was shopping for a new lawn sprinkler at HD. I had the old one with me to make sure I got the right size. I had that in one hand, and the new one in the other hand when an employee saw me and asked if I needed help.
    “No thanks,” I said. He then proceeded to help me anyway, because apparently I’m too stupid to know if I need help or not. He asked about thirty questions, narrowing down what type of system I had and what I was looking for. He finally ended at:
    “Sounds like you need a 4″, 360 degree with a 1/2″ fitting.”
    “Like this one?” I said, showing him the one I’d been holding throughout our five minute conversation.
    His face fell. “Uh, yeah.” Then he walked away looking like I’d kicked his puppy.
    On the other hand, If I DID have a question, It would take at least that long to find someone and nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t know the answer.

    • At least your guy sounds like he knew his inventory. Pity he had the social skills of a bore at a party who corners you to tell you about his foot surgery.

      I agree with you about Best Buy. Life’s too short for the ten minute spiel about warranties and crap at the cash register.

  3. Oh, yes, Jaye, your experience rings a bell & not the tolling of that bell is not a happy sound! Cheeky person, telling you to punch holes in the paper. I’m in a small town & most of the time, I’m glad to say, we have pleasant, helpful staff in the stores. We have a co-op, i.e. grocery store, deli, bakery, cafe. Wow. The staff there is so good, so helpful, so pleasant & not just because I was on the board for a few years & shop there a lot. What a contrast on the rare occasions when I go to any of our other local supermarkets (e’re endowed, 2 large ones, one other smallish one which is v. good). But the staff, eeek.

    • My favorite grocery store is part of a big chain, but at least half the employees have been there since it opened 15 years ago. I know most of them by name and all say hello to me when I shop. Their management is very active and pro-active, to the point where the store manager will bag groceries if they’re really busy. That excellent customer service is what keeps the place busy all the time–despite higher prices than a Walmart that is within hailing distance. I remember when the Walmart was being built that I asked a friend of mine who works there if she wasn’t worried about losing business. She just smiled and said, nope, none of them were in the least bit worried. She was right. Attitude. It’s all about attitude.

  4. I was just thinking about that article today, and considering how little time I spend actually personally shopping, as in driving to a store to shop. My time is valuable. There is nothing worse than wasting time by driving to a store which SHOULD stock a particular item, DID stock a particular item, only to arrive at said store and find out they no longer carry that item or that item is out of stock. Means I have to drive to another store. I’ve wasted a whole lotta time.
    I love my local market. Wonderful specialty foods and terrific customer service. And it’s three blocks away. I even like the closest supermarket. All the clerks seem to care about providing good customer service and they know where everything is. Heck, I know where everything is!
    But I have little interest in taking an entire day to shop in, say, San Francisco– it really is an all-day thing. And I’m not sure I’d find what I want or need.
    In recent years I’ve learned which stores are the best for online shopping or I use Amazon. Simplifies my life immensely. I feel like I should be sad for the retailers. Maybe I am, a little, because there go a bunch of jobs. But I can’t seem to get too worked up about it. Is that wrong?

    • Sometimes, Julia, I think it would be better if those people DID lose their jobs. Not because I wish unemployment on anybody, but because it would give them an opportunity to find employment they can put their heart into. I’ve had many jobs in my life, but the worst was being a server (waitress back in the old days). I hated it. I was terrible at it and resentment built from the moment I put on a uniform. So I quit after a few weeks and vowed to never take a waitressing job again as long as I lived. I like to think that the people who would have received my crappy service thank me for it.

      As for the big box stores, I think their time has passed. Whatever passion those corporations once held for being the best at something is gone.

      • I loved waitressing! Worked at a waitress from the time I was 13. Put myself through college on loans, grants and waitressing. I’d waitress today if my knee would let me!

  5. I’ve had bad customer service through online stores. So, it’s not just brick-n-mortar retail that falls short. I will say, I do prefer having a human being in front of me to talk to about problems I have with an item. I tend not to return stuff bought on line as much either. I had an air mattress that went flat after two uses. Just wouldn’t stay inflated. I took it back–three months after purchase–with the receipt but without the box and the store let me get a new one. Not sure I would get that same courtesy from Amazon.

    • I’ve had plenty of bad experiences with online retailers. I once purchased a dishwasher from Sears to be picked up at the store, then found out the online store was NOT connected to the b&m store, which happened to be out of stock of the dishwasher I’d purchased. I could have driven to Denver to pick it up–they MIGHT have had it there. But I said to hell with it. And because I was such a loyal customer, it only took Sears six weeks to credit back my account. Needless to say I don’t shop at Sears anymore. I tried buying some clothing from Zullily. After several weeks of waiting for the package to arrive, I sent an email to the company asking what’s up. I had to go through several layers of people before I got someone to inform me that the item was out of stock.

      I ordered some books from Amazon and after a month I realized the books hadn’t arrived, so I contacted Amazon. The next day a replacement shipment showed up at my door–no charge. When the first box finally showed up (it was a delivery problem with UPS), Amazon said I could keep it if I didn’t feel like returning it.

      I don’t expect a joyous experience when I shop–in person or online. I would like to finish the experience without feeling as if my very existence is a burdensome demand.

  6. I agree with you completely. At one point, many years ago, my husband and I planned to start a business called “Customer Service Advocates” to try to teach small businesses the art of customer service. Before it got off the ground, we wound up starting an entirely different business.
    My biggest peeve is when you state exactly what you want or need and you then have to repeat it 12 times before you get the correct answer. Ally Bank is a master at that. Have had a terrible time getting our title released now that the car has been paid off.

    • Do not get me started on banks and internet service providers or… My god, the list is so long. It’s like the DMV is their role model.

      Ever read the book EAT THE RICH, by P.J. O’Rourke? Read that and then wonder if our entire country isn’t turning into a Soviet Union railroad.

  7. You really hit a hot button with me on this post. My particular problem is with the grocery stores out here in CA. Since they passed a no plastic bag law and forced consumers to either bring their own bags or purchase them from the store (at 10 cents apiece), the customer service has totally gone to the dogs. It’s like if you bring your own bags that means the checker automatically forgets how to pack a grocery bag. So cans get thrown on top of bread and produce, meat on top of eggs, whatever, no rhyme or reason. After I leave the store, I usually unpack everything and repack myself in the parking lot.

    And you’re right about Amazon, they understand customer service – and every retailer out there should be studying and then emulating them.


    • Yikes. I expect Colorado to follow suit soon. (Amuses me when they ask, “Is plastic okay?” when there are no paper bags in sight, so what’s the alternative? Gives me the urge to say, “Naw, just pile it in the cart. I’ll take care of it.”I hate buying groceries at Walmart because they don’t have baggers and apparently they don’t train the cashiers how to bag. They are “encouraging” (by closing down checkout stations) shoppers to use the self-checkouts, which would be okay if the damned things worked consistently. It’s painful watching an overworked employee bouncing from machine to machine, trying his/her best to remember which codes to input and which buttons to push.

      Customer service is not easy. Any company that can instill the right attitude into its employees has my admiration–and my business.

  8. As someone who used to work customer service and as a customer I can say this post really hit a note with me. Customer service is not easy. Its hard to do well and its even harder when jobs give no training, pay you so badly you can’t afford basics, and act like you are criminal out to rob them. It doesn’t help that corporations are always always skimping out on products or hours so customer service reps have to bear the brunt of unhappy customer ire without any way of making customers happy or dealing with their problems. Oh how I wish everywhere functioned like my local co-op where the people who work there are happy and I can shop without feeling like a jerk.

    • At $15 per hour I expect them to replace the kids with adults who know how to do math. I just love their little faces when their computers fail to tell them how much change is owed and so I tell them. They look at me as if I’m a wizard from another planet.

  9. There’s a concept I tried to teach my children when I homeschooled them: when you get a job, they will pay you to ADD VALUE to their company. Add value for their customers (that’s where the money to pay you comes from). That’s why they give you money, and (we hope) things like benefits.

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