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.