(Taking the time to read this post will renew your faith in customer service.)
With six hours of driving and at least one lengthy stop ahead of us, we were on the road at 5 am. That meant we were out of bed and moving at 3:45 am. While I am a morning person, 3:45 a.m. is early by anyones standards. In the rush to get on the road, I sometimes forget things and today was no different.
About an hour into the drive and well clear of Portland, we realized we forgot something. Going back would mean losing at least an extra two hours and include the likelihood of getting stuck in the Portland morning rush hour.
The item would be replaced in route.
After our scheduled stop in Seattle, we planned a quick stop at the Alderwood Mall, to buy the forgotten item, have an early lunch and be back on the road with minimum disruption.
The parking lot was nearly empty at 11 am on a Friday. Heading to the store to buy the replacement item, we walked by a new shop of one of our favorite Seattle merchants and headed in for a quick look.
Entering together, my wife and I split up to explore on our own. No other customers were in the store and the two employees, let’s call them clerks since they provided no sale or service, stood behind the registers. Oddly they made no effort to greet us; in fact they did not even look in our direction. They just continued complaining about a customer that had called back to the store just moments after one of the clerks had torn up their documentation. She explained in get detail the pain she went through to retrieve the documents from the trash to help the customer. Meanwhile, my wife and I continued to look around the shop with both of us walking by the clerks several times and yet no greeting was offered.
Meeting back up with my wife, she showed me a great gift for her mother. Heading to the registers, we seemed to be a painful bother to the clerks who had to actually stop talking to take our money. The transaction was made with no pleasantries exchanged, only complaints about the credit card reader and the struggles that plagued our clerks. Transaction completed, we turned and left never hearing a “Thanks for shopping with us” or “Enjoy your day.”
Several doors down, we entered our destination store to buy the forgotten item. Note: The store shall remain nameless in the story but it prides itself on exemplary service claiming that their friendly and knowledgeable staff is their competitive advantage.
At 11:30 on a Friday morning, there was only a few customers in the store and I could see that none of the employees engaged with a customer. We soon found the department we were looking for and the rack of products we sought. Arrival at the rack was speedy since we were never encumbered (greeted) by any of he employees we walked past to get to get to the display.
Foiled! The item that we wanted to buy was secured on the rack with a small sign informing us that a sales specialist could help us by unlocking the item. I turned and looked at the two employees having a conversation only ten feet away. One of them made eye contact with me and then went back to his conversation making no attempt to end the chat and actually serve me. As I was preparing to step over and interrupt their chat, I saw another employee heading my way. Stopping, I turned to face employee. He made eye contact, and then with a nod and a smile he simply pivoted and walked in another direction.
I turned to my wife and said, “What the h___ is going on here?” and then stepped towards the other clerks and asked if one of them might be able to help g.
“In a minute,” said one of the clerk as he continued the conversation for well over said minute. Finally, he stepped over to the rack and while I anticipated an apology for us having to wait when the store was pretty much empty and there was plenty of staff around, he just asked, “So what questions do you have?”
“I don’t have any questions,” I replied’ “I just need to you to unlock the item so I can buy it and be on my way.”
“Oh, you don’t need me to unlock it.”
I just stood and glared at him and then pointed out, “The item is locked up.”
“You can just ask the cashier at the front and they can get one for you,” he cheerily replied.
Being primed by the first store and being further put-off by treatment in the current store, I said, “Perhaps you should add another small sign to the rack explaining that option so customers like me don’t wait around for an employee to tell them that they do not need any help.”
The only response I got was a shrug as he stepped back to resume his conversation with the other employee. Heading towards the cashiers, I considered leaving the store and not making the purchase but I was not going to be defeated at this point.
Getting to the registers, we joined the line of people waiting patiently at the “Wait here for next available cashier” sign. The humor of this is that the only cashier working was at the far end of the bank of registers, nearly 25 feet away. Perhaps the thinking is that by stationing the cashier at the far register nearest the door, they could greet people thereby relieving the clerks of the task of greeting customers.
Slowly, she rang up each customer and finally it was our turn. “Next customer in line,” bellowed the cashier once again from her distant post.
While walking to the register, two thoughts crossed my mind. First, a significant amount of time was wasted as each new customer having waited patiently at the sign now had to walk 25 feet to the register. Secondly, it was highly likely that in our case the cashier would have to walk all the way back to our starting point to go into the backstock area to get the item that the sales clerk was apparently too busy to get for us.
“Yes?” was the greeting offered as we arrived at the cashier empty-handed.
I explained what I wanted and added “The clerk said you could get one for us.”
“Why didn’t you get one from him?” she asked incredulously.
“Wait here,” she said as she turned and walked back to and past the “Wait here” sign and into the back room. And wait we did. After several more minutes, she finally reappeared and trudged back to her register and handed us the item.
With no further talk, she scanned our items and then we attempted to swipe our credit card only to run into the same issues we had with the card reader in the previous store. After punching several keys, rescanning the UPC and us, once again, swiping the card, the register gods smiled upon us, As she handed us our receipt she once bellowed, “Next in line.” No “thank you” or even a snarky “bu-bye.” Perhaps she was to busy waiting for the next customer during their long walk to thank us or wish us a nice day. Leaving the store, the first drops of rain began to fall.
On to the Food Court where we hoped to beat the lunch rush, grab a quick bite and get back on the road. One benefit of Food Courts is that my wife and I who sometimes disagree on where to get food can each go to the restaurant of our choosing and then meet up to dine. I headed towards Asian and my wife towards a steak sandwich with me returning first to the agreed upon table. There I waited for my wife.
And waited. Finally, I noticed her coming from the opposite direction of the cheese steak restaurant carrying a tray of Mexican food.
Arriving at the table, she explained how she stepped up to a counter devoid of customers and staffed by several people who ignored her. After waiting a minute or two, another customer approached and headed to the other end of the counter. That is when the employee turned to her and said, “If you want to order something, you need to come down here.” Exacerbated, she left to see if she could find another restaurant that wanted her money.
Finishing our lunches, we discussed whether customer service might be against the law in this part of Washington or not. Dutifully dumping our trash and stacking our trays, we headed back to the car, dreading the wet walk back to the car and continuing our drive in the rain.
In order to exit the food court we pass a Dairy Queen. (No need to protect the name here.) I thought a small hot fudge sundae might help turn the day around. But as I approached the DQ, I had a decision to make. There was already three people in line and I wondered if the only employee would let me down with slow and poor service like so many others at the mall or should I cut my loses and move on? As I stood there for just a second pondering the quandary, a friendly voice rang out from behind the counter, “I will be with you as soon as I can.”
Turning, I made eye contact with a smiling face of the DQ employee as she headed off to make a Blizzard for her customer. Stunned by this sudden turn of fortune, I joined the others in line. Hustling back with the completed Blizzard, she quickly made change for the customer while thanking them and telling them to have a great day.
“It shouldn’t be too long,” she said to the assembled line as she cheerfully greeted the next customer ordering another Blizzard. Smiling, she sped around the corner to fix his Blizzard. That is when I realized that while the DQ’s position at the exit to the food court optimized traffic, the food prep area was hidden from customer view. This added at least ten more steps to each order for the sole employee had to prepare taking them out of line of sight with any existing or potential customers.
Quickly reappearing, the DQer dutifully tipped the Blizzard upside down to prove the superiority of the product to the customer and said, “I love doing that!”
Tender the transaction, thank the customer then greet the next customer and apologize for the wait; she clearly had this down. Taking yet another Blizzard order, she continued making short work of the line, all while smiling and greeting any new customers.
Magically reappearing moments later with the next Blizzard, she again tipped the Blizzard upside down right next to the sign that said that if the employee fails to tip the Blizzard upside down, it was free. “Don’t try this at home, I am a trained professional,” she said eliciting a chuckle from those of us in line. Finally, it’s my turn.
“So, how is your day going?” she starts.
“Much better now.”
“Life is always good with DQ. What can I make for you?”
“A small hot fudge sundae.”
“What?” she said with a smile, “I am only making Blizzards today. But since you waited so patiently, I will make an exception. One small hot fudge coming right up.” Again, she turned and hurried around the corner to create my sundae.
Returning, she added, “Thanks again for waiting.”
Quickly ringing me up and handing me my change, I looked around for a tip jar. Not seeing one I asked, “Where is your tip jar?”
“We do not accept tips here, but thanks for asking. Have a great weekend and enjoy your sundae.”
I once again began walking back to the car but now with my faith in good customer service restored.
Most retail gurus and service expert expound on the idea that sales people should never ask a customer, “May I help you?” This is a closed-ended question that typically gets a “No thanks, just looking” response. While I generally agree with their view, based on my experience at the mall this day, I sometimes think even approaching and saying anything to a customer may be an advanced skill.
In transactional stores, you may not expect much service. But at the stores and restaurants we visited that day, to not greet and not help customers is inexcusable. Not greeting and engaging customers is grounds for termination as much as unexcused absence. In either case, no customers are getting served but in the later the non-service is costing you payroll and clogging your aisles.
Acknowledging, approaching and engaging customers are the primary tasks of salespeople. Any employee that does not drop what they are doing, especially if it is not work related and immediately seeing to customers needs to be coached. If the inattentive behavior continues, they should be sent packing.
Special note: Throughout the rest of the trip, I kept wondering if I should report the deplorable service at the store where I bought the replacement item. I did not have to think very long. When I got back home, there was an email in my inbox and the store was inviting me to take a customer survey about my recent visit. I took great pleasure in recounting my experience in minute detail with their survey company. I only hope it falls on receptive ears and action is taken.