Wednesday, August 5, 2009

If chivalry is dead, customer service must be six feet under, getting eaten by worms.

Ever since I walked away from the retail world, I find that I have a heightened feeling of frustration with stores, sales associates and a general decline in something that I am very passionate about: customer service.  I find myself thinking, if I had behaved this way, I would have been fired!

So what's the cause for this rapid decline?  Has it really been a rapid decline or a slow decent into a consumer acceptance of poor service that I was too wrapped up in to notice?  After much thought, I realized that, although there are companies that do not prioritize great customer service, it has only just recently become "the norm."

It seems that every store that I walk in to, from my neighborhood Jewel to Barney's, is constantly reaching a new low.  I was at Jewel just the other day (grocery shopping for those of you non-Chicagoans) picking up a few pantry essentials.  I hopped into the express lane (15 items or less) hoping to avoid what is normally a hideously long wait at any time of the day. Annoyance set in after about ten minutes, as the cashier lazily scanned items while carrying on a conversation with the cashier manning the lane next to hers.  Realizing that it was too late to switch lanes, I continued to wait.  When I finally reached the checkout and pulled my debit card out of my wallet to pay, she rudely informed me that she was only accepting cash because she was having a problem with her "credit card thingy."  Excuse me?  Wouldn't this information have been helpful before I had gotten in this line?

Now, this situation really made me examine who and what is responsible for this kind of behavior.  Granted, the girl was rude, but really, this situation had little to do with her.  She wasn't the most poised or elegant messenger, but she was, simply, the messenger. There were at least ten customers in line and until I freaked out and passed the disturbing information I had just received on to the woman behind me and so on, nothing had been done to inform customers of the situation, remedy the problem or appease frustrated patrons.

This leads us to my theory:  You get back what you put out there.  There wasn't a manager, a supervisor, or even an employee who gave a damn about anything anywhere to be found.  The cashier clearly had no one to reach out to for help and most likely had received little if any instruction or training in customer service.  What a shame.  It's sad to see this decline and even worse to be slapped in the face by it every time you need to make a purchase.

Back to my theory.  The retail world, like most other professional arenas, is a cold, harsh place. Many retailers fail to explore what really hurts their business by playing what I call "the blame game."  The point is to find someone, anyone, to blame.  The sad thing is that the people who most often take the blame are the ones at the bottom of the totem pole, the ones who get paid the least, have the highest expectations and most often, receive the lowest quality training.  You get back what you put out there.  If you fail to properly train your staff, whose fault is it when they fail to live up to company standards?  When you pay your employees pennies above minimum wage, do they really feel valued and inspired to go above and beyond?  When the head honcho plays the blame game, does it set an acceptable standard for those running the daily operations?  

The disturbing decline in high customer service standards, or  any customer service standards as of late is due to a trickle down effect set in motion by a culture of people constantly seeking out opportunities to find someone else to blame, from the CEO, to the regional director, to the district manager, to the management team all the way down to the part time associates.  

I don't necessarily believe the mantra "the customer is always right," because in seven years of retail management, I have witnessed and experienced first hand more than a couple of situations where the customer was most definitely not right, but was still able to manage the situation and in most cases, resolve any issues while maintaining a positive relationship with those customers going forward.  My mantra is "treat challenging customers as you would wish to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot."

People wonder why retailers (even Target!) that sell necessities like groceries are struggling in these rough times.  It all comes down to CUSTOMER SERVICE.  Why should I pay to be disrespected?  My expendable income is not what it once was and I, like many, refuse to hand over my hard-earned dollars to some snotty sales associate, undoubtedly a product of low pay, poor training and a complete lack of leadership in the work environment.

Good customer service is the key.  This is so simple.  During a recession, the companies that are not only surviving, but growing and thriving are those who recognize the value of treating people with respect, both external and internal (employees) customers.  I know I'm not the only person out there who feels this way and hopefully, my next job with value customer service as much as I do. That is a place where I want to work!

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