Friday, July 2, 2010

Can I help you?

I want to say a word about customer service and how it relates to marketing. Every retailer knows that customer service is king. That's true (unless you're in Europe, then you can pound sand). But in this country, the company that gives good customer service will rule from on high, like...well...a king. Metaphorically, of course; we're still a republic.

But there's such a thing as too much customer service. The kind that actually drives customers away.

This is what I mean: I went into a Borders Books the other day just to browse. I love books. I love Borders. My idea of a great lunch hour is to spend it in a Borders. I've been a loyal customer both online and in the flesh for years. I know, I know: they're a giant, blood-sucking corporation dedicated to driving little booksellers and their families into the wilderness. But I've liked them. They always had helpful, friendly customer service. And in a bookstore that means a light touch, standing back and letting you linger.

But this time I was hit up by several clerks wanting to know if they could help me find something. This was new. This was irritating. I told each of them, in turn, that I was just browsing--which, come on, is what you do in a bookstore. But they kept hovering. Watching me. Sometimes a new one would accost me, offering to help me find something. (Did they think I was a shoplifter? In a bookstore?) But it put me off and I ended up leaving, not buying anything. Or shoplifting anything, either.

This hovering, overly helpful experience repeated itself over several visits, so I knew there was a new least in that store. The policy seemed to be: Jump on the customer, stay with them until they buy something, and get them out. But all it did was the latter; get me out.

I don't mean to pick on Borders. I've noticed this trend of hovering, pushy floor staff in many stores lately. It's like the Interrupting Waiter Syndrome applied to retail. Smacks of desperation. It makes you feel like the only reason your presence is tolerated in the store is if you're going to buy something--and either buy something or get out. It makes you think, depressingly, that the store manager has got to get his numbers up or he's out. There's sulfur in the air. And your pleasant lunch hour is ruined because now lives are suddenly at stake.

So my advice to marketers, after years of being a marketer myself, and even more years of being a marketee, is to relax. Hang back. Be pleasant. Be ready to help. Be visible. But be in the background. Don't push your customers. And, more to the point, don't push your sales staff. It doesn't help.


  1. Yes, my friend, I totally seems that desperation has set in and everyone "must do a sale" so they pounce on you like a cat catching a mice. It has taken the pleasure out of shopping for me, so now I only go to the specific store to buy a specific item and get the hell out as fast as possible! I hate being helped, I like to shop and browse and try it out....but conversely, have you gotten ANY help at SEARS lately? Recently, my husband and I went to buy a new washer and dryer, and after much browsing and comparing, when we finally made our decision we could NOT find a salesperson to "ring it up" !!!!!

  2. Well, being from the south, I like to linger after a good meal. It harkens back to those toothpick, rocking chair, porch meeting days. I hate it when people take the plate from you before your last bite or invite you to peruse the desert cart minutes after they steal your plate from you before the last bite. I can understand it if you're hogging a table while folks are standing around waiting for a seat especially at lunch time when folks have an hour for lunch. But, here in south Louisiana, the home of living to eat and not vice versa, we still are hounded to order, to eat, to like, to get out... oh, yeh, to pay bill and get out! Well, that's the end of that restaurant, for sure.

    And Sears is the pits!

  3. Well, of course, Ben, it's easy to want to linger after a meal when you're dining in jambalaya country. It's not just the eating, or the browsing, or even the shopping that makes you favor a place, it's feeling welcome and comfy, isn't it?