Without looking very hard one can find news articles on the parlous economic state of the British high street, from ‘mom and pop’ locally owned stores to huge retail conglomerates that comprise of the homogeneous chains we see ubiquitously in every town. Without exception they bleat about how they are suffering due to a financial ‘double dip’ recession. Bankruptcies and redundancies are a weekly occurrence, making it so much harder for those of us looking to fill positions in the industry to land jobs in an ever dwindling pool.
If you have a job, you hang on to it for dear life. Compounding the difficulties for job seekers are the myriad of laws in the UK making it all but impossible to fire those who are inept or lazy, perpetuating the closing windows of opportunity for those who might contribute more eagerly or add value to a company.
However, if cornered into being stuck with the workforce you already have, it baffles me as to why companies (in what is categorized as a service industry) too often score zero in the stakes of training and customer relations if they are fighting for their business lives.
I am in two minds whenever I read the latest bankruptcy roster. Half of me is dismayed that there will be another couple of hundred people going for rare positions. The other half of me feels that it serves them right for performing so badly.
It could sometimes be as simple as extending opening hours. I marvelled at a packed high street last week at 7pm when all the stores on it had closed at 5.30. All that potential footfall business going to absolute waste. Can they be that complacent?
Yes. Yes they can. But there are far more things on the list of easily addressed maladies, from rip-off prices and fake sale tactics to what is euphemistically termed nowadays as a ‘shopping experience’ – edging perilously close these days to a ‘dental experience’.
Paramount in customer perception, according to the recent WHICH poll, is bad customer service. It’s so endemic that all of us have our own stories about individual shops or chain brands.
I offer you some contrasting ‘experiences’, mostly from last week:
Costume shop inside a mall. We went in as it took our fancy that we might find something that would brighten the day of our favourite 5 year old.
The merchandise was badly organized and tightly packed. There were no sections for easy browsing such as children here, adults there. Everything was mashed into any old place. In the most likely areas I searched for a Spiderman suit. They had Superman and Batman, so I reasoned I could get lucky but despite wading through various cluttered wall racks I came up empty handed. I returned to the service counter, staffed by one bored girl who failed to acknowledge her potential customers when they crossed the threshold. Before I could complete a sentence, she answered the phone – a retail no-no when you have a live customer before you. I waited while she lugubriously interacted with the phone customer, necessitating several trips to the shop floor to answer simple questions with details she might have known had she been familiar with her merchandise. After all, she ‘lives’ there every day. It wasn’t beyond expectation that she might have seen some of the stuff before.
Eventually I asked her if she stocked what I was looking for. She shrugged, disinterested.
“Dunno, we got loads of stuff. I dunno everyfink we ‘ave. Go and look.”
I had looked. Perhaps she could check her stock on the system?
“Nah. It ain’t in the computer to look up.”
I said, “Thanks for nothing.” and walked out.
My daughter railed on me for being rude. She may be right. I might secretly relish being an embarrassing parent just a tiny bit. I must do, or I wouldn’t continually be one so disgracefully.
On the other hand, having run stores for many years, I have experience of training my staff to know every bit of stock they have at all times. Knowledge of what has been sold and which sizes are left. Keeping order to perfection of some 10,000 items. Being able to put their hand immediately to any single thing when requested, armed with all the information they might possibly be asked, from the complete ingredients of a perfume to where the wall paper was made. The art of actually selling, as opposed to sitting at a till waiting for people to bring you the product – or not. Giving a fuck. Being helpful and friendly. Treating customers like cherished friends instead of bloody nuisances. It most certainly can be done.
A few days later Sunny and I went into a local Blockbuster, having spied a bargain shelf with old stock. We are always on the lookout for old DVD’s that might yield an interesting movie, one that isn’t on the current list of generic releases. In a much larger retail space there was again just one sales associate. We browsed well stocked and tidy shelves. While doing so we remembered an old film we’d been on the hunt for and asked the young guy if it was in stock, perchance. He leaped to attention and said he was sure he had seen it on the shelf quite recently. Leading us to the correct section, he searched diligently himself but came up empty handed, admitting it may have been sold during his absence. Without being asked, he went to the system and searched for the item in other branches. Nope. Then he researched and offered to order it in at the lowest price of the version he could find.
When my daughter tried to buy one piece of candy, he did explain that it was actually sold by the bag…then told her she could have it for free, since she only wanted one piece. He could have forced her into paying for a bagful, if he felt imperious. Apparently he didn’t.
When we left, without making a purchase, he waved us off, smiling. I made a point of thanking him for his wonderful service.
The latest in Incidents My Daughter Chastises Me For happened recently in the local high street. We wandered into a clothing store just to look. I confess I was holding a (covered and sealed) drink but it was a blisteringly hot day – their door was wide open and I saw no sign forbidding food and drink. I wasn’t a four year old with a sticky hand of chocolate. This wasn’t Fortnums.
Having failed to greet us at all, the first response from a battleaxe of a woman sales assistant was to march up to me with indignation and order me out of the store for holding a drink. “There’s a sign!” she boomed. I looked around and still didn’t see one. Turned out there was a little hand written note in the corner of a door that was wedged open, making it all but invisible unless you were of a mind to scrutinize the glass diligently on the way past.
She stood resolute, blocking my path, with all the attitude of a teacher confronting a naughty child. I wanted to smack her in the face, actually. Instead, I laughed in it. Heartily.
I walked out. I could hear her mocking my laugh and flinging insults after me.
Daughter was mortified.
“Why couldn’t you just say OK? Why did you have to be rude like that? Now I won’t be able to go back in there!”
Because, the correct way to disarm a potential customer of food and drink is to politely and helpfully suggest you look after it while they are browsing. You offer. You don’t tell them off like they are four years old. You don’t alienate or lecture as a strategy to encourage custom. You assist.
I might have complied obediently or elucidated patiently and kindly but in my heart I knew it would be falling on deaf ears, so I did what instantly struck me as the best way to convey a mixture of stunned but well informed disbelief coupled with a soupçon of anarchy thrown in for flair. I laughed like a drain. Unsurprisingly, that too fell on deaf ears but I felt moderately better. Restrained, even.
Sunny, not having the advantage of several decades of social rebellion against narrow, small-town mindsets to draw upon, thinks I’m a complete git.
Then there’s Fortnum and Mason itself – a shining example of the gold standard of service. People who go out of their way to ask after you and be polite. Greet you respectfully. Personally escort you to what you seek. Do everything in their power to not only fulfil what is requested but better it with extra, thoughtful effort no matter how small a sum you spend. You bet I wrote to them and named every employee, without exception, who charmingly made me feel like a million dollars when I spent twenty. Absolutely they wrote back, thrilled and proud.
Contrast that with Liberty’s, where I roamed for 3 hours, a few years back, without being in the slightest bit engaged by a single person. They’re not doing well, I hear. I’m not sorry.
Lastly, here’s what to expect from one of retail’s giants, should you be foolhardy enough to chance their shopping experience, with apologies to my one friend who, I’m sure, runs his own branch flawlessly;
Having been encouraged by advertising campaigns which surely must run into the millions regarding budget, we looked online at Argos for a suitable toy for a 5 year old boy. Up came a list of the Top Ten most popular, out of which we chose number 3. Handily, we were offered the option to reserve it in our local branch and they’d even text us when it was in store. We went through a process to register and then reserve, avoiding the frequent pitfalls set up at every level to sneak in putting us on the spam list.
Having heard nothing back after a week on either one of the two phone numbers provided, we visited the store in person.
Come back to the service desk when you have browsed the catalogue and provided us with the stock number, we were told. They’d not heard of the toy.
Did that. No, we have no record of this item being reserved.
We reserved it in person. Still no notification several days later. Went in again. Nothing in the records of being reserved. Rebooked and visited two days later: Yes we have it. No wait, it’s not in stock.
Two days. Yes we have it in stock, there are two reserved, not in your name. 5 people around the computer attempting to access the right records without success. Leave empty handed.
Buy it the next day.
4 days later a text comes to say the item is in stock that we ordered.
I think we need to start a rebellion. Name and shame. Demand better. Participate in our expectations. Stop donating profit to companies who force us to pay them for the privilege of being treated shabbily. Go. Do.