The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Monday, July 23, 2012

The Forgotten Art of Customer Service

In these days of consumer confidence near historical lows, it's tougher than ever to get potential customers to make that purchase. The one area where consumer sales are still brisk is online sales, where the shopping experience is highly personalized - one can get on and make a purchase in seconds, or browse and compare items for hours in privacy...and then make the purchase in seconds with a simple click, click, click.

But fortunately for us (or perhaps, unfortunately) most wooden and home improvement items don't fit well with the online sales model. Most folks want to sit in a chair, or swing the doors on a set of cabinets, or walk on a floor sample in a showroom before they're sure that it's exactly what they want. After all, you're spending real money, not $14.95 for a paperback novel (or $8.95 for its electronic version).

Which is why The Wife and I headed out for a day of shopping together this weekend. We had some vague ideas of improving the entry way in our house, but we weren't sure where to start and sought some help from "the experts". Our first stop was at the Big Box, to the aisle labeled "Window Treatments". I don't know about you guys, but those two words send shivers down my spine every time I hear them. Visions of spending too much money on something you're trying to look past...just doesn't make sense, man.

Our Big Box started out about five years ago as a pretty nice place, full of helpful employees with cheerful faces wrapped in tidy aprons that outnumbered customers about two to one. But since then, store management has managed to weed out all those helpful employees, and the only ones left are those who you have to chase around for a while, before you can achieve eye contact with them...and when you finally do, they'll point you to a row with an indication that your items are "down there".

Our window treatment specialist was "busy" with another customer; he was staring with animosity at a computer screen while the lady he was "waiting on" was standing silently by the counter with a helpless look on her face. At first, we milled about trying to survey what the store might have to offer, but since none of the products were priced we realized pretty quickly we needed some help to even start making some comparisons. So we joined the lady at the counter. I tried giving the guy my famous Evil Eye to get him to acknowledge us, or the lady, or that there was life on Earth...but nothing could make him shift his weight or bat an eyelash from the screen in front of him. This went on for about twenty minutes, with The Wife getting increasingly frustrated.

We had made the mistake of bringing along the seventeen year-old and the two Young Ones, and he was touring them up and down the aisles in one of those over-sized kiddy shopping carts, the ones with two seats. He was pushing them about 30 miles per hour, they were screaming in delight, and shoppers were jumping out of the way in panic as the giant plastic box on wheels hurtled toward them. All this while, we stared at the zombie at the computer, he stared at his screen, and the other lady kept glancing at us every time a scream was heard in another area of the store. Finally, as The Wife's children careened by us for the third time and slammed into a washing machine, we gave up and headed for the exit, and the Young Ones started crying because they were having fun and didn't want to go.

We made a strategic decision and decided to drop the perpetrators off at home before hitting another store. After doing so, we decided to try a place where we could get some help, even if it cost us a little (or a lot) more. We headed to an interior design store with one of those trendy names that gives no hint of what kind of store it is, but clearly indicates that everything in it is overpriced. We were greeted at the door by a yapping little fur-ball, the kind that would make a nice mouthful for a real dog. I peered into the store to make sure it was alright to let the little darling out "to play", but he was saved by a smiling young lady who didn't seem to notice how annoying the little rat was.

Once past the guard dog, we entered the empty store and told the "studio manager" what we thought we were looking for. She didn't know anything about window treatments, which was odd because the entire store was filled with them...but we were in luck, because there was an expert in the back of the store. She went to fetch him.

Ten minutes later, a cool-looking Euro dude came strolling out...he sized us up, and instantly came to the conclusion that we weren't worth his trouble. Maybe it was my Texas Forestry Association t-shirt; whatever it was, he proceeded to make our shopping experience as fruitless as possible. Every question we asked, he answered with. "It depends on what you want..." - which was obvious, I thought, but somehow we had hoped that he might be able to help us at least define the parameters of the Window Treatment Problem. But after fifteen minutes of his expert needling to get The Wife and I in total disagreement about why we even came in the store, we walked out in exasperation...and I had the distinct feeling he was smirking behind our backs.

Well, the atmosphere in the car was chilly, to say the least. I decided to try to warm things up a little, and since it was lunch time, I pulled into my favorite sports bar which happened to be just a block or two down. It wasn't a wise decision. The Wife remained stone silent as we pulled in and were led to a table. The entire meal had the cozy ambiance of Marshall Petain's surrender to Hitler in 1940; and guess who was speaking French? Oui, mon amis.

At this point we both knew that the window treatment thing was a lost cause. Besides, the Euro guy had generously conceded to come visit our house next week to humiliate us some more. So, The Wife "suggested" a visit to a lighting store on the other side of town...I exhibited the wisdom of the French general and went along with the suggestion.

It was at the lighting store that the day turned for the better. At the door we were greeted by a lovely sales rep named Violet, who welcomed us to the store, asked what we were looking for, pointed out a few pieces, and retreated with the suggestion that she was available if we needed any help. And in a few minutes, we did. The Wife was looking for something "fun and bubbly", while I had in mind something that said "wood". Naturally, we were in different parts of the store. Violet noticed the discrepancy, gave it a few minutes to simmer, and then moved in to referee our exchanges.

She moved me away from the wood mindset by showing us an somber, oriental-looking thing that fit my mood and was nonetheless interesting to The Wife because of its intricate paper-art shade. We liked it, but it wasn't quite the perfect thing. This is where Violet really got to work. She led us to the catalogs, and started showing us different products, taking each comment of ours and moving us closer to our mutual vision. Her knowledge of the catalogs was impressive, and she kept comparing the items to certain pieces on the floor to give us the proper perspective. She even started giving me subtle visual and verbal cues on when it was OK to comment, and when to keep my opinion in check.

It worked. So well, that within a half-hour or so, we had not only found the perfect piece, but we both felt vindicated; it was fun and bubbly, with a metallic hint of somber woodiness (but without the wood).

During our search, an elderly couple had parked their new Cadillac a respectable distance from our ten-year old Suburban and entered the store. In their eighties (at least), he pushing she in a wheelchair, they were obvious regular customers of Violet's; they wouldn't let the other sales rep in the store wait on them. They moved to the rear and began to give Violet The Eye. This is where Violet pulled the ultimate in customer service. Finding an appropriate place in our catalog search to leave us for a moment (but not too abruptly), she took just a couple of steps toward the big spenders and, leaning in toward the lady in a personal, confidential manner, whispered to them that she would only be a few more minutes with us and asked if she could get them anything for their comfort. Their demeanor relaxed, they smiled, and retreated slightly to allow Violet to finish with the peasants.

Now, the fixture we were looking at was not cheap. In fact, I've had several cars that cost less. Nor was it going to fulfill our need for immediate gratification; it had to be made to order in California, and would take three weeks at the minimum to arrive. But we were at the point where we knew it was this one, or get the heck out of the store. Which normally, we would have done.

But as my lovely queen of marital bliss stood gazing longingly at the picture in the catalog, it occurred to me - why not? After all, I was going to buy something...why not buy it here, and now, from Violet, who had really earned my business, instead of giving my business to some disinterested lackey? So it cost a little more. You have to pay for real quality, right? Right. No contest. We bought the light. And the next time you visit the Ray mansion, you will be dazzled at the front door by the most expensive thing in our house.

Which is the moral of this story. Everything Violet did was perfect. She turned our exasperating day out into our very best experience of the day, the week, maybe even the month. In a lighting fixture store! And her company profited from it.

In this day and age when just about everyone, including the competition's sales force, is downbeat, it pays to remember that people still do have money...they just don't want to spend it. But if you can turn their experience in your store, on a call with you, or on your website into one of their very best experiences, something that lights up their day and makes them remember when it was fun to spend money, you will greatly increase the likelihood of getting some great business that you didn't expect. That's really the only way to reliably make money in this economy.

The Wife just called. We need a new light for the dining room. Violet is waiting for us. Got to run.


Anonymous said...

This is very funny Chuck, thanks for the humor, but it raises a very critical point as well. Customer service is what make the difference to many of us, and it makes us more inclined to spend more at a store/firm/service that cares about us and what we want or need. I believe that customer service mindedness throughout any store/firm is largely determined by the manager. If they don't care about it, no one else there really does either. It's a sad fact that few managers seem to understand.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your posting. I hope you acknowledged the excellent service Violet gave you via an e-mail since snail mail is nearly extinct. Putting it in writing is so much more beneficial than just a phone call. It can be hung on the bulletin board and stored in a personnel file. Heck, she may even receive a gift card from her manager.
Being a veteran of 20 plus years in the customer service industry(my age is showing), it really makes our day to hear positive feedback. It is taken for granted that if you don't hear anything everything is going fine.