Editor’s Page

Good News: Customer Service Is Getting Worse

Shopping at a large department store recently, I’d selected a new TV set and was ready to pay when the salesman, who hadn’t been very helpful to begin with, began pitching an extended warranty. I wasn’t interested. At $150, it seemed ridiculously overpriced. Besides, why should the customer have to insure himself against a manufacturer’s shoddy workmanship? Does the manufacturer stand behind its product or not?

The salesman dismissed my arguments and continued pressing the costly warranty on me. Sensing defeat, he finally went so far as to claim that the TV couldn’t be sold without the warranty! I’d never heard of such an outrageous policy and strongly suspected I was being lied to. I turned on my heel and left.

The other incident was sort of the opposite. I was in a men’s clothing store in a huge mall and needed help finding slacks in my size. Looking for a salesperson, I spotted two young women wearing store tags who were engaged in intense conversation. Clearly, they didn’t want to be interrupted, but I was in a hurry and said, “Excuse me, I like those khaki pants on the counter over there, but I can’t find my size. Perhaps you have some in the back.” “If they’re not on the counter, we don’t have them,” one of women snapped. She could barely conceal her annoyance.

These two incidents exemplify the sad state of affairs at so many retailers these days: Customer service is fast becoming an oxymoron. Undertrained, rude, incompetent, or just plain lazy salespeople populate the nation’s stores. As gauged by a University of Michigan index, the rate of satisfaction among thousands of shoppers interviewed annually has fallen significantly every year since 1994, when the baseline study was done. No wonder Smart Money magazine recently ran an article called “The Death of Customer Service.” It singled out banks, airlines, phone companies, auto dealers, and PC support lines, but in my experience, retailing, too, belongs in the hall of shame.

How could all this be good news for you, as I stated in my title? Because it opens up a terrific competitive opportunity. Those department stores and discount chains trying so hard to lure your customers away with low prices are going to drive them right back out the door with poor service. Their relentless focus on price forces them to zero in on customer service as an expendable luxury. That short-sightedness may boost next quarter’s bottom line, but long range it’s going to work against them.

That’s because customers – particularly your important ones – are looking for more than price. They’re looking for value, and value is the total experience. You can’t compete with the Wal-Marts on price, but you can compete – and win – on value.

What are the key components of value? My answer is trust and relationships, particularly when it comes to fine jewelry. As a customer, I can tell you that if I were buying a Swiss watch, a diamond ring, or an emerald brooch, I’d want to deal with salespeople who can talk intelligently to me about the product, show me alternatives, and guarantee that I’m not getting a knockoff or a synthetic. I’d also like to deal with someone I’ve grown to know and trust over time, someone who knows me and relates to me as a person – not as a walking credit card.

If your store provides this kind of personalized experience, if it’s an island of civility with knowledgeable, courteous, and enthusiastic salespeople, you’re going to win back frustrated shoppers from the price-cutters. Because the price-cutters’ dirty little secret is that they’re service-cutters, too.

lfrederick@cahners.com