Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Customer Disservice

An article in BusinessWeek this week discusses what people do in response to poor Customer Service. It moved me to consider a recent experience I had in that venue, and to remark on a truly inspired approach to the problem.

My daughter Jagan is beginning Ballet lessons, and of course for that she needed a certain leotard outfit, black with a ruffled skirt. Turns out it is pretty hard to find stores which carry that kind of thing, or at least the ones who advertise it. I finally learned that Target carries such leotards, and so last week I took Jagan over to Target to get the leotard and some tights, and to search for ballet slippers. I went to the Target store at 10801 Westheimer. I was fascinated by what I found.

The store was clean and well-stocked, to its credit. However, the signs were not clear and it was difficult to figure out where leotards could be found. I looked for a store employee to help me, but I them realized that all of the employees were either working at the registers, or else were sitting behind the Returns/Special Order counter. I noticed a sign pointing to a red phone, advising customers to call if they needed help, so I picked up the phone, and after a couple seconds it began to ring.

After eight rings, the phone was answered by a woman with a sullen voice, who told me leotards would be in “Girls”. I looked over and saw that the store was 45% “Women”, and 45% “Girls” in sections, so I asked her to be more specific, and she just sighed in exasperation at having to actually provide information to a customer, and said “just look for the sign”. I asked her what sign, and she said “Dance”, and when I asked where that section was, I was treated to another long sigh, then a silence, then she finally grumbled that it was in the back of the store, against the wall. Then she hung up before I could ask or say anything else.

Well, it turns out the ‘Dance’ section was in the front and middle of the store. But at least we finally found the tights and the leotards. I found one which looked like it would fit Jagan, so I told her to try it on in a dressing room and see how it fit. That was when we discovered, after some searching, that Target has done away with dressing rooms. Completely.

As part of her company’s ongoing training and motivation process, my wife had to read the book “Raving Fans” by Sheldon Bowles and Ken Blanchard. One part of that book addressed the insult to honest customers by the policy limiting them to three items in a dressing room. The insult was that the majority of honest people were being told they could not be trusted more than the small minority of dishonest people. Well, Target took care of that problem by just denying anyone the use of a dressing room at all. And that was when the light came on for me.

Most companies try to serve their customers. Some of them excel at it, and stand as models for the rest to imitate. Most try to be responsive and considerate of their customers, but fail to some degree and show obvious limits to how far they can go. But Target takes a fresh, if hostile, approach – they simply do as they please and if the customer doesn’t like it, nuts to them. No dressing rooms, no floor help, no trained and courteous operator on the help phone to assist with questions or concerns. No, they just put out the product and it’s take it or leave it. Fascinating, in its own way. I noticed that the commercials for Target are the same way. They show models who ignore everyone and everything but themselves; none of the commercials ever shows a customer at all, much less pretend to help them. Near as I can tell, Target does not like customers, and wants to do without them as much as possible.

So we went to check-out, and just to test a theory in my head, I asked the cashier who her manager was. She answered that she did not know where the shift manager was just then. I explained that no, I did not want to see a manager right now, I wanted to know who was the store manager. She did not know. So, I had her ask the cashier at the next register, who also did not know. And the game began. After four people were asked, they got together in a huddle, looked up something in a book, and came back with a name – a Mister “Canada”. Yeah, like the country. Well, Mister Canada, I once ran a business with 60 employees, and everyone in the place knew my name and would give to the customer who wanted to know. I have to admit though, that not knowing who is running the store is truly consistent with the performance of the staff and your customer-resistant policies, so kudos for that, I guess. I can’t imagine why a store would want to drive away customers and lower service even more than we see now, but you do seem to have it down to a science. And in deference to your preference, I will be happy to give Target a miss and take my business to those stores which make some effort to serve the customer. Well, I will be going to Target one more time – that leotard did not fit, so I will be returning it. Turns out that dressing room would have been useful. And no, I will not be buying the same leotard in another size – your store does not have the size I need, and in any case I don’t think that I want to give my money to a store which hates its own customers.

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