Volpane In Love

Decade Archive of my personal blog from 1999 to 2009.

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

The Importance of Excellent Customer Service In a Developing Economy

I have to prepare for November�s month long challenge to create 50,000 words in thirty days. I don�t know if I can do it but I have to try; that�s 1,666 words a day or about two hours of typing, depending on how fast I can compose and type.

I�m trying to make this entry and every subsequent one meet the 1,666-word mark so I can judge how well I can do on a daily basis. I�ve never done any heavy wordage writing marathons before. Most of the time I write, maybe, 500 words a day unless I�ve had a very good experience somewhere and need to write everyone about it.

The only way I am going to be able to do it, I think, is to write about my day, which is not easy since it is just retail hell, day in, day out. Lots of people have the same pixilated impression that working for City People�s Mercantile (CPM) is wonderfully fun and casual. I would have to say casual, yes, fun�? Can�t say I�ve been really enjoying myself much.

First of all there are the customers: Capitol Hill has some of the highest rents and land values in Seattle due to its proximity to downtown. Fifteenth Avenue where CPM is located is in the center of a largely residential area that is highly populated with single family homes but it borders neighborhoods that house a large number of students and professionals in multi-family complexes. About five blocks south of CPM is Group Health, the largest HMO in the city as well as a couple of banks. Fifteenth has always seemed to attract an upwardly mobile crowd.

Many of the houses in the neighborhood are large Victorians that need a lot of upkeep, so it makes sense to have a neighborhood hardware store. CPM is unique in that the owner�s have tapped into the neighborhood�s quirks and desires by adding to the hardware cook wares, interior decorating, stationery, children�s toys, office supplies and art supplies. CPM is a mini department store.

Lots of our customers could easily drive out to the suburbs where you find Lowes or Home Depot (departments stores in their own right), but prefer to shop at CPM, just because we have fun things will more likely find in the kind of specialty store that you find in a mall or the inner city. In other words, they are looking for the personality of a small locally owned store.

Unfortunately, this customer brings a certain expectation from these other �corporate� stores. Coupled with a necessary lenient returns policy makes every day at CMP a challenge. I am a cashier and have been working there since June. I handle on the average five returns a day. With each return we are expected to fill out a returns form, which details every return. The majority of the returns are exchanges for other items and usually is easy to handle, leaving the customer happy.

At least two of those returns are things that need to be negotiated with a floor manager. Occasionally the floor manager is not available and we have to process the return using our own judgment. Rarely we have to deal with flagrant returns where the customer is trying to rip off the store. The people who try this are usually well dressed and affluent in appearance. You�d think people would have some dignity not to stoop so low. But the same thing goes for price switchers and shoplifters; they are usually people who probably don�t need the item they are trying to steal.

Every cashier is expected to handle returns and there are at least six cashiers scheduled for the day. While the average transaction takes one or two minutes, a return will take at least five minute, disrupt the flow of traffic in the front store area because shoppers lining up behind the return and slow commerce. At the worst times, customers just leave, sometimes taking product with them or setting it down in display areas. I feel a little sad for those impatient individuals, but I remember when I was on the customer side dreading the wait in line at CPM.

Most customers who bring in a return have an expectation that the whole transaction will take less time than a typical sale transaction. They become testy when we have to explain that they�ve brought in a return item that wasn�t bought within CPM�s very reasonable fourteen-day return policy. All this means is that we have to issue a store credit if the return is over $5.00, which is a very reasonable stipulation. Depending on my mood, I sometimes sympathize but usually I don�t, I just keep my mouth shut and follow the store policy.

Then there are the customers who think every cashier is an information kiosk. For example there is a counter at the front door where customers can drop off their film for processing and sometimes if a customer has asked, politely, to use a phone we allow them to use the one at that counter, but this is not a customer service counter. It is an easy mistake to make and I allow most people to distract me long enough to instruct them to get in line for service. Often they only have a simple question, but if I am in the middle of a transaction at the first register I have to be stern with some people and tell them to wait for their turn.

We really need a full-blown customer service desk where customers can ask questions and make returns. I seriously doubt any of my supervisors or the owners of the store will read this, I guess I will find out if I am disciplined for expressing my opinions on the Internet, but you will hear about that if that happens. I�m trying to be constructive here; you couldn�t call this essay as slander.

I just hate people coming up to you when you are obviously helping a customer already and call out to you like you are some farm animal. �Excuse me, excuse me, can you answer a question? Are you listening to me? Can you hear me?� Hello! Have you ever heard the word �Ignore� before? Well, that�s what I am doing to you�ignoring how rude you are� �Oh, did you have a question?�

Not only are they being rude to me, but they are being rude to the person I am helping. Still there is the dilemma of not knowing where to get information at City People�s. Where are the expectations of the customer? Why do customers act like three year olds?

After working there a month a booklet was pointed out to me where cashiers were recording exchanges with difficult and rude customers. I found after being there only a month I could have filled the book with anecdotes. At Pistil Books where we were encourage to write down the encounters with customers with the caveat that the more unusual ones would be included in their �zine, Pistil Prose, I rarely could come up with suitable anecdotes. Granted I only worked there on a very part-time basis, but can only assume the rude people I deal with daily at CPM do not read and would never set foot in a used bookstore.

I think people on cell phones during a whole transaction are next on my �rude� list, but I have to admit I pretty much don�t care anymore. If they are so absorbed in their life that they cannot acknowledge me as a human being, it is their loss, not mine. Tonight another customer in another line watched as a woman made a purchase while talking the whole time on a cell phone. As the woman was walking away she said to the woman, �don�t forget to say, �thank you,�� which I think was a very good way of pointing out the rudeness without compounding the problem. I suppose I could refuse to serve anyone talking on a cell phone. Then again it is really not my problem.

Let�s see, what else. There was the man who was purchasing a fancy doorknocker and started asking about using the restroom. I explained that the public restroom was closed indefinitely for repairs. When he questioned me about the situation for the employees I confirmed there was an employee restroom that was in an area that was generally off limits to customers. He became very indignant and insisted that he was not going to shop at a store that did not allow its customers to use the restroom. I calmly and coolly returned his doorknocker, making him wait further for the floor manager to appear to authorize the return.

Then there was the woman who came in insisting we�d sold a candleholder, although she referred to it as �my fishbowl�, that she�d asked to be held for her. This was a big green hand-blown glass vase made in Mexico from low quality glass. It was shaped like a round fish bowl but was on display as a candle holder with sand in the bottom and thin candles set in the sand. I suspect the glass contained a high amount of impurities and would have been unsuitable to use as a fish bowl.

Anyway, she kept going on and on about how the Saturday before near closing she�d asked to purchase the glass bowl on display and she�d been told that the display could not be dismantled and that the buyer would call her when the display was replaced. In the meantime someone had sold the bowl, perhaps to the woman�s decorating �rival�, and this woman was beside herself because we�d not contacted her first.

Who knows what really happened. There is a certain type of customer who comes in right before closing and wants to be waited on hand and foot. They often get short shrift because we are trying to close so we can go home. There are also other cashiers and managers who are not very conscientious and will often say anything to get a particular type of customer to leave peacefully. Unfortunately, this type of customer almost always becomes a liability for those who gave them short shrift. If I�d been on my toes, I�d have told the woman that while trying to take down the display the bowl was dropped and broke, but we could special order a new one.

In any event, that was what happened. Promising that a similar item would be special ordered calmed down the customer. A month and a half later the woman brought her purchase up to my station proudly declaring that she had �my fishbowl� and speculating that it would look so pretty in her office with goldfish in it. I didn�t have the heart to explain to her why it was being sold as a candle vase and not a fish bowl.

I can imagine her chagrin several months from now when her beautiful goldfish develop white trailing growths around their eyes and then eventually turn belly up. I guess someone could accuse me of potential cruelty to animals, but then who am I to deny this woman the joy of owning her own �fishbowl.�

Word count: 1,873.


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