Pleasing the Purchaser

July 1999

Managing:Customer Service

Pleasing the Purchaser

Training employees to provide service is essential in today's competitive retail climate

'Customer service is the most difficult and the most joyous part of the retail business, and most people avoid it like the plague," says Kip Tindell, COO of the Container Store, a Dallas, TX-based chain specializing in storage products and closet organizers. The Container Store was included in a recent New York Timesarticle as a company that works hard at customer service. Among the lessons gleaned from the article is that training your staff to provide great service is the foundation of success. Here are some examples to follow:

  • Train staff to be problem-solvers and counselors. At the Container Store, employees do far more than ring up sales. Whether the issue is a shared closet that must house one spouse's 34 pairs of shoes or a child's room spilling over with an unmanageable number of toys, employees help customers solve the problem.
  • Train intensively from the start. The Container Store considers customer service a "core competency," not a frill, and trains sales clerks 185 hours the first year (the retail industry average is under 10 hours yearly).
  • Hire your best customers. The Container Store often hires people who love the store rather than those who apply for a job, maintaining that people who love your product make good service-oriented employees.
  • Customer service isn't just waiting on the customer, it's also about other creature comforts. "I was at another store that had good service, but they didn't have gift-wrap, which was annoying when you're shopping for Christmas presents. They charged me $6 for a ribbon," one shopper told the Times.
  • Customer service should be grounded in product knowledge. Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, Upper Montclair, NJ, told the Times about one encounter he witnessed in a suburban mall between a sales clerk and a shopper in a jewelry store. "The lady wanted to buy a digital watch, which was $70 or $80," he said. "The salesperson did not know how to set that watch. And the salesperson did not know the difference between that watch and another watch that was less expensive. Third, the salesperson didn't know how to light the dial on the watch. The customer got a little frustrated and said, 'Can anyone help me here?' The sales clerk said, 'Let me call my supervisor,' and then disappeared, never to return. This is not unusual."
  • Customer service is also about returns. One consumer told the Times that after buying a set of glasses for her mother and discovering one was broken, she took them back. "He gave me a hard time," she said of the sales clerk, who eventually agreed to exchange the glasses. "He said maybe I had broken it. But I had had it only two days."
  • Good customer service is possible, even when you're busy. Many customers say they would often be satisfied with basic information, such as having a sales associate tell them quickly how soon they are likely to be waited on. Leonard L. Berry, a professor at Texas A&M University's Center for Retailing Studies, who is about to publish a book, Discovering the Soul of Service,says "Price is price, but value is the total experience, and the best companies compete on the total experience shoppers have."

Customer Service:Good and Bad 

Service Intelligence, an Atlanta consulting company hired to place mystery shoppers in stores to check on customer service, has a Web site stocked with hero and horror stories sent in by consumers. One example of a horror story:

"While visiting a department store, I was amazed at how the only sales clerk in the area was chatting on the telephone," a consumer reported. (Neither shoppers nor stores are named on the Web site.) "I roamed around the department near the counter trying to catch her attention. This didn't work.

"Finally, I approached the counter and stood directly in front of her. She refused to make eye contact and actually turned away from me. At this point, I stormed out of the store, vowing never to return."

To find more anecdotes to use at employee training sessions, go to


Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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