I Want to Buy Some Shoes
By Peter L DeHaan
daughter comes to visit, there are certain father-daughter
activities that we enjoy. One them is going on walks.
Unfortunately, I had been finding it necessary to forego that
particular pursuit, not due to a lack of interest, but rather
because of the likelihood that blisters would be a painful result.
both dismayed about this, but it was my daughter who took the lead
in finding a solution. “We’re going to need to get you a new pair
of shoes,” she announced decidedly. I knew that she was right, but
inwardly I groaned. Shopping is not an activity that I enjoy. If I
can’t buy it online or talk my wife into picking it up, I often do
will we go?” I asked, dreading the answer.
mall,” she replied with assured confidence. The mall was precisely
the answer that I didn’t want to hear. I can count on one hand the
number of times that I have been to any mall in the past ten
years – and I wouldn’t even need to use all five fingers. I
gathered my courage and assented.
strategically selected the optimum entrance, designed to minimize
the length of my exposure to the hostile mall environment. Guiding
me quickly to the escalator, we descended into the belly of the
beast. She led me through an irretraceable maze of turns and
corridors, deftly emerging at the entrance to a large shoe store.
Overwhelmed at its enormity, I took a deep breath and stepped into
its bright lights and imposing displays. Not knowing what to do, I
wanted to turn and leave, but undaunted, my shopping savvy daughter
smartly guided me to the section with men’s sneakers.
observed two clerks in the store, both attending other customers; we
were on our own. As I tried on pair after pair, one concern
permeated my thoughts: how would I know which pair would not cause
blisters? I already owned two blister-inducing pairs and had no
interest in acquiring a third. Eventually a clerk walked over to
us. Looking right past me as though I wasn’t there, she directly
addressed my daughter. “So, are you still finding everything all
right?” It was said in such a way that any response other than the
affirmative would be an admission of ineptitude and incompetence.
Dumbfounded, and before I could consider an appropriate plea for
assistance that was not too pathetic, she retreated behind the
safety of the register counter. From that bastion, she and her
coworker resumed a seemingly important conversation. Realizing by
now that the likelihood of buying shoes from either of them was low,
my daughter wisely suggested that we try another store.
fifteen seconds later, we strode into the next shoe shop for another
round of futility. Three of the staff huddled around the register
as though protecting it from outsiders. Two uniformed guys never
even paused their animated conversation to acknowledge our arrival.
The third, a smartly dressed twenty-something female, looked up,
flashed a broad smile, and too enthusiastically demanded, “Hi ya,
how ya doing?” Given my diminished mental state, I responded as
positively as possible, only to realize that she was not looking at
me, but at my daughter instead. Apparently not hearing our
response, she repeated her query, only louder. We were
involuntarily repelled by her vocal vibrato and veered to the
perimeter of the store. Here there were only displays —no stock
available. Without assistance from the paid staff, we had no choice
but to make our retreat.
point, I was more than ready to vacate the mall, but lacking any
tangible knowledge of how to find my car, I was left to the whims of
my shopping buddy. Around the corner was a third shoe store. It
was by far the smallest of the three and, as it seemed to me,
crowded with people. Even so, upon entering, we were politely
greeted, and for the first time I was not invisible. Although the
clerk was overly assertive in his recommendations and talked
incessantly about all things footwear related, we at least were
as the goal of blister-avoidance came up, he quickly zeroed in on
the problem. He offered an unexpected, yet convincingly plausible
explanation, along with a proven (did he say “guaranteed”?)
solution. Within minutes, we exited the store with a shoebox in
hand and smiles on our faces. The return trek to the car was
neither as foreboding nor as implausible as I imagined. Soon we
were home, trying out my purchase.
Reflecting on this, we experienced three scenarios. The first store
offered only passing assistance, but was primarily configured to
facilitate self-service. The second one offered no assistance,
barely acknowledged our presence, and was arranged to make
self-service impossible; no help meant no sale. The final shop
provided useful assistance through staff that actually wanted to
I haven’t verified this, I am quite sure that the goal of all three
companies was to sell shoes. Furthermore, I highly suspect that
their employees were hired – and paid – to facilitate this process.
I also imagine that each organization provided training to these
employees. So what was the difference? Quite simply, it was in the
seen these same three scenarios played out in many different stores
and businesses. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume three
operations tasked with selling widgets and I am calling them to
place an order:
the first company. My call is answered by an automated system.
After endlessly pressing ones, twos, and threes without any useful
result, I am eventually given the option to press zero to talk to a
real person. I press zero but nothing happens. After trying to
further interact with their automated phone system, I hang up.
I go on
to the second company and call their toll-free number. The call is
abruptly answered by a disingenuously enthusiastic agent. For some
reason, she doesn’t hear me. Maybe the connection is bad, perhaps I
am not talking directly into my mouthpiece, or more likely, the idle
conversation of her coworkers is either too noisy or too interesting
for her to hear me. So she repeats her greeting, this time more
loudly. She pauses but a second and hearing only static she hangs
up on me. Then she complains to her coworkers about the stupid
Discouraged, I call the third company. My call is answered quickly
by a person. He listens, really listens, to me. Once he is sure of
the reason for my call, he offers his positive assurance, “Let me
help you find the right widget for your situation.” He does – and I
happily place my order.
company's goal is to make money -- and effective customer service is
often the means by which this happens. Employees are hired and
trained to be instrumental in making that happen. Don’t let
ineffective automation, poor supervision, self-defeating polices,
negative work environments, or any other impediments get in the way
of what you want them to do, be it selling shoes or hawking widgets.
Read other articles
by Peter DeHaan,
sign up for Peter DeHaan's newsletter to receive
weekly writing tips and information, or visit his website:
[Permission is granted to
reprint or reuse this article, provided credit is given to the author and the
above contact information is included. Notify
and a provide copy or link.]