I Want to Buy Some Shoes

By Peter L DeHaan

When my 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.

We were 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 without.

“Where will we go?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“The 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.

She 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.

I 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.

A scant 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.

At that 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 being helped.

As soon 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 help.

Although 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 implementation.

I’ve 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:

I call 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 callers.

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.

Most 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.

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