Associates Who Can’t Be Bothered, Bother Customers

Discussion
May 18, 2007

By George Anderson

Findings of the second annual Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study from the Wharton School’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative and the Verde Group show that there are a lot of really bad sales people employed in stores and customers can point them out assuming they can find them on the floor.

According to the telephone survey of 1,000 people, one-third reported being unable to find anyone to help them while shopping. Another 25 percent said that they could find sales people but it made little difference since the store employee ignored them.

Not surprisingly, these experiences remain fresh in the minds of consumers who often choose to take their business elsewhere.

Paula Courtney, president of the Verde Group, told Knowledge@Wharton that survey respondents could deal with a lot, even having to wait while an overworked salesperson tried to meet the needs of multiple shoppers on the floor. What they couldn’t deal with, she said, was the “conscious ignoring” that takes place.

“Customers would walk into a store and the store representative would see them and continue to put items on the shelf or watch the cash register or do administrative work — absolutely ignoring the fact that an actual person was in the store,” she said.

Stephen J. Hoch, marketing professor at Wharton and the director of the Baker Initiative, said, “There are a variety of different triggers for having a bad shopping experience, including things like parking or how well the store is organized. Some of those things retailers can do something about and some of them they can’t. But frankly, a very important part of the retail experience is the interaction with the sales associate.”

According to numbers from last year’s study, one-third of dissatisfied customers will tell others about a negative experience at a store. Those people will then go and retell the story to an average of four people. Roughly half of those surveyed said they had chosen not to shop at a particular store based on what they heard of another person’s experience.

Having strong sales people is a business imperative and based on the research is a clear competitive advantage for retailers.

Prof. Hoch said there are characteristics that seem to be common among the best sales people. These include being an “engager”, “educator”, “expediter”, and “authentic”.

Engagers are those who smile and stop what they are doing to assist customers. Not finding an engager is the most prevalent sales related problem, according to the survey’s respondents.

Educators are able to explain the ins and outs of product and make recommendations based on the stated needs of the shopper.

Expediters are those who are sensitive about a customers time and help move the shopping experience along. Said Prof. Hoch, “You see this one at the airport or other locations where there is some clog-up in the system. This sales person recognizes that, with their intervention, things can keep moving forward… Someone has to notice the problem and go out of their way to alleviate it.”

Authentic sales people demonstrate they are people first and let the sales come naturally. They don’t push shoppers but let them know they are available as soon as help is needed. “No one wants to be ignored,” said Ms. Courtney, “but there is a balance between the right level of engagement and a sense of genuineness.”

According to Ms. Courtney, the solution to the sales people related problems at retail is often not about “getting more bodies,” but “getting more staff to show behaviors that are sensitive to consumers’ needs. The good news is that all of this is trainable,” she said.

Discussion Questions: How big a problem is poor salesmanship at retail? What are ways that retailers are dealing with the issue to help floor associates better meet the needs of shoppers?

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20 Comments on "Associates Who Can’t Be Bothered, Bother Customers"


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Mel Kleiman
Guest
15 years 11 days ago
This is not the first study out there to report of the lack of service in retail organization and the effect it has on customers and the bottom line. A number of years ago Texas AM did a study that reported the over 67% of customer quit dealing with an organization not because of price but because of attitudes of indifference by employees toward customers. All of us have our horror stories and we also all have our stories of when we got great customer service and in today’s world, we are so surprised by the latter that we tell everyone about it. Why? Because it is an exception. I have not figured out why retailers spend so many dollars trying to get customers in their stores and then chase them away. In a study we did in the convenience store industry a couple of years back, we found that when we put our best people in the store, sales would go up by over 18% on inside sales. Why? because the customers like being… Read more »
Steven Roelofs
Guest
Steven Roelofs
15 years 11 days ago

Just a thought. Perhaps it should be the frontline employees who get all the profit sharing and stock options and bonuses instead of people like the CEOs of Home Depot and Macy’s, who seem determined to run their employees (and retail chains) into the ground?

Edward Herrera
Guest
Edward Herrera
15 years 11 days ago

I believe what the discount retailers have done is to have so few employees on the sales floor that no interaction is better then a bad one. There are a few people that have the passion for taking care of customers but they get different jobs. Retail employees are part of a larger societal shift, to “I only work for what I get paid for.” With limited resources, today’s retail management teams have to always coach and develop their employees. High turnover and low pay will not be changing any time soon, so customers will just move from their last retail experience to their next.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 11 days ago

Most American retail executives publicly claim their salespeople are wonderful assets. Privately they usually admit that low wages and high turnover = self service = no service. Very few shoppers expect anything more except in the highest-end stores, like Saks or Whole Foods. And some shoppers avoid higher-end stores because they believe that those salespeople will actually be armtwisters.

David Biernbaum
Guest
15 years 11 days ago
Let’s be very honest about the issues of poor salesmanship at retail stores. 1. Many people employed in retail stores either lack the social skills or social desire to interact with strangers that come into the store. 2. Retail employees are not necessarily sales people at all. They need to be trained and developed to help customers more than sell them. 3. Top management needs to instill a certain culture that translates to every employee’s understanding that the customer is the most valuable asset of all, to the retailer’s existence, and to that employee’s job. 4. Employees need to be consciously and educationally motivated by the retail employer, the branded manufacturers, and by supervisors. Confidence comes from knowledge, and it’s the confidence factor that drives employee interaction with customers. It also goes without saying that whereas more is not necessarily better, retailers need to properly plan for demand in terms of days, times of the year, holidays, etc. to be sure that the right number of employees are consistently available to help customers with their… Read more »
Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
15 years 11 days ago
This is a fascinating study. I imagine we might hear many discussion participants share their horror stories corroborating this–maybe everyone of us has such a story. I know that I have probably 75 of them myself. It interests me to ask why this is happening. I dug into the database this morning and found that there may be a number of causes: – Sales people may be treating customers the way the salespersons’ employers treat the sales people. “What goes around comes around.” – Sales people are themselves consumers, and they are treated this way as consumers, so these behaviors may have become the cultural norms in the retail world. – Retail organizations seem to view these positions as “monkey jobs” that anyone, “even a monkey,” can do (as stated to us by a retail executive lately). Note how little money and care retail organizations put into hiring for these positions, the salaries for these positions, the training, the status of these jobs, etc. Maybe you get what you expect–if you expect these positions to… Read more »
Robert Craycraft
Guest
Robert Craycraft
15 years 11 days ago
You must be joking? I can’t imagine there is anyone who has NOT walked out of a store for bad service, I probably do so at least once a month. Most recently, I had served myself in a Macy’s department store by selecting my own item in the Home Store, carrying to the oxymoronically-labeled “Customer Service” desk, handed it to the cashier (and I use the term deliberately) who started my transaction and then dead-stopped to take a phone call. Admittedly, it was from another customer, but no “excuse me” or “do you mind if I put this caller on hold, sir” or anything, just let me stand there while she answered questions about some items the caller was having trouble finding at another Macy’s location. I walked out and left the items on the “Customer Service” desk because at this point I will get better service at Target or Wal-Mart since I am selecting my own merchandise anyway and carrying it to the cashier and will not have to stand while they take phone… Read more »
Joy V. Joseph
Guest
Joy V. Joseph
15 years 11 days ago
I completely agree that consumers will put up with long waits while salespeople handle multiple customers, but that they have no patience for ‘conscious ignoring’. We recently bought a new home and ended up buying all our appliance and home furnishing needs from one national retailer. There was one incident where we were looking for something and could not find it and went up to a salesperson who was standing at a counter doing something. He noticed we were right there and kept on working, when we asked him for help, he just put his hand up, then went right back to what he was doing, finished it and moved to another counter. We did not walk out of the store right then, instead we went up to the store manager and reported him, who promised to take action. I am not sure what happened after, but it sure put us off. Low wages and morale might be part of the reason for the apathy and lack of any sort of consideration some salespeople show… Read more »
Daryle Hier
Guest
Daryle Hier
15 years 11 days ago
Yes, we can talk about “answers” to this incessant problem and I could talk about my issues over the years with stores and their lack of service. OK, maybe one instance–BECAUSE IT JUST HAPPENED THIS WEEK. I’ve touted Lowe’s here and in other places but that may be coming to an end. The short of it: I asked for directions to items (big mistake) and I’m not kidding, the first 3 people actually told me where to go (I should have told them….) but they were all wrong. The 4th was better (he was the manager). After getting most of what I wanted, I stood in line–for 15 minutes! One product was to be delivered the next day but noooo, it wasn’t and the excuse was no excuse–they asked me why I didn’t call them when they didn’t come! Which I did but this and much more is what went on and on and on. So, what do we learn? Nothing we don’t already know. Everyone has mentioned the problem and possible solutions. I would… Read more »
Steven Roelofs
Guest
Steven Roelofs
15 years 11 days ago

Everyone has walked out of a store because of a lack of service, especially at larger stores. Better service exists (I find) at smaller, specialty shops. If I need something for the kitchen, I go to Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma, not Linens N Things. Shoes? I go to a neighborhood shop, not DSW. Groceries? Workers at Potash Bros. in Chicago even remember my name, unlike those at Jewel. At these smaller stores, I find salespeople who look happier and are more interested in helping me, even suggesting other stores if they don’t have the item I want. So what is it that the local stores do to prepare their employees to be better customer sales associates?

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
15 years 11 days ago

I wonder how Circuit City’s plan to get rid of its best store-level performers is working out these days….

Seriously, though….

The comments we’ve all made today reinforce for me a simple point: employee engagement has to come from the top.

You can train and motivate, measure and reward, and the whole program will drive up all the numbers you want to look at–customer satisfaction, sales and, yes, margins.

But you have to start with management that actually sees its people as human beings whose insights contribute to the organization.

Once the folks at the top decide that anyone below a given level in the field is a monkey, employee engagement becomes an expensive waste of time for middle management and a cruel joke on employees.

And as the data has shown for years, employees treat customers pretty much exactly as management treats employees.

peggi holtshouser
Guest
peggi holtshouser
15 years 11 days ago

First, I agree with Mr. Percy.

The longer I am in the business, the more I wonder why most retailers even bother to talk about their customer service.

1. The first thing that is slashed when sales go soft is payroll. Additionally, most managers making schedules do not make them to maximize the needs of the customer. They plug in shifts that the associates are asking for. Why do you think stores never have enough people on Sundays or prime times?

2. There is little to no training on how to interview, check references, make the offer, or on-board the associate.

3. Many companies have gone “soft” and accountability is missing.

4. Fewer people in our society know common courtesy or use common sense, which is really all you need to sell.

I could go on…this is the easiest “lightbulb” that helps/hinders business yet it really isn’t addressed in the simply apparent way it should be.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the leaders don’t make it FUN!

Nick Brubaker
Guest
Nick Brubaker
15 years 11 days ago

The fundamental problem is the difference between “Help Wanted” and help recruited. Unfortunately, many employers, especially in retail and foodservices, only focus on staffing when lack of staff becomes an issue. As we move toward 2010 and beyond it will become obvious to employers they will compete for employees as well as customers. Creating a hiring environment that provides for advancement and career opportunities and stipulating to potential applicants the attributes a company places value in is a good start. Of course, once the employee has met the standards the employer must be able to recognize and reward with positive reinforcement. Until we get beyond the belief that reducing overhead through low wages is a winning strategy and employee attitudes of what do they expect for what I’m being paid that result, expect service issues to increase at an accelerated pace.

Thomas L Potts
Guest
Thomas L Potts
15 years 11 days ago
Retailers need to understand that most of the personnel in retail stores are not “salesmen” but are really customer service persons. The recruiting and training needs to be directed in this manner with executive management operational management constantly reinforcing the “service” part. The fact is that there are a limited number of people who have the talent to become true “salesmen” (and probably won’t remain long in a low-paying retail store position) in the sense of earning their living on commissions. Yes, there should be career paths that identify and develop the true “salesmen” with requisite opportunities, but the store personnel need to be trained in enhancing rather than detracting from the customer experience along with the ability to do identify selling opportunities based on serving the customer better. Additionally, retailers need to differentiate the customers into service tiers, the more valuable (in terms of profitability) life time customers getting the higher service. The latter being more a marketing than selling process. If you look at the highly successful retailers known for customer service, you… Read more »
Chuck Chadwick
Guest
Chuck Chadwick
15 years 11 days ago

Poor customer service has many underlining components. However, a major reason for insufficient customer service, at least in the discount channel, can be traced to management. The “associate” is evaluated on a productivity level (tasks completed) vs. customer service. With the pressure of getting things done because of the understaffing of the store, service levels will continue to decrease.

Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 11 days ago
Pathetic service in the retail environment can be solved with “training”? Not in a million years. For far too many, a retail sales job is what you do until you find work you actually like. It’s more a matter of spirit and mindset than it is sales skill. And, honestly, putting sales people into little boxes like ‘engager’,’educator’,’expediter’ and ‘authentic.’ doesn’t help. These roles are all part of the flow of serving customers. Being ‘authentic’ means you see value and joy in your service, that this is a good thing to do. That mindset will attract customers to you and when they arrive you engage, educate and expedite the purchasing (not the sales) process. We’ve all come across a waitress, a flight attendant, a parking valet who just seems to have a spirit about them that makes you wish you could hire them right there on the spot. Where does that spirit come from? It’s not from a training program, I can tell you that. Buckminster Fuller described school as the place where we de-genius… Read more »
Dean Yachison
Guest
Dean Yachison
15 years 10 days ago
The problem is not with the staff–at least some of the staff–they, like you, want to do a good job. Others just view it as a job. You cannot waste a lot of time on those who do now want to learn. But those who do, you have to identify them, and then use the three R’s: recognize, reward, and expect to see the repeat. I find it funny that people do not realize that generally, people want to do a good job but when they jump all over them for crossing a line on the floor to service a customer they do not see that rule as the wrong thing to do. “They just don’t get it” as Dr. Phil would say. The line has nothing to do with it. It is about judgment and ensuring that that those who show good judgment, and put the customer first, are the ones to be rewarded in front of the others. Just like my old days at Safeway, who gets promoted? Those who do a bad… Read more »
will graves
Guest
will graves
15 years 9 days ago
First of all, a retailer must establish set methods and expectations for customer service. It is not good enough to say “We want to serve our customers well.” You have to get out there and follow through! It is not enough to have call buttons, you must have friendly, caring associates ready to respond. Accountability is key. Set a response time. Have the system keep track of how long the associates are taking to respond to the service requests. Then, lead the team in the right direction, by rewarding and recognizing those who meet expectations. Being fast, fun and friendly is key, and without that recognition from management, it is unlikely that hourly associates will have the friendly, customer-oriented attitude that is so important. To witness the above processes in action, visit any Target store. Any successful retailer must keep track of how it is serving its guests, and must strive to consistently improve. Without metrics, how can the retailer keep track of how it is serving the guests? Guest surveys are also very important!
James Avilez
Guest
James Avilez
15 years 9 days ago
To the poster who mentioned Home Depot, many have also said they have received poor customer service. I must be in the minority because the Home Depot staff near my house is always so helpful and friendly. If I ask where something is located, many times they will walk me to the aisle. The only really bad experience I’ve ever had at a store was at the new Kohl’s east of San Francisco. I purchased this large serving bowl. I waited in line in the supermarket style checkout. I paid cash for it. The total came to $10.25 all I had was one ten and a five, no coins. The cashier calls the supervisor and asks for some fives and singles she tells him no and to give me quarters. I don’t want $4.75 in quarters! She says “no give him quarters” and he gives me a sack of coins; she walks off. It didn’t seem to matter that there were nine people behind me, what was he going to do with them as far… Read more »
Bernard Anderson
Guest
Bernard Anderson
15 years 7 days ago
As a consumer and a consultant in the retail sector, this issue is very important to me. There are two home improvement retailers that I have avoided because there was never enough help, or the employees are uninformed. And one of them exists no longer. The fault lies with management. Retail is not a glamorous industry. Every retailer that I have worked for has always cut hours in the store to help the bottom line. The shopper is the one who votes on where she does or does not shop. Too often the store employees are never trained in customer relationships. This is not to say that it never happens. Three retailers who excel in building a relationship between the store personnel and the shopper come to mind, HEB Central Markets, Nordstrom’s, and Wegmans Supermarkets. And I might add all three are very successful. You can make it fun to work in a store, to interact with the shoppers…to assist. It starts with the hiring process and having a clear understanding of the type of… Read more »
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