chain stores


Real customer service went away when the big box stores ran off the small independent businesses.

I’m going to tell you a story that expands upon my opening line.  You may think the request I’m going to talk about was unreasonable, and maybe it was, but the way it was handled was reprehensible.  I needed a new printer, so I went to a chain office supply store to buy one.  Oh, what the hell; I’ll never see them again, so  I have no reason to protect them.  It was Office Max.  As I was looking at their stable of printers on display, a sales rep came up to me.  I asked him some questions to determine what level of printer I needed.  He obviously knew nothing, but he tried to bullshit me by telling me what we could both read on the box–absolutely nothing more.  When I finally decided on one, he pointed to one in the box and walked away.  I then had to carry it to checkout.

When I returned to my office, I unpacked the printer and set it next to my computer.  I’m no wizard when it comes to setting up electronic equipment.  I need to read every step in the instruction manual–nothing is intuitive to me.  Within about ninety minutes, I had all the parts where they were supposed to go, had installed the software, and turned it on.  Any of my grandkids could have done it in ten.  I followed all of the prompts on its screen and printed something.  The black print had streaks.  Back to the manual, I found that I should clean the cartridge.  It said that the machine would do it on its own if I touched a certain button which I did.  Still streaks.  After performing this step four times, I installed a new cartridge.  When the streaks were still there, I went through the cleaning process again.  Then I gave up.

I went back to the store where I encountered a young checkout clerk.  I told her, “I could tell you a long story after which you would tell me I need to see a manager, so why don’t we just start there?”  She was accommodating, and told me to go to the service desk.  Within a couple minutes, a young man, about 25, showed up and said nothing.  I extended my hand and introduced myself.  He reluctantly shook my hand, but had an attitude of how dare you try to be on the same level as me.  He did not return my introduction.  What follows is a recounting of our conversation.  Each word may not be accurate, but they are close and clearly reflect the essence.  My tone throughout was calm and matter-of-fact.

I: I bought a computer here yesterday, and after I set it up, I found that the black ink streaks.

He: You should clean the cartridge like the instructions say.

I: I did that four times.  It still streaks.

He: Bring it in and we’ll change it out.

I: No, that’s not going to happen.  I’m 73 and had a stroke last year.  I’m not very strong, and once was enough to carry it and set it up.  What I want is for you to bring another one to my office and install it.

He: We don’t do that.  We have an outside contractor, but it will cost you $120.

The pity card I had played was true, but it hadn’t worked.  Sure, I carried it once and could have done it again, but now it was a principle, so I pushed it further.

I: Here’s the deal.  For ten years, I have bought every office supply and piece of electronic equipment for myself and my organization from you.  I’m far from your biggest customer, but I’ve been loyal.  If you refuse, I will never shop here again.

He: You’re not going to get anywhere by threatening me.

I: I’m not threating.  I’m just giving you the alternatives.

At no point did he know if my organization was a million dollar a year customer or a hundred.  Truth is it’s about a thousand.  He then gave one of my favorite answers in the situation.  “If we do it for you, we have to do it for everybody.”

I: Not everybody asks, and not everybody has a (arguably) legitimate reason.

He: I don’t know what you think I can do.

I: (This was the only time my words became less than civil.) You could pick up a printer and put your ass in your car and bring it to me and set it up.

He: I don’t have to take you swearing at me.

I: Okay, I’ll bring it back and get my money back, and then Office Max and I will have no further dealings.

Unreasonable–maybe; confrontational–eventually; relationship ending–absolutely.  Was a positive response to my request ever considered by the manager?  At no point.  It was not within the scope of this guy’s thinking to say to himself, “What can I do to allow me to say yes to this request?

My friends Jim and Jo Lucas owned an office supply and furniture store until ten years ago when they could no longer compete with Office Max, Walmart et al.  It was a great business.  Jim ran the business side, and Jo ran the softer side making great contributions of service to our community.  We shared a mutual loyalty that ran through three jobs of mine and twenty years.  They understood that a significant part of their business was getting close to customers, serving them, and giving back to the community  through both financial contributions and service.

And caring practices were and are not limited to small businesses.  Cummins, Inc. is an 18 billion dollar company headquartered in our small city.  They place distributorships all over the world to serve customers.  Do they make money?  Of course they do by providing quality products and top notch service.  In addition, they could not be more generous with their contributions and encouraging and enabling enabling employees to donate service to the community.

The customer service practices of Jim and Jo Lucas and Cummins, Inc. are absent from today’s chain stores and restaurants.

I’ve written and talked at length about a tenet of my personal philosophy the says, “A bias to say yes.”  Simply put, when a request is made of me, my first thought is, “How can I say yes?”  That is closely followed by, “Is there a compelling reason to say no.”  Most of the time that process leads to an affirmative answer.  If not, at least I can give a legitimate well thought out reason for refusing.

The chains stick these young people in as managers so that they won’t have to pay them very much.  Then they put them through a training program that consists of learning a set of rules by rote.  There are no lessons on how to really manage or on sensitivity to customers’ needs and desires and certainly no class on a bias to say yes.  Finally, these give the robots they have created no authority to exercise and wiggle room in the application of the rules.  The result is that customer service as I learned it no longer exists–at least not in big retail businesses.  And gone with it is America’s general loss of civility among the masses.  Are those to sad facts connected?  I believe so.  I guess that’s just the way it is in 2014, and I can’t change it.

But I do know one thing.  He might have groused about it privately, but JIM LUCAS WOULD HAVE DONE IT.