Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Consumers Report

I'm not sure when it happened. I think it might have been at some point in time when I wasn't really paying attention to what was going on in the world of retail and customer service, but at some point the whole "customer service" thing went straight out the window. I've been noticing the issue kind of snowballing for the past few years. At some point, corporate greed and the desire to make a buck outweighed the necessity to keep customers happy so that they would continue shopping with the company.

I think it really started with the shift away from accepting any returns for store credit. That was a pretty nice slap in the face for consumers who, if they're anything like me, lose receipts. Where once we could go to the store we purchased product from and return product without a receipt in exchange for a store credit, we are now left with no options at all. This has become more of a problem for me with gifts than with anything else. The solution, of course, was the gift receipt. But, if the person who purchased the gift didn't have the forethought to get a gift receipt, lost the gift receipt, or attached the wrong gift receipt to the product, then what option are you left with? You have none, and you find yourself literally suck with useless product that you don't want but can't get rid of. For me, more often than not, this happens with people purchasing DVDs for me as gifts and getting duplicates. I have a whole stack of DVDs that are unopened and useless because I got them as duplicates without gift receipts. That's awesome. I'm thinking about using them as coasters. And what I hate more is that when I tried to exchange one of them at the store it was purchased from, which I knew because the "Best Buy" sticker was still on it with just the price bit scratched off, I was told that not only could I not get an exchange for another title because I had no gift receipt, it was because they couldn't be sure I hadn't stolen the DVD in the first place. Yes, they implied that I had stolen the DVD.

So now, companies that once offered customers the ability to do an even exchange, or an exchange for greater value are allowing nothing at all. They claim it's because they were losing too much money, but I am not sure how since research showed that people who received store credits typically spent 10% over the amount of the credit when they redeemed it. I know I always did.

But it hasn't really stopped there. More and more, the customer is always wrong. This is seen in the attitudes of store employees, who want nothing to do with helping anyone unless it's absolutely necessary, and it's seen in the store policies that are now being imposed on consumers. I actually have a list of stores I don't go to because of their poor customer service and poor company policies. And, some of them have actually listened to their customers and changed the way they do business. Others have not. This past weekend, Jason and I went to Lowes to buy some paint for our upstairs bedroom. We found a color we liked, took it to the counter and said we wanted it mixed in a No VOC paint that they carry in the store. We were promptly told that they could not mix that color in anything but their store brand paint, because they had a contract with that company and could get in trouble for mixing it in another paint brand. So I said "But there are no similar colors in other brands of paint, and if you're not going to offer a no VOC option in your brand then you shouldn't limit people to getting colors mixed only in that brand". The employee looked at me like I was the world's biggest nuisance and acted like I was an idiot for wanting the other paint brand and not understanding that their contract was important. He then told me that they would lose revenue if he mixed my color in another brand of paint. I said "Well, I was going to make $100 worth of purchases today and you've just made my decision to leave the store, so you are losing revenue either way". Plus, I know that they color match anything you bring in, and you can walk into the store with a purchased paint chip deck from any paint manufacturing company and get the color mixed in any paint brand you want, so why the sudden problem with giving the customer what they want?

I think the problem is that no one cares about helping the customer or making them happy. No one says "Sure, I can take care of that for you" because store employees are simply there to stock shelves and ring up purchases, not to actually provide any real "customer service" to anyone. There is distain from most of the people I ask for help in stores. A simple question like "Do you carry cake flour?" in a grocery store where I can't find the cake flour is met with a huge sigh from the employee and a tone of incredulity that I would even consider bothering them. And I know it's not entirely the employee's fault, because sometimes the corporate structure puts too much focus on tasks and not enough on helping people, but is it such a crime to help someone when they need it? It could be said that I don't understand, I'm not doing that job, but the fact is that I have done that job. I worked retail for over 5 years, both as a sales associate and as a manager, so I know that it's possible to be nice to someone when helping them find something. I know it's possible to work a job that pays you crap (because my retail jobs certainly did that) and still be cheerful. Yes, there are people who are over the top ridiculous in their expectations, but they are not the majority.

And when it comes to things like "This is our policy" then maybe someone at the store level needs to say "This policy is unfair to the customers". I did. I still do. As a customer, when a policy in a store changes to be more hostile to the average consumer, I e-mail their corporate office and tell them what I think. More people should. And, if you don't like the policy, try not to shop there. If they're not getting your money, they're going to have to start listening.

Maybe I'm just thinking about a time when my patronage is respected instead of seen as a given, and instead of trying to keep me around using rewards programs or coupon cards, the store actually tried to keep me coming back by offering the service that many of them once did. Maybe if I could find an employee to help me in less than 10 minutes of searching, I'd remember and keep coming back. Treating me like a human being does so much more than mailing me a coupon every week. And having employees who actually know something about the store they work in and the product they sell helps too. If I go into Toys R Us and ask for a good educational toy for a 2 year old, I don't want to be taken to the games section and left standing there to fend for myself. I want someone to say "Here's what I would recommend" and actually show me some of the product. I can't remember the last time I was out shopping and had that experience. Maybe it's a thing of the past.

1 comment:

Rebecca Wiechman said...

I suspect, in the case of the in-store personnel, that the problem is a change in the turnover pattern because of the recession. Store employees typically turnover often because they're usually college students, it's a part-time job, and/or it really isn't all that fun a job in most cases. But now, many of those people can't find another job and end up keeping it longer than they normally would and are incredibly unhappy (this is actually true in most jobs, but store employees are much more consumer-facing). So they take out their unhappiness on us, the consumers.

I can only hope that that part will improve when the economy picks up again. As for the corporate policies, though--that's another issue. I've noticed it, too, and you are right--it is very disappointing and takes away some of my hope for humanity.