Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Customer Service Isn't

"Help me help you!"..... Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire

Sometimes great customer service isn't.

A few days before Christmas, I suddenly remembered that on one of our many shopping trips to Barnes and Noble, one of our daughters had shown the other one a book about a particular TV show and mentioned she thought it was cool.  I wish I had remembered this a few weeks before Christmas, but at least I was still within the shopping red zone.

I didn't remember exactly what it was called and I don't watch the show, but I ran over to my computer and found it on Amazon within 30 seconds.  I remembered what the book cover looked like and the description sounded right.  Then I made a critical decision.  Do I buy it right then and there and pay the $15.00 for next day delivery, or do I go to Barnes and Noble because I know I've seen it there and I might be able to put my mitts on it right then and there?

Stupidly, I chose option B.

I rush to the store and begin to search.  I'm coming up empty.  Every section I try, books are out of order and I'm beginning to get frustrated.  I walk over to the customer service area intending to locate the computer kiosk to run a search in the store to locate the book. And then I remember, this is not Borders.  They went out of business.  The helpful little kiosk I was looking for has never existed at Barnes and Noble.  They have chosen to subject the customers to helpful little clerks instead.

I patiently wait in line and approach the desk.  The clerk asks me if they can help me.  I say, "Yes.  I'm looking for a specific title for a Christmas gift and I found  it on Amazon earlier today so I know it exists.  I know you carry it because I've seen it here before - I just can't find it."  With hands poised at the ready, she smiles and says, "No problem, let me look it up for you.  What is the title?"

That's when the trouble starts.

You see, twenty years ago I would have written the title and author down and brought it with me.  But this isn't twenty years ago.  Now, I am immersed in a digital environment and very accustomed to highly intuitive search processes.  It occurs to me that I have no idea how to tell the clerk how to help me.

I begin spluttering search terms trying to recreate the search path I had used to get to the book on Amazon not sixty minutes ago. She comes up empty.  I mention the name of the television show, the topics the book covered, the one or two words I do remember from the title.  Nothing.  We are getting nowhere.  She cannot help me, because I cannot tell her what I actually need.  Finally, in frustration I say, "I know how to find it on Amazon."  She loads up Amazon on her computer screen and fingers poised over the keyboard again, asks me what she should search on.  At this point, I say, "Please stop helping me.  Let me find it."  She hands me the keyboard with a look that says, "You are a pain and I wish you would go away."

Sure enough, fifteen seconds later I find what I am looking for.  She cuts and pastes the title into her Barnes and Noble system and WA LA - I hear the following sentences, "Oh, yes we do carry that title. (whew) It's in the xyz section. (relief.)  But we are out of stock. (grrrr). And the piece de resistance - I can order it for you and it can be available for pick up in a few days." (forehead slap).  I weakly smile and say thank you, drive home and order it from Amazon where it shows up on my doorstep 24 hours later.

So let's recap.

A self-sufficient, digitally immersed customer arrives in Barnes and Noble two days before Christmas.  They are obviously on the hunt for a gift.  They wander through a poorly organized store and paw through shelf after shelf of books. Various sections seem to be organized alphabetically by title, some by author, in what the customer can only assume is an attempt to recreate an "intuitive search process" in a bricks and mortar store. They know for a fact that this title exists on Amazon and it will take them three clicks of a mouse to have it dropped on their doorstep in time to meet their deadline but they are hoping to just buy the damn book today to make sure there are no hiccups in shipping.

A somewhat harried clerk has been trained to provide "better customer service" than a computer kiosk. They welcome the customer warmly and then valiantly and repeatedly attempt to translate the customers relatively unintelligible clues about what they need.  They fail.  They use a creative and innovative tactic to find the title on a competitors website. Then they STILL can't solve the problem because they don't have the book in stock.  Then they offer a helpful, alternative solution meant to solve the problem, with a vague assertion that the book can be in the store, "in a few days."

Fail.

The point is...sometimes great customer service - help me, help you - leads to frustration on both sides. Great customer service doesn't necessarily solve problems, sometimes it actually makes it harder to provide solutions.  Your members may not be able to exactly articulate what they need and you may think it's your job to "intuitively help them" figure it out.  But these days, there is a line that is only getting bigger between customer service that is helpful, and customer service that is actually an obstacle.  Sometimes you have to take your helpful self out of the equation and give your members the tools they need to solve their issues themselves.

And Barnes and Noble?  Install some freaking computer kiosks for your customers who are losing the ability to clearly articulate what they are searching for but can find it themselves in 30 seconds or less.  Either that, or risk becoming the latest casualty in the booksellers market.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Here is the link to the movie clip for those of you who can't see the embedded code - Help me, help you....


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