Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Someone" is destroying customer service

"Can I help someone over here?"

My favorite line! It's the one that's destroying customer service everywhere, right across this great land, from the largest HMV in Vancouver to the smallest Pharma Plus in PEI.

Imagine this scenario:

Let's say you're waiting in a long line at the drugstore. You have a cold. All you want is to buy some Dristan, so you can go home and sleep without choking.

Suddenly, another cashier opens up at another wicket.
"Can I help someone over here?"
Like clockwork, the last person in your line runs to the front of the newly opened wicket, destroying the first-come, first-served philosophy on which the whole idea of "lineups" is usually based.

Imagine? I've lived it, brother.

It first happened to me at Pharma Plus - a shameless repeat offender - and in the last week I've seen it unfold before my very eyes at HMV, Sobeys, the Apple Store, and CIBC.

It must be stopped before it's too late. The future of humankind depends on it!

Why it sucks
  • The whole idea of "service" is that you want to make things good for people spending their money at your store (or the store at which you work).
Engaging a cage match of fighting shoppers while you passively wait for one to hack his or her way to the front of the line isn't "service" - it's boneheaded at best, cruel at worst.
  • It dehumanizes people. Individual people. "Someone" isn't a word to which any person in his or her right mind responds, "That clerk is talking to me!"
"Will someone marry me?"

"Next in line" is only one level up. It may take care of the mad-rush-to-the-wicket problem, but it still dehumanizes the PERSON waiting next in line.
  • It assumes that, given limited decision-making time, shoppers will behave rationally.
They won't. Just hang around outside Advance on Boxing Day.

Granted, I may be giving the existentialist store clerk a little too much credit for forethought.
  • It ignores the most important word in marketing.
That word is "you."

In personal sales (Avon calling!), the way you do it is to make eye contact and say, "Would YOU be interested in buying some of these wonderful products?"

In a store setting, the way it works is you look up at the next "person" waiting in line, you make direct eye contact with that person, and in a confident, clear voice say, "Can I help you?" Then you smile, smile, smile.

The next time a clerk says, "Can I help someone over here?" when you're next in line, the appropriate response is, I believe, "Screw YOU!"

The electronic equivalent of "someone."


  1. I've never really thought about this before: I suppose I'm used to standing in line, paying for my purchases and leaving.

    I think the issue is that many stores we go to are large chain stores where you just don't get the personalized service you would get at a smaller store. Chain stores get your business through lower prices, and their reputation as a company, among other things. Smaller stores have to compete against chain stores, and one excellent way to do it is through personalized customer service. Make the customer feel appreciated.

    There's a small cafe across the street from where I work that I've gone to a few times, and the employees there are always very kind. They make it clear that they appreciate my business.

    One of the rudest things I've ever seen from a cashier occured at a Wal-Mart a few months back. The cashier didn't say a word, either to myself, or my friend, and she chastized a man who was standing behind us, because he didn't go to the till he was assigned to. Clearly he was unaware of how the Wal-Mart check-out system worked. Then she shouted at a fellow employee...and got his attention by yelling "hey you! I don't know your name".

    That was more than a little sickening.

  2. The one I hear most often around here is "I can help who's next." It's wrong grammatically and logically, as well as customer-serviceally. Ha!

  3. Great post.

    I think part of the issue is beyond service, it's also just how people show no regard for one another in general.

    The fact that a clerk opens a new line and the person at the back runs there 1st isn't an issue with the store; it's an issue with humanity. I can see why the store clerks sometimes don't address this - it's an awkward situation. To preserve the relationship with one customer, you have to violate the other by pointing out how completely rude and inconsiderate they are. I don't agree, but I can see why it's sometimes let go...


  4. It doesn't suck if you're that guy who runs over and takes the first place in line. Survival of the Fittest!

  5. Ha, ha! It's the same guy who races past traffic to "merge late" - I hate that guy!

  6. We could have a whole separate conversation about call centres. I've had the misfortune of having to talk to a wide swath of schmucks in "customer service"/"technical support" over the past little while.

    The worst is waiting for 25 minutes on hold just to find out that you've made "the mistake" of making the wrong menu selection and have to wait another 25 minutes to be transferred to the right department. On a number of occasions I've protested that I shouldn't have to wait another 25 minutes and should be be put to the front of the queue, but to no avail.

    I've worked in the customer care business a fair bit in my life and I saw something once that was absolutely abhorrent at one place.

    I was working for the loyalty rewards department for a major travel company and they had a promotion on where if you became a new member you would receive a ton of extra points per dollar spent on your first trip. This woman who was very well off booked this very expensive trip, but missed a key step in claiming her points. This was just the type of new customer this company would want, affluent, travels a lot and is active with loyalty programs. But because "customer care" centres are so rigid in their policies, they wouldn't award her these bonus points, which was the very reason she booked the trip in the first place. If I were an executive in this company's marketing department I would have blew a gasket had I known that a new customer of such a caliber were treated that way.

    I think customer service has become a lost art form and the worst culprits are turning off a lot of valuable customers.

  7. I find a good customer response that makes me feel better about the selfish "someone" at the back of the line rushing to the new line is a good old eye roll to myself at their lack of class.

  8. Dave: great point! I tried to get Apple on the phone recently about buying some iPads - total nightmare.

    I was bounced from Canada to the US and back a full eight times. Brutual!

  9. Katie: eye rolls are good.

    I once said, "Shame on you" to a clerk who didn't take the next person in line and "shame on you too" to the person who ran there. Ha, ha!

  10. Ahahahahahahahahahahahhahaha...

    Oh Kenton, you're the best!

    This post made me laugh out loud! (Not "LOL," because "LOL" is stupid!)

  11. Kenton: I was actually referencing Apple too! What happened for me was I bought a new ipod and I needed an ITunes update which screwed up my mac. Long story short, I was on the phone for about 90 minutes, but always the opportunist, I demanded a token of appreciation for my time and then sent me a free ipod-RCA adapter for my stereo.

    The moral of the story is, if you ever have bad customer service experience, milk it for all the free stuff it's worth.

  12. Way to go, Dave! I want one of those now too...


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