Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Friday, September 4, 2009

Whoda Thunkit

When the bean counters at the brick & mortar retail giants look at data in order to decide what customer service protocol ought to be, there’s something they always fail to factor in. I’ll call it the Overly Helpful Approach. It’s a side effect of the slavish concept that the customer is always right, an attitude that seems logical on its face until you really examine the consequences of that approach. When you believe the customer is always right, you feel compelled to do everything that customer asks you to do. Once again, this seems logical. But in the field, here are a couple of things that happen.

Thing One: the customer wants everything for free. In the book biz, that means the customer returns everything she buys after she’s read it. Or she complains that she’s been mistreated, and therefore should get an item for free (which she will later return for credit). Or she’ll run your sales staff ragged finding books she wants and then sit down with them and jot notes or read novels all day, then leave them in an untidy pile for them to re-shelve. This is a common thing, and there is an equation to account for the losses caused by this behavior, but those actual losses are hard to track. No one is counting the loss of wages paid helping people who have no intention of buying, or the wear & tear of the particular books used and then ultimately returned as "damaged," or the loss of sales of items that might be purchased by other customers if someone weren’t reading them in a corner.

And now that the economy isn’t doing too well, and more people are pinching pennies than ever, customers are even more likely to commit theft-of-services. Likewise managers are terrified of offending any of them, so the freeloaders are becoming more confident and outrageous than ever.

Thing Two: you have a knowledgeable, well-trained staff, and people use them to research stuff they want to buy and then buy it somewhere else. One good example of this was the Listen-On-Demand service we used to have at the book chain where I work. For years, people could come in and ask us to open CDs so they could hear them. The logic was that once people heard this wonderful music, they would buy it.

Less than 10% of them did so – at least, from us. They demanded to hear albums, sometimes they even pretended they were going to buy them (they’d be returned to me at the end of the day in recovery), but they were actually using us to preview stuff they would then buy from discount retailers. Often they would be looking for obscure songs I would help them track down, or classical music they had no knowledge of, and I would tell them what it was and what albums it was on. I did this because they pretended they were going to buy it from us. Once again, this loss was written into the equation as part of the cost of doing business. But the actual loss was hard to track.

Now that my company no longer carries much music, in stores or on its website, this doesn’t happen too much anymore. But we do plenty of research for people in books they never buy from us. I had one lady walk in recently and say, "I’m looking for books to download to my Kindle. Can you recommend anything?"

I said no. "We aren’t connected with amazon, Ma’am, I can’t advise you what to buy from them."

"Oh," she was quick to assure me, "I’m going to buy some paperbacks too."

But she dumped every paperback I handed her after taking note of the title. Now people who want advice about books they intend to download from amazon are figuring out they shouldn’t tell us so, though they’re perfectly willing to use us for information. After all, it says INFORMATION right over the desk, right? So isn’t it our job to tell them what they want to know?

Meanwhile, we’re fighting to stay afloat, and our managers are scrambling to become MORE helpful. We’re so damned helpful, we’re downright obnoxious. We’ll pounce on you the moment you walk in the door, and when you actually do buy something we’ll brow-beat you into buying an additional item. Because we want you to come back, right?

I’d like to suggest something outrageous. The customer is NOT always right. Sometimes the customer is as wrong as he can be. Even if he’s not a douchebag, a crook, or a scammer, sometimes he doesn’t have a right to get what he’s demanding. He DOES have a right to expect courtesy, patience, and your time and attention. And he deserves to have you err on the side of customer service, to expect the most liberal application of your policies. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, that he should receive the best possible service in the hope that you’ll prove it’s worth it to shop at your joint. But when he proves to you that he has no intention of ever paying you for anything, that in fact he’s going to keep costing you money, his rights run out.

There’s one last cost that’s hard to track. Right now, the bean counters are trying to figure how they can charm, chide and cajole you into buying stuff. And that’s fine, but they also need to figure how to keep you from returning what you’ve bought. And at the same time, they have to figure the cost of bugging you too much, of pouncing on you and refusing to let you go until you’ve listened to sales pitches you didn’t want to hear and had additional items suggested ad nauseam. Those of you out there who actually buy stuff and keep most of what you buy have a right to complain if this bugs you. But please, don’t yell at the sales clerk. Ask to talk to management, or call them, or write to them. Make sure you tell them the sales staff did a good job, you just don’t like the policy. Mention that you like a peaceful, low-key shopping experience, not a song-and-dance routine.

Otherwise folks – if my employer survives the plague of freebee-demanders and the wretched economy, they’re going to decide we survived because we insisted on greeting you the moment you walked in the door, and addressing you by name, and suggesting additional items, and pushing the book du jour on you (without having the slightest clue what you actually like to read), and rattling off a long, baffling speech every time you call, and god knows what else they dream up. You actually do have an effect when you give them feedback about customer service.

Unfortunately, that’s another thing the freebee demanders have figured out. They have no qualms whatsoever about making demands, or about criticizing the staff that just bent over backward to help them find something. Since they’re willing to provide the feedback, they’re the ones who have the most effect on customer service policy.

And they’re not even customers.

Count that, Bean Boys.

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