Poor Customer Service Generally Reflects Poor Management Practices

As in most matters, there’s more than one side to poor customer service.

The next time you come across an unresponsive or incompetent store clerk, try putting yourself in his or her place for a little while, suggests a seasoned sales professional.

“I guarantee you,” says this career sales associate, as she defines herself, “when you see an angry clerk, what you are usually looking at is a problem in management.

“Dysfunctional management,” says the veteran insider, “comes out at the point of contact with the customer.”

So, naturally it’s the clerk who gets the blame.

But in the final analysis it can only be the owners and managers who share responsibility. They run the place.

My source phoned following a column last summer on the decline of customer service. We exchanged experiences from opposite sides of the counter. Impressed by her insights, candor, and sense that too many clerks may be the victims of an unfair press, I invited her to put down a few thoughts.

She sent five single-spaced pages of analysis. We talked again. Rather than risk retribution, her name won’t be used.

Not every store has all the following problems. “But many have enough,” she says, “to put heavy stress on workers who care about doing a good job for an employer and giving good customer service.”

For starters, she says, in most companies, “A strong line is drawn between management and sales. Management feels a title confers privilege and unqualified respect.”

But too often, she says, “The managers cannot coach a new employee in the details of the sales job. Managers likely have come straight from a college campus, and have no prior experience.”

Incentive is often destroyed by chaotic work hours. “With two or three days notice and an unpredictable schedule,” she says, “it is difficult to make and keep commitments to school, family, friends and community.” Physical and emotional stress result.

“This can kill any hope of a quality life and interest in the job,” she says.

Even more demoralizing, she says, “Favoritism is so prevalent in retail that you can tell who counts and who doesn’t by the schedule they are given.

“More hours, choice shifts, better assignments, and first choice of days off are given to those who politic best - not to those who do the best job for the company.”

This is far from trivial. Selfish petty favoritism is a major scourge, I can vouch from inside knowledge of retailing. Its impact is felt far beyond unimportant and inconsequential little store clerks.

Unfairness frequently takes the form of “off-the-clock obligations” - sacrificing lunch periods or rest breaks to make up for understaffing, picking up merchandise at another branch, running errands. “All are touted by retail companies,” she says, “as examples of good customer service.”

Upper management reaps the rewards. Clerks get used.

As to pay, she confirms what everyone already knows, “In retail, low wages typically are a reality. So is lack of benefits other than a discount which you can’t afford to use.

“In many stores, it is considered desirable to ‘burn ‘em and turn ‘em,’ in order to keep wages down. Too many seasoned sales people,” says this 52-year-old, “will make wage costs too high.”

“Unfortunately,” she says, “product knowledge is gained through experience or training. An educated public wants to make informed choices.

“But training in most stores is a three-hour orientation on company history and a sales pitch on how fulfilling your association with the company is going to be.”

“The rest of the training will be done on the sales floor by an over-worked old-timer.”

Most likely the ‘old-timer’ isn’t too thrilled by this arrangement either. “The old-timer is so tired of one new hire after another that he would rather do without any more ‘help’ that only adds to his stress.”

As a result, she says, “The sales person becomes wedged between customer expectations and management expectations. Customers may need the merchandise the company has to offer, but they expect more. They expect their purchase to be appreciated. They expect their right to a fair deal to be respected. They expect honesty.

“They expect the sales person to have the product information. They expect the sales person to take the time to present it.”

It’s a lot to expect from someone with so little control over circumstances. Maybe we’d all be better served if customers started taking their complaints straight to the boss. He makes the big bucks.

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN - Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review

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