OPINION: The lost art of customer service

The other day I happened to get a glimpse of a British TV show about the founder of Selfridge’s, a chain of high-end London stores. In this episode, Henry Gordon Selfridge is seen arguing with Frank W. Woolworth, the founder of the famed Woolworth “Five and Ten” stores. Selfridge says that customer service will be the hallmark of his store.

Woolworth replies that if you do that, you can’t sell things at “rock-bottom” prices. “My motto is, let the customer serve himself,” says Woolworth.

Well, today, 100 years or so after the fictional scene in the TV series, Selfridge’s approach seems to have run out. Whenever I want something in a big chain drugstore (which will be nameless), I may have to ask three or four employees behind the counter or in the aisle where it can be found before I get an answer. The answer is usually correct, but not always. And if you ask a question beyond “where can I find this,” God help you!

Contrast this with what I heard years ago from Ernie, a middle-aged German immigrant, probably a World War II-era refugee, who worked in the classical music department of a large record store where I worked for one summer. “In Germany,” he said, “you’d spend the first year learning all about the stock, the merchandise, the orders. It would be a year or two before they’d even let you see a customer.”

Granted, this way of doing things seems a little extreme. But surely, a happy medium can be found between Ernie’s approach and the approach that has taken root in today’s retail world. I don’t know what type of training today’s workers at large chain stores (with the exception of high-end stores) get, but I suspect it’s not much.

Yes, employees should be educated about the different items in the store before they get to see their first customer. And although a year or two is too much, two or three days is too little. Is it too much for the employees to have to know the difference between Dove soap, Ivory soap and Yardley soap? I don’t think so.

And while we’re at it, why not have a few employees “on the floor” nowadays, at least during the store’s most busy hours? Of course, they would have to be trained how to deal with customers – how to not be too aggressive and pushy. (I must confess that back in those record store days, when I was in my early 20s, I did ask for the phone numbers of several of the young female customers).

Also, why not train particular people for particular jobs in the store? At one visit to that unnamed chain drugstore I just mentioned, I noticed that the only person (besides the pharmacists themselves) who had any special knowledge was one person whose job I was to help users of the digital photo machine. Why not have one person who’s , say, the expert in the store on vitamins, another who’s the expert in soaps and shampoos – in the same way that Ernie was the classical music expert in my long-ago record store.

No, customer service shouldn’t be dead. To the owners of some of these huge chains, I say, shame on them! A large store where people go to buy important items, such as a microwave, shouldn’t be run on the same basis as a fast-food joint. Let’s bring back the lost art of customer service.