Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Horrific of Customer Service

The basic principles of customer service always seemed to be pretty straightforward to me, but it's become pretty clear to me lately that a lot  of companies just don't have the first clue how to treat customers in such a way that they are actually likely to return willingly. I find it hard to believe so many businesses employ people who have no interest or ability to treat customers pleasantly - that just doesn't make sense to me. There can't possibly be that many clueless people in the world. The alternative is that a lot of businesses are actively turning away and discouraging potential and current customers because they're not the kind of customers they want, for whatever reason. Maybe they're too fat, or too poor, or too black, or too gender ambiguous. Whatever the reasons, this is a completely ludicicrous business model. The global marketplace is packed with alternatives to whatever you happen to be selling, and it's getting more crowded by the day. The ability to sell things online has made the number of potential businesses in any given marketplace virtually limitless, and I've heard a lot of brick and mortar storefront companies complaining that this is ruining their businesses. In my opinion, this is complete nonsense. Online stores are only taking business away from brick and mortar stores because they've been treating their customers so badly for so long that customers are fleeing now they have a choice about it. Sure, you have to wait ages for stuff ordered online, and you can't try it on, and sometimes it's not at all what you thought it would be like - and STILL customers are fleeing brick and mortar stores. The way they treat a lot of their customers has been SO BAD that all the downsides of online shopping are still preferable. When the prices are higher, and the hours you can shop there are restricted, pretty much the only upside that brick and mortar stores have over online stores is the immediacy of the purchase, and face to face customer service. But it seems a lot of them can't even get that right, even though it's almost all they have to draw in business.

Myer (a high end Australian department store chain) have provided an excellent example of the very real consequences of being a jerk to potential customers this week. They've been absolutely hammered flat all over social media this week for ridiculously insensitive comments made by the company CEO regarding a proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme. He more or less said that asking Australians to spend extra money on disability services would hurt company profits, apparently blissfully unaware that a scheme that will hopefully give people with disabilities more disposable income might HELP company profits. The implication was very much that people with disabilities don't shop at Myer - it's not THAT sort of store. Myer doesn't want customers like that.There is no defending this kind of corporate snobbery, especially when they are at the same time complaining of profit slides because people don't shop there anymore. Well, gee, I WONDER WHY. There was an apology issued later, but I'm not particularly convinced that the CEO actually regrets his comments, just the fact they got out to the public.

Having said all this, I did want to use my experiences with the actual people who work the actual floor at Myer as an example of Good Customer Service. Not in the plus sized section, mind you, which is conveniently located next to the Weight Watchers outlet and is almost always completely devoid of staff. The staff who work the underwear section however, deserve a big high five for their outstanding customer service every time I've been there, despite the snobbish self defeating views of the people who actually own the place. I have a big butt and I cannot lie, but I have never once gotten so much as a look down the nose trying to find underwear to handle all this jelly. I've even been that super annoying customer who comes in with a vague recollection of something they MIGHT have bought there a while ago, and they've managed to figure out what I actually wanted, take me to it on the floor, and make alternative suggestions. The staff in that section have always made me feel welcome, and like my custom is wanted - which is all I really want from a customer service transaction. I don't believe in the American model of customer service where they hover over you and refill your glass before you've even finished it - that actually annoys the piss out of me. But basic respect isn't hard, and being helpful is the best way to get me to come back to your store. Don't look at me like I'm dirt, help me find what I want, take my money, and I'll come back and give you more. The staff in the underwear section at Myer seem to really understand this, and I appreciate it with my business - well, I have, up until now. I don't know if I'm super keen to go back considering the views of the people who end up with my money in the end.

This is for the staff on the floor, not the CEO.

So that's Good Customer Service. Let's look at just plain old Bad Customer Service, shall we? I went into Portmans, an Australian clothing chain, a while ago, looking for nice work clothes. I had money to burn (this was obviously before I got into the money sink that is indie nail polish) and I wanted to buy myself some Nice Businesslady Clothes. I found a stupidly overpriced skirt I liked, and asked one of the shop assistants if they had it in an 18, because I could only find a 16. I got a good, long, disgusted look of disdain before she spat out, "No, we don't carry sizes THAT big." A bit startled, I just replied, "Oh." She stared at me for a little while longer, then walked away without saying anything more, and I scurried out bright red, taking my money with me, never to return. Now can you tell me how many ways this shop assistant went wrong? Firstly, being audibly disgusted that I dare ask for clothing in a size 18 is just bullshit. She could have said, "I'm sorry, we don't carry that size". It's not HER fault personally that the brand only goes to size 16, but she could have expressed at least some fake, canned regret at not being able to help me spend my money. Secondly, Portman's carry a wide range of accessories as well as clothes. She COULD have said, "I'm sorry, we don't carry anything in a size 18. But hey, have  you seen the new lot of necklaces we got in yesterday?" Or alternatively, "I'm sorry, that skirt only goes to a size 16. But I think that skirt you're wearing would look great with these boots we have - did you see them?" Maybe I didn't want a necklace or boots, maybe I only wanted a skirt. But she could have at least had a GO at getting me to buy something, especially since she wasn't SO busy she didn't have time to give me a nice long up and down look. But her reaction said very clearly that my business wasn't wanted - Portman's don't want customers like me.

Pretty much how I felt. Image courtesy of TacoAce on Deviantart
Unfortunately, despite making me feel awful and putting me off clothes shopping for a good long while, on the scale of bad customer service this is actually pretty fucking good. I came across a story of Rohit Singh, a transgender woman being denied service in Canada recently, for having the audacity to want to try on and perhaps purchase a wedding dress in sight of other customers. The shop owner explained quite specifically that they "don't allow men to wear dresses here", and asked her to leave. Even after the story broke all over social media. the shop owners are still refusing to issue any kind of apology, insisting that they asked the woman to leave because she was making other customers uncomfortable. What a load of bunkum. What a complete and utter crock of shit. A customer is a customer is a fucking customer, and unless said customer is trashing the place or having a screaming argument, I personally think you should bloody well serve them. Even if the transgender customer DID look like a man to all the other customers, so what? Her money spends just as well as anyone else's. Do you want the money or not? The owners made it clear that they did not want her money, and so she took it somewhere else. This behavior just boggles me. Amid all the endless complaining I hear about local small businesses failing, THIS is how they treat potential customers?

Rohit Sing in the dress she ended up wearing to her wedding. I bet
the ones from the first store weren't nearly as pretty.

I simply cannot imagine any of the small business owners I know behaving like this. I know for a fact a couple of the nail polish makers I've promoted here have gotten positive feedback via Twitter from transgender women - if these polish makers held the same views as the owner of this bridal shop, they would have been horrified. But they weren't - they replied to the feedback publicly, and retweeted some of it, because they're happy that customers like their products. ALL customers. They don't give a shit if their customers are black, disabled, transgender, old or bloody Miranda Kerr - they're happy that they have customers, and they're nice to them, so they will come back and spend more money. Isn't that what running a business is actually about, in the end? This kind of double that apparently convinces business owners that turning down one customer will somehow get them more is total baloney.

If you try and restrict the kind of customers you have to the kind of customers you want, however narrow or broad that definition is, your business will fail and people will go elsewhere. It's true that as a business owner you have the right to refuse service - but I also think if you turn away perfectly good customers, you should shut the fuck up about your lack of customers. As someone who has worked in marketing, I do understand the theory at play here. These businesses being dicks to anyone who isn't ideal are trying to uphold a "standard", so as to add prestige to their products. They want attractive, fit, young customers so that other attractive, fit young people will think they need what they're selling. They don't want their products associated with anyone who isn't "ideal", because it will make other "ideal" customers less likely to buy it. But this premise only works if there is an infinite amount of money in the attractive, fit, young customer pool - and I hate to break this to you guys, but there isn't. There are also already a metric fuckload of businesses competing for the straight, thin, cisgendered, able bodied, young female dollar. I promise you, they're covered, they're good. Really. Trying to base an entire business on shouldering your way into a totally packed marketplace and capturing a little slice of these Aryan ideal customers to the exclusion of all other customers is totally insane. You want a revolutionary business concept? How about you serve EVERYONE ELSE. The fattys, the queers, the people with disabilities? There is a BUNCH of us out there, and lots of us even have disposable income. I know, shocking right? How about instead of bitching and moaning about losing customers to online services, you try something new and give good customer service to ALL your customers.


  1. Thank you for writing this, you said it all so well!

  2. Hey, I used to be a bra fitter at DJ, and later Myer (but only briefly). Best department to work in after stationery.

    1. Did you get discounts? I could use a new job and more bras.

  3. I think there wasn't a discount except for uniform clothes. But you always knew about sales first. It's still retail, so I wouldn't go back, but it beats coffee shops for sure


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