Sunday, August 21, 2005

What can I help you find today?

The other day I walked out of the back room and right into a customer. This is not an unusual occurrence; I'm a klutz of the highest order. The only reason I haven't been sued for causing permanent damage thus far is the fact that I don't weigh that much (and most my customers are must more likely to do damage to me). Rebounding off my customer's hipster shirt covered chest, I tried to couple my short attention span together with my ability to speak so I could apologize. Before I could say a word, however, my customer drawled, "Well hellooooo there."

I knew that voice. In face, I knew that face under all that hipster stubble and coiffed hair. I knew that the heart under that shaved chest would forgive me my inability to pay attention to the world around me for several reasons (and not all of them having to do with the fact that he'd seen me be even more klutzy when drunk).

I had one of those "Here is your life with this person" moments where my brain ran through all my various memories of him: how he and James used to look like two little GAP models when they were dating; how no matter how Mr. Trendy-trend he could be, it always worked for him (probably because he still believed in the basic tenet of society known as bathing); and how he forgave me for being horribly sick in his car after a party that one time and even held my hair as I puked my guts out in front of the capitol building. It's enough to make a girl tear up even now (and act as a reminder that Mr. Cuervo is the alcoholic equivalent of that scary guy in the bar who tries to put roofies in your drink. He is not your friend, girls! Stay away.).

Of course this photo album of memories montaged through my head in the 0.5 seconds before I was shrieking his name in my best falsetto, and we were smooshed together with much huggage and cheek kissage and general "Oh, once upon a time we thought we were sooooo sophisticated and European" mugging. After the requisite What-are-you-doing-nows and Have-you-heard-about-so-in-sos, we managed to return to the planet of Not-everyone-went-to-our-university-damn-it-and-so-of-course-they-are-not-interested-in-our-dissection-of-school-social-strata-post-graduation. It was at this point I remembered that I worked in a bookstore, was--in fact--working at that very moment, and as he was present in said bookstore, I should probably ask, "What can I help you find today?" instead of "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Actually I'm shopping with my mother," he said shaking the bags he was carrying. "She's the one looking for books."

Observant girl that I am, I looked at the bags and remarked, "Yeah, you didn't really strike me as a Talbot's man."

Before we could continue volleying witticisms, his mother rounded the corner with a book in her hand. "I found it!"

What she had found was a copy of Kira-Kira, one of the newest Newbery Award winners. Turns out that his mother's a librarian for his local school district, and she had been trying to find this book for months. "We were just at [the big, local independent] and the girl there said that this book wasn't available anywhere!"

And here is where we finally get to the point of my post.

Right after Kira-Kira was named the Newbery for 2005, the publisher sold out. Bookstores everywhere were scrambling to get the award-winners in stock, and--whether it was due to a short print run or the fact that they were between print runs, I don't know--the publisher did not have the supply to meet the demand. At that point, waaaaay back in April, everyone in town was out of Kira-Kira. I mean, sure, it made sense. The publisher had no idea that their book was going to become so popular, and therefore couldn't supply all of us with the 5 or more copies we each needed immediately. That, however, was back in April, and this was August. We'd had the book in stock since they went back to printing.

The girl at [the local independent] did not mention trying other bookstores to my friend's mom, she did not offer to order the book or even to check her warehouse. She simply spouted that piece of information as if it was a universally known fact, and went "back to whatever she was doing at her computer terminal."

This was bad customer service, and sadly, this was not the first time that I had heard a comment like this about [the local independent]. Don't get the wrong idea, this is not a condemnation of all independent bookstores, or even of this store in particular. I love this store (even though I have a tendency to get lost in it because it is huge and I have absolutely no sense of direction) and the opportunity it provides to explore books and areas that my own company ignored. Independents have freedoms that chain stores will never have, and more power to them, but that is no excuse for bad customer service. What is even more sad is that I often hear the same complaint(s) about my larger sister chain store:

"I can never find anyone to help me."

"My salesperson didn't seem to know what they were talking about."

"They didn't go the extra mile."

Now to be fair, going the extra mile is hard these days in a culture that promotes using each new "great" experience as the standard for all other experiences (and therefore reducing that great to good because the next great must top that and the next that until we are hurtling into the stratosphere of completely attainable heights. When are we going to draw the line? "Hi, can I help you find anything, bear your children, cook your dinner and do your windows?") . In practice, in my company at least, there are some general standards (which my sister store has a shoddy track record of following, I'll admit). When I don't have a book, I tell my customers about other bookstores in town (even those I'm not affiliated with), offer to order it or wait-list them, or give them an alternative. "I don't have Blink in stock at this moment, but I do have Gladwell's other book The Tipping Point. The books build off one another well."

In that case, the extra mile is not that hard.

Sure you are going to have those customers that won't be placated, who will invoke the dreaded words Costco and Wal*Mart, but for the most part the customer appreciates that you put a modicum of thought into your response and didn't just resort to the standard "Nope, don't have it. Sorry." and cutting them off at the customer service knees. Let's face it. I help people find things for a living, which means I must be cheerful and helpful. If I didn't want to interact with people I wouldn't have this job, and this job requires me to know what I'm talking about (as well as occasionally read minds and find the impossible). I may not be able to make everyone happy, or find the unfindable, but I can do my best, and that translates into helping the customer. Why else would I ask everyone who comes in, "What can I help you find today?"

It is not unreasonable to expect some sort of customer service from your bookseller, just as it is not unreasonable for me to want a little respect. The two go hand in hand. Respect me, I'll help you more. Notice I said "more." I cannot lower myself to the same level as a bad customer by being an ass, or talking back. It's against company policy. Nor should my customer put up with being sneered at or ignored because of what they are looking for. If the girl at [local independent] had been doing her job, she would have offered to order the book or find someone more knowledgeable about the section (my friend's mom originally had to track the sales clerk down in a different section, so it's possible that the girl didn't specialize in kid's books and really had no idea what the current state of Kira-Kira was).

Sometimes going that extra mile really only is a matter of walking a few steps, and it means that the customer will come back...and spend more money, er, I mean, buy more books and promote literacy. The contribution to my paycheck sure is nice though.

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