Why good customer service is like billiards

Ever played pool? It starts off with all the balls together, the cue ball comes along to break them up, they scatter and the game commences. That's what I expect in a retail store. In fact it's one of my pet peeves when employees stay clustered, like a beehive daring someone to come in and be stung.

I went into a Home Depot last Friday afternoon in one of the most torrential rains I've ever been though, looking for a particular panel I'd seen over the weekend to build a backsplash. The place was dead and devoid of customers.

I returned to the display, discovered that it only had 10 pieces, and began searching for someone to check back stock as I needed a total of 18 pieces. I looked around to the left and saw nothing but empty work desks. Then to the right. No one was there either. The computers were on and stuff was stacked in front like someone had been there.

I went around to the right, then left, then to the right and discovered three male employees standing around a workstation desk and a fourth employee sitting back in her chair. She was chatting about the lack of customers, I think.

I came within 10 feet of the desk and they kept talking. She remained tilted back in the chair and looking at me. No one said a word.

"Excuse me," I said, "can I get some help?"

The woman without moving said, "What are you looking for?"

"There's something over here..."

She jumped in, "Well what is it?"

In frustration I blurted out, "If you would get off your butt, I could show you."

She got up and moved towards me and I led her back to the display. As I explained what I needed I felt bad and said, "Sorry I didn't mean to say that."

She replied, "That's okay, people don't always get what we're saying."

I don't think she got my problem. It's not up to the customer to respond correctly. They should have broken up, one of them come over and offered to assist. Instead they clung together making the customer uncomfortable, trying to spit out the correct name of the product (which I still can't recall.)

When I was starting in retail I had done the same thing. I was just out of high school working at the Nunn Bush Shoe Shop. I was talking to my boss behind the counter while a customer looked through all the shoe displays. Instead of breaking and talking to him in assessing his needs, we kept right on talking.

Finally, the customer came up to us and asked, "Is this all you have?" I guess I was feeling my oats that day when I said, "No, we have three floors above us — we want people to guess what we have." The customer said, "Next time take your bad mood out on somebody else!"

I truly had been a jerk that day and it wasn't until later that I realized why and how. I think it started by allowing there to be a wall between myself and the customer. I think I considered myself as the great resource — people would ask for my help. But that incident stayed with me for a long time as an example of how not to behave behind the counter.

A few days ago when I was at the same Home Depot, I had looked at an appliance. The guy (who was part of the gang of four this past Friday) had offered to print out the sell sheet for me. When I asked, "Should I buy this from you or online?" he replied, "I'd appreciate it if you'd buy from me so I could keep my job." After this past experience, I'm looking anywhere but Home Depot.

Looking to grow sales? Don't allow your employees to cluster like somebody had racked them up. It builds a wall. And if you have a counter, it becomes a castle they can feel superior to customers behind.

Train your crew that when a customer walks in, he is the cue ball and the crew should scatter.

Bob Phibbs, "the Retail Doctor," is an author and retail trainer. He blogs about retail at RetailDoc.com.

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