Sunday, September 6, 2009

Consistency Counts

My friend Buzz is a DIY (do-it-yourself) kind of guy. He used to work as a professional in the construction trades, so when he walks into a store to buy some PEX tubing for his house, he knows exactly what, and how much, he needs. He's straightforward and about as honest as you can find, so I know this story happened just as he says.

We have two "big box" supply stores in the area. I won't mention names, but I'll call one Blue and one Orange. You get the picture.

Buzz called Blue to ask if they had the PEX tubing he needed—3 rolls, to be exact. Nope, none to be found in the store, and that was that. And so, since he had to travel into town anyway, he figured he'd just stop at Orange and get what he needed. What he got instead was a small lesson in what inconsistent customer service looks like.

He checked the Plumbing Supply section of the store and found an empty space where the tubing should be. But they carried it, no doubt, because there was a shelf tag for it. There was no one in the section, so he headed to the front of the store to find an employee. He did that, and (having previously having received an education in big box shopping) asked, "Can you help me with something in Plumbing?"

"No," came the answer, "but he can." The employee indicated a colleague who was talking with another employee near the Tools aisle. Buzz walked on over. And he waited, and waited for Mr. Plumbing to acknowledge him. Now here I have to say that Buzz is not easy to overlook: Think Grizzly Adams. The two employees were just passing the time in a chat that was not related to work. And neither seemed to notice Buzz.

After a minute or two, Buzz spoke up and asked if Mr. Plumbing could help him. "Sure," came the answer. So Buzz asked if they had any more PEX tubing.

OK, then, Buzz asked, "Can you tell me when you might have some coming in?"
"Not really. It just comes in."
"Well, can you order it?"
"No, it just comes in."

Buzz calmly walked away, feeling more than a little put out. The next day, he called the store to see if there was some way he could get what he needed. He got through the initial wait for someone from Plumbing to get to the phone, and then asked about the 3 rolls of PEX tubing.

"Hang on just a minute," the person said, "and I'll check to see if we have any squirreled away." A moment later, the person was back on the phone. "No, I'm afraid not. Would you like me to call up to Bangor and see of they have some there? I can have it sent down for you."

This was more like it, Buzz thought. "Yes, please check for me." With another minute on hold, Buzz found out that Bangor had 56 rolls of the tubing.

"Can I have that sent down here for you?"
"I'm planning a trip up there anyway," Buzz said, "so I'll just pick it up when I go."

In a nutshell:
  • Blue had no tubing, and did not offer to get it
  • Orange Employee #1 did not offer to assist Buzz, but just pointed him at Employee #2
  • Employee #2 was engaged in a personal chat with another employee, and Buzz was forced to interrupt
  • Employee #2 did not offer to assist Buzz in any way
  • Orange Employee #3 (on the phone) checked stock, and then checked another store for stock, and offered to get the tubing sent to the store
We've all had similar experiences in one store or another. The only surprise in this story is that Orange Employee #2 and Orange Employee #3 work for the same company.

What is your plan to increase the consistency of your customer service? What do you expect from employees, and how to you measure whether or not they are delivering to those expectations?

Give it some thought.


  1. A friend, John Phippen, introduced me to this phrase for when you get no help from someone: "Thanks for providing me with every assistance short of actual help."

  2. Thank John Phippen for me, and thank you for passing it along. How do you get your tongue out of your cheek after you say it?