I called a CE store in search of 10-foot interconnects for a portable MiniDisc player.
The store was part of a large company that advertises knowledgeable salespeople and friendly customer service. Without thinking, I had believed the advertising. I had expected to talk to someone, but instead there was a message promising to expedite my call. The message told me what number to press for each department.
After pressing "4," the phone rang in the personal electronics department 20 times. I was then told to leave a message and that someone would call me back. That was a lie.
I found myself challenged by the need to talk to a "real person." After three more attempts, I made contact. I found out that the store did have a knowledgeable salesperson. I was told: "You should talk to Jake, he knows all about that stuff." They said they would transfer me to Jake.
Once again I found myself listening to a ringing telephone and was again told to leave a message. I tried three more times and gave up.
Perhaps Jake was something like "Mr. Lincoln" at auto dealerships. When they needed someone -- anyone -- to handle a customer in the showroom, the intercom blasted the entire dealership with: "Mr. Lincoln to the showroom ... Mr. Lincoln to the showroom..."
Perhaps Jake was their Mr. Lincoln, but no one was listening anyway. This would explain the current lack of product knowledge, sales expertise and customer service in mainstream CE retail. Perhaps Jake was, by design, a figment of the retailer's imagination -- and (now) mine as well.
When I told a friend about my shopping misadventure, she said, "Why waste your time? Haven't you heard of the Internet?" I mumbled something about the personal touch and then realized how stupid and obsolete that sounded. I got on the 'net and the cables were on my doorstep the next day.
A week or two later, I walked into a superstore, one of many owned by a large national CE retailer. I was looking for a minisystem as a graduation present. I asked a salesperson for some help. He said I would find a salesperson who could help me "over there," pointing the way.
When I got "there," a person with a clipboard rushed past me, then backed up and asked if I needed some help. "Yes," I replied, "I would like some help." He told me he would be right with me. He got on the phone and said: "Benny, I need some help in home audio. I've got one customer in the speaker room and another one waiting." He then disappeared into a sound room and forgot about me.
After standing in front of a couple of snazzy-looking minisystems for five minutes, I turned around and left, but not before saying to no one in particular, "People, I am leaving!" I am sure no one cared or even heard me. I failed to add "...and I am never coming back."
I waxed nostalgic, remembering a time when a salesperson looked forward to handling more than one customer at a time. I remembered when a salesperson would tell a customer, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you." (Really!) I remembered when salespeople and customers thumbed through new brochures together and discovered new stuff together.
I remembered when a salesperson was knowledgeable about more than one category or department. I remembered when CE superstores had better customer service than supermarkets. (The tables have turned.)
I also remember being told a couple of times during my career not to bring up problems without a solution. Well, the solutions are now pretty obvious -- starting and ending with p-e-o-p-l-e.
I think it would be a marvelous idea and significant first step if non-selling and non-service (so commonplace that it's taken for granted) was recognized as an important, real problem. Then perhaps an important person at an important CE company would do something about it.
It's no fun to hear about brick & mortar businesses crumbling into worthless heaps of reduced prices. (Customers used to pay extra for personal service, but of course, it's no longer personal.) It's no fun to hear about onetime savvy retailers building perfunctory online sites after losing their fundamental strengths out of neglect. It's no fun to hear about super retailers that are doing no better than the independents that they replaced not so long ago. It's no fun at all, especially when the reason for this demolition and deterioration process is so obvious.
Here's a lesson in the obvious: Products don't support the business in the mall or down on Main Street, people do! Always have. Productive, skilled salespeople (who were not necessarily born that way) and curious, excited customers (who didn't just wake up that way) support the business.
The walls start caving in before you notice it. It's time to work harder at what used to come easy. Interview over and over again until you get the potential you need. Train and over-train until salespeople talk like they know something and act like they care about customers buying something. There is no time for denial and no time for handy excuses such as the tough job market.
Would you rather have a fat job market and a lean economy? n
Stan Adler is president of Adler Associates, a training and marketing company. For more information call (800)308-0372 or email StanSays@@mindspring.com. His new book, The Zen of Selling, was ranked by Sales & Marketing Management Magazine as one of the "10 must-read business books of 1999" and is currently available online and in stores.