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Why Retail Sales Suck? No One Can Be Nice Anymore

Is it so hard to be nice to people?

Due to a weather flight delay at Dulles airport in Washington, DC last Friday, we were asked to deplane and wait at the United gate B11 for a couple hours.  I left and came back, sat down and starting working on my laptop.  Overhead I could hear a voice, “If you’re here for flight 8049, there’s been a gate change, please walk down one gate, now boarding.”

I was concerned, was this my flight? I looked at my boarding pass – nope. She must’ve said it five more times and each time a few people were caught off guard running from gate 11 to 13.  I watched this over 15 minutes to hear the woman saying, “last call flight 8049, if you are going we need you at the gate now.” We never heard it was for Chicago.

I got in line at my gate 11 to re-check in.  A Hispanic man I’d seen at gate 11 got up and asked the flight agent at the desk in his broken English, “his is for Chicago – yes?”
“No, it’s not Chicago – that’s over at 13. Hold on.”

The gate agent called over to the woman gate agent at gate 13, but she was gone. We could clearly see the plane through the window with bags loading underneath. The three travelers ran over looking for the woman who finally emerged.  She held up her hand – they would not be allowed to board.  She waved them off and pointed back to gate 11.

The three returned to the counter at gate 11 and she followed.
“We need to be on plane.”
“Well I called everyone,” she said indignantly.
“No, no we right here all time.”
“Oh no you weren’t! I came over here at the beginning and told everyone and I never saw you. And then I announced it five times at the other gate.”

I got upset from her scolding people who obviously felt stupid. “Excuse me,” I said.
“What?” she turned her wrath to me.
“Yes, I’ve been here this whole time and they were sitting there. They clearly do not speak very good English and – AND – you never changed the gate information on the plasma TV over the gate. Can you treat them with a bit more respect?”
She looked up at the plasma, “I realized that after I said what I said and I’m sorry now.”img_0209

The woman traveler said, “Gracias” with a smile to me and the United attendant changed her tone going overboard to explain the next flight out would be in four hours and where the gate would be.

Why is it so hard to get people to be nice?

I was approaching the Hertz Number One Gold counter in Richmond, VA the day before.  (Background: you have to pay for the privilege of the Gold counter and are supposed to get a better experience.)  Her greeting to me?  “Yes?” The only other comment the entire time was “B-19” and an extended-finger nail point to the garage.

I’m sure she hates her job, her boss doesn’t like his either and it spills out over customers. Oh yeah, the car only had 1/4 tank of gas and had 500 miles more than my contract read – but that’s another post on shrinkage.

Why can’t you just realize there is a person in front of you Hertz woman, not a problem?  No wonder retail sales suck! Who wants to return to that?

The next day, Saturday I had to pickup a few things at the Grand Union market where I live in upstate New York. I approached the checkout register.  A young guy in his 20’s was there. Not a word. His only exchange with me was “Credit?” when I presented my card.  I had to go back later that day and Stephanie was on register with “How may I help you?” on her name badge. Her interaction with no one behind me or ahead of me consisted of “$14.26.” I handed her a $20 and she put all of the change in my hand with a swipe. Then looked away into the store waiting for someone to come up to her register. Once another supermarket opens near me, I’m done being their prisoner.

And no, it’s not my job as a customer to try to cheer either of them up; their job is to make the customers’ day better.

These employees are killing those businesses!  No wonder people shop online.

What is missing in all of these examples is these employees do not realize there is an individual in front of them; another human being worthy of their time.  

I just walked past the front desk at a Hilton in Texas and the front desk agent said toward me, as her head was buried in paperwork, “Morning.”  Obligational training does not cut it either.

My advice to you today? Before you say anything to a client, a vendor, your bank teller, your employee remember – this is a person.  “Good morning,” – even without a smile – is appreciated by everyone. A genuine smile makes it even better.

The days of “cut to the chase” have led us to “people = problems” thinking. If I can’t even bring myself to look at you in the eye and connect, how can I ever provide a good experience?

Hertz, Grand Union, United – when a competitor gives me what I want I will be gone. I won’t tell you.  And when in some pathetic attempt to win my favor again – probably with a meaningless coupon –I’ll just look at it and say, “Yes?”

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Posted by Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor on February 16, 2009.

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6 Responses to “Why Retail Sales Suck? No One Can Be Nice Anymore”

  1. Absolutely. Recognizing the opportunity to increase sales with the existing foot traffic in a retail store is the name of the game. Our company, Retailers are not magically creating a new consumer – they need to work with the existing foot traffic and increase sales in different categories. This utilization of the existing foot traffic is one of the greatest untapped assets I see in retailing today.

  2. [...] Posts Hertz Wonders Why They’re In Trouble – Cut Past the BoneWhy Retail Sales Suck? No One Can Be Nice AnymoreThe Economic Stimulus Plan – You Got YoursWe Mean Business – Missed Opportunities Still [...]

  3. Chris says:

    Unfortunately, you also have to look at the other end of the spectrum. Customers are programmed to come in to a store looking for a fight. It’s the mentality of most people that when a companies policy isn’t what they want to hear they begin the yelling and screaming process that they’re used to. ie. 30 day exchange policy, no returns without receipts and such. So, after years of complaining to get what you what customers usually come into a store already looking for a fight. Which causes most retail sales people to automatically have an attitude. While I realize that this isn’t ideal for a customers experience, it’s also not a healthy working environment working for the general public.

  4. BrittC says:

    I’ve been in retail for years. I’ve always found it came very natural to me, to be nice to people but was always surprised by how difficult it seems to be, for other people to be nice. Perhaps it’s my southern upbringing. Despite being a nice person, I have to admit, I can also be cynical. So, I combat my cynicism by using the old adage, “Kill ‘em with kindness”. It really does work. Now that I’m a stay at home Mom, I find that it’s easier to teach my children to be nice because I have consistently had to practice and apply these principals at work.

    I think the general population finds it too difficult to be nice because it requires them to NOT be lazy. It seems easier to be nasty to someone, than to be nice or even sincere. Ironically, many of the problems that are faced in the retail industry could be simplified if employers and employees would treat each person, the way they wanted to be treated…with respect.

    I did learn a valuable lesson from an employer years ago. They taught us to treat each customer and their experience, as if this were our first customer of the day and this was the first time we were hearing a problem/complaint/question, etc. Interestingly enough, this same business no longer teaches this philosophy and has shut down 1000′s of stores.

    Perhaps it’s time that we all “practice what we preach”.

  5. Informer says:

    More than likely employees started off being respectful. They may encounter 5 customers who are friendly and 100 customers who are just evil.

    The evil ones treat employees with such disrespect as if they aren’t human and should be punished for dealing with the general public. After a while it will stay with you and since you can’t tell who is going to be good or evil from the start, its easier to just answer a question and move on quickly.

    If customers would treat employees with kindness they might actually change.

  6. bobphibbs says:

    great insights Britt, I think you’re spot on that it is easier to be nasty. I know from personal experience driving that I have to practice what I preach!