Bad and Good Customer Service Examples At Saks Fifth Avenue

By Bob Phibbs

good customer serviceLongtime readers know I sometimes share both my good and bad retail customer service shopping experiences from across the world. 

What are three key elements of good customer service? The shopper is:

  •     Seen. Eye to eye contact.
  •     Heard. When they speak, they get an associate’s full attention.
  •     Engaged. A conversation is back and forth sharing.

Great customer service earns customer loyalty. It is not the same as fixing a customer complaint or dealing with an angry customers after the sale . It goes further than having a satisfied customer, when done properly it creates a raving brand ambassador on social media.

I have written about Saks Manhattan last year and their reinvention and brilliant visual display examples.This time I'm sharing both bad and good customer service examples.

Last week, I revisited Saks flagship and took the elevator up to the men’s department. I rounded a corner and standing in front of a display, was a dapper, smiling middle-aged guy.

He welcomed me to the men’s department and, noticing my lanyard from the NRF convention, asked how I was enjoying my visit to New York. I said, "I'm loving this warm weather." He replied, "Yes, but you know the snow and cold are coming next week.” I told him there would be more of those cold-weather item sales if the warm weather kept up. 

We exchanged a bit more about cold-weather clothing, and shared a laugh as he walked me around a bit more of the store. He saw I was browsing, stayed engaged, and was waiting for something to catch my interest.

Smartly, he never asked what I was looking for as I would have told him, “Just looking.” Still smiling, he bid me well while shopping at Saks as I left his department.

This guy gets it, I thought. 

His was a good customer service example. Because of his customer service skills - his ease in communicating and engaging with me as a person before he saw me as a buyer, he had quickly taken note of what I was wearing, had met my eyes, made a comment with his positive attitude and had shared his own experience. Rapport blossomed.

But as I soon discovered, the rest of the store associates didn’t get it. And I and the rest of their shoppers that day suffered as did the brand.

How to deliver a good customer service experience in retail? You have to have a branded experience that makes customers happy them came into your store. This guy hit it out of the park. He saw me, he engaged me, he heard me, and was a welcoming brand ambassador.

As I continued wandering around that floor, I noticed a lot of salespeople in suits without service skills waiting for someone to initiate conversation. I saw salespeople leaning on counters, their faces looking as if the shoppers in front of them had already failed the test of becoming buyers.

I went up a level to the designer men’s department and was captured by this display of Fear of God. Fear of God at Saks

And although streetwear seemed a bit young for a Boomer like me I thought, Saks has done such a great job, try it on.

On this floor too I saw more Saks associates holding onto counters and talking, not helping people. On my own, I located the fitting rooms and headed toward them.

Every single door was locked. No one was in them. No salesperson was to be found. Other shoppers with clothes in their hands stood waiting for someone to come.
I left and found a set of three fitting rooms. The first two were locked but the third was ajar. Score!

I put the shirt and pants on a bar and turned to lock the door. It wouldn’t lock. The fitting room was open because the deadbolt was broken.

As I changed into the shirt, I heard a woman say, to no one in particular, “If you need anything, I’m Kim.” I never saw her or heard her again.

I was standing in the outfit wondering if I could pull off the look, particularly of the over-size pants. That’s the moment when a salesperson could have swayed me. That’s when a man’s voice I had been hearing for awhile drew my notice. He was complaining about his pay and how his boss said he should sell more. He said, “I sell plenty. Am I supposed to work for free?”

I decided I couldn’t give my money to this retailer delivering such a bad customer experience, so I changed my clothes and left the items in the dressing room.

As I left, I turned to see the voice was none other than one of their associates in a cubby next to mine still talking, oblivious that anyone was there or within earshot. Another associate was deeply texting on his phone. Neither noticed me as I left.

I really liked the shirt, so I started searching the brand online and found it at Nordstrom and some other places. Then it hit me.

I went back to the fitting room where my merchandise was still where I left it and grabbed the shirt.

I went back down a level to find the guy I originally met. I looked around and from halfway across the floor I heard his voice, “You found something!”

I told him what had happened and told him how awful I felt their associates were. I said, “It is a privilege to work for this brand. Doesn’t anyone share that belief besides you?”

He didn't comment and went on to tell me a bit about the brand. I saw his name was Jimmy and he’d been there for over thirty years. Obviously service professionals like him still have a place because he earns repeat business. Customer service professional Jimmy

I was thrilled to give him the sale as a reward for the great customer service example he’d shown me.

But then again, I was surprised when a department manager interrupted our conversation at the register to ask him something about breaks. No one should ever interrupt your associates - your customer service agents - when a sale is in the final process. Geez.

Jimmy handed me his card and walked me around the counter; cementing his service experience in my mind. That was an above-and-beyond customer service experience and will remain as one of my great customer service stories. That's why I had to get his picture. That said...

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone helps us.

We should be surprised when someone doesn’t.

What makes excellent customer service in a store?

The feeling that at that moment, you are the most important person in the world.

What makes bad retail customer service?

The feeling you are all alone in a store, looking for help, an answer, a fitting room, a place to pay. Bad Customer Service signals to the shopper with money to spend, that they are not important, not welcome, and that their money and time are not valuable.

Is every member of your team in touch with the needs of the shopper? I would suggest when they stand around in felon pose like I’ve noted in many store visits, they appear to be stuck in an idea of customer service from the 30’s. That was a time when shoppers had to ask for help, people dressed up to go shopping, and there were few places to find the best merchandise.

Until or unless department stores, luxury boutiques, and brands wake up to the realities of 2020 …

That the shopper has infinite places to leave their money,

That they appreciate all it took a shopper to go through just to walk into their store,

That they understand the power of fitting rooms...

Those retailers will struggle.

Great customer service should be about how to go out of your way to appreciate how much the shopper has gone out of their way and to make them feel good about having done so.

The best customer service experience should be suggestively selling and adding-on to every purchase because it gives the customer a fuller outfit. Think upselling is sleazy or bad for customer service? That’s an attitude that will leave you settling for crumbs from loyal customers when you could have had a feast. I should have gotten the pants.

Think a shopper who buys new footwear without new socks will likely find their shoes won’t fit well.

Think a toy store that doesn't sell batteries for toys that take batteries.

Think a hardware store that doesn't add-on drill bits for a new drill.

That's how you build long-term relationships rather than just transactions. 

How much business are you losing to poor customer service?

If you’re Saks, you lost the add-on sale you could have had for a $900 pair of pants. Multiply that by the number of people who went into the fitting room and were never helped, times the number of locations, and you soon realize the enormity of the problem when retail customer service devolves to the level I experienced. And it's not just a department store problem...

In Marge Laney’s book Fit Happens she cites recent studies that underscore the importance of the value of fitting rooms.

  • Only 10% of customers who browse the sales floor are likely to buy.
  • 67% of customers who use fitting rooms are likely to buy.
  • Serviced customers who use the fitting room buy three times what browsers buy.

Let that sink in, your customer service agents who service your fitting rooms are the best way to get your product out the door - and more of it.

What is the first thing shoppers hear from your sales staff? I’ll bet it’s "Can I help you?" The problem with that is it assumes shoppers know exactly what they want. That just isn’t true. 

Something like 60% of potential customers come into a store just knowing they want something, but not knowing exactly what that purchase will be.  30% are there to touch, to feel, to compare two products. Only about 10% know exactly what they want. How you treat those 90% of people who don’t know exactly what they want will go a long way.

But does good customer service really matter in a store anymore? I think so. 

Patrice Louvet, the CEO of Ralph Lauren recently said, “If you fast-forward five years from now, 10 years from now, it’s very likely that your closet is going to look like it has three distinct sections.” Louvet said the wardrobe of a typical consumer will consist of three categories: rented clothes, pre-owned clothes, and new clothes.

Only one of those sections will be for purchased clothes from a retailer.

As customer expectations change to rent or own second-hand merchandise, the idea of fashion seasons will be harder to use to bring people into your store. The time to deliver great customer service is now. Follow the golden rule of customer service

Not sure where to start to improve your customer service?

  1. Look at what you’re teaching associates.
  2. Hire a good mystery shop company with trained shoppers keyed to notice the right details and to provide good narrative. Then ask people outside your store if they had that same experience and what grade would they give your store. Anything less than an A is room to work.
  3. Craft a set of retail customer service standards of what an engaging shopping experience should be.
  4. Train your sales people - your customer service employees - what those sales standards are and the steps that flow from one step to another to ensure those customer service standards are met.
  5. Hold them accountable. If you’re not willing to fire people for not doing what you trained, be willing to retrain or if they just won’t comply, let them go.

 See also, Bad Customer Service Examples: 50 Things Retail Employees Shouldn't Do

In Sum

The reason you should read stories about bad and good customer service are to compare your store and see similarities. Your customer interactions are judged more by what happens before they buy than after you've heard a customer's complaint.

Your ultimate goal is to get more repeat customers who reward your excellent customer service. You can't just hope you get a good Net Promoter score by limiting negative feedback.

Knowing what good customer service looks like goes a long way toward helping you hire, train, and buy. Saks was lucky to have Jimmy on the floor that day to save my sale.


It’s simple.Do it right and your bottom line grows. Fail to do it and customers like me walk out and you end up as one of the retail stores with the worst customer service.

And never keep an employee, like the guy above, who thinks they are doing everything right but is really doing nothing but turning your customer away.

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