3 Retail Customer Service Stories To Get You From Cringing To Caring

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Published June 11, 2017, Updated August 26, 2022

I have been a loyal Nordstrom shopper for decades. It was the pinnacle of cache to buy from Nordstrom. Exclusive. Quality. Service. For many years one salesman at their Cypress store helped me pick out my on-camera wardrobe.

Once I moved to New York though, visiting their stores could only happen when I spoke in cities that had one. The service level I see there on those occasions has dropped off a cliff as you’ve probably read or experienced, but …hope springs eternal.

I was in their South Coast Plaza store and witnessed no greeting, no interaction, and no effort to engage strangers. Several of the associates were standing at their counters having great conversations – with each other.

After walking around the men’s department, the same two guys whom I had spotted when I came into the store were still talking to each other - on the sales floor, one with his cell phone out - texting as they spoke.

I could see an older guy in shorts and a t-shirt trying to get their attention. Finally, he walked up to them as they were both looking down at the phone and sheepishly asked, “Do you work here?”

I couldn’t believe my ears and then one of them simply answered, “Yes, what do you need help with?”

No shame in being called out for not paying attention to him.

No regret for not recognizing the guy had been trying to get their attention.

No embarrassment of texting on the sales floor.

It was later reported that Nordstrom was exploring going private to not have to answer to Wall Street. A New York Times article quoted Christian Buss, a retail analyst from Credit Suisse, “The brand is also known for investing in customer service, as other retailers look to cut costs in unprofitable stores.”

What was the customer service investment in these two? Why were they on the floor? So they could look like models while texting on their phones?


In all fairness, Nordstrom responded to my tweet of the interaction with, "Rest assured, your feedback has been shared with our team" which is a start.

But there’s just something lacking in customer service … in retail and elsewhere.

I was on a United flight to Chicago when a very large woman in first class pulled out an extension belt from her purse before buckling in. The stewardess came over and said, “I’ve never seen anyone bring their own. How smart you are.”

Later, as I was waiting for my carry-on on the jetway, I noticed an empty wheelchair and some kind of commotion. The guy who was manning the chair was telling the gate agent, “I don’t care if I do get written up, I’m not going to hurt myself for her.” The gate agent agreed, “I know what you mean.”

It didn’t really sink in for me until I was walking down the O’Hare concourse and came upon the woman being pushed in a wheelchair by her husband. I could hear how upset she was.

Then it all became crystal clear what must have happened: the woman had ordered a wheelchair upon arrival and that guy had refused so she had to walk up the jetway to the top and her husband had to find a wheelchair to get them to the next gate.

I was infuriated and brought them over to the United desk and, asking for a supervisor, told this couple’s story. The supervisor was as shocked as I was. The man added, “And we were flying first class.”

What is it about customer service that is missing around the world?

My LinkedIn contact, Dr. Ken Matheson, shared this story ...

"Just went into Myers Australia to purchase a $300 bottle of perfume. Staff scattered as usual. Finally, a security guard who had walked past me came back and asked if I was being served. He went off to the area boss and asked for a salesperson to attend to me."

“He had an animated conversation for a couple of minutes before he instructed the girl standing next to him to serve me. She called on another girl to do it.”

“That is why department stores are going the way of the dinosaur. If I had time I would have used their web page. It works fine. No human interaction required.”

All of those stories should make you cringe.

3 points the world needs to get about customer service:

  • Employees didn’t see things from the customer's standpoint.
  • No supervisors were there to alter the events.
  • Any training on customer service was non-existent.

Let’s take the first point that employees didn’t see things from the customer’s standpoint. This comes from a lack of perception. Perception is defined as a quick, acute, and intuitive cognition or appreciation with a capacity for comprehension.

The customers in all three examples simply weren’t seen as customers – or even as people who ultimately pay the employees’ salaries.

And these could not have been isolated incidents. I’m sure all three had happened before - many times - without consequences. Supervisors were either blind, mute, or clueless about their job of managing their employees.

Heck, I know many Nordstrom employees read my blog on a regular basis; it’s not that they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, it’s that even though they know, they don’t do it. It appears to be systemic to the culture.

Twenty years ago The Nordstrom Way was required reading for most upscale retailers. According to the book, the underlying philosophy and culture of the Nordstrom Way are “disarmingly simple: Use your own initiative to provide customers with exceptional levels of service. You’ll never be criticized for doing too much for a customer, only for doing too little. If you’re ever in doubt, err on the side of doing too much rather than too little.”

That makes for great PR but quite simply “our brain is inherently lazy and will always choose the most energy-efficient path if we let it,” writes Tara Swart, in her book Neuroscience for Leadership.

Without supervision, even with great retail sales training, employees will default to doing the minimum. These days they pawn off helping someone to another employee, as Ken witnessed, or they go their own way, oblivious to shoppers, as I witnessed.

That lets employees get away with defining your brand as uncaring and certainly doesn’t move the needle to compete with online retailers. In fact, it does just the opposite.

That brings us to the last point, customer service training.  As I’ve said in my primer, retail customer service involves those small interactions when an associate is waiting on a shopper that should make the shopper feel like they are the most important person in the store.

Many retailers use customer service and customer experience interchangeably, but they are not.

Customer service is one-on-one between a salesperson and a shopper. The customer experience is the customer’s entire event of shopping in a brick-and-mortar retail store, from the moment they arrive in the parking lot all the way to the time they are back in their car.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have a big advantage over Amazon because they can raise the emotional response of their shoppers and add serendipity and engagement to get a higher average ticket.

Remember, online is about the product, and in-store is about customer service.

Don’t confuse the two.

See also, 50 Things Retail Employees Should Never Do

In Sum

With online retail growing every year, retailers with physical stores are discovering that they have let their customer service decline over the years, and as a result, the entire shopping experience for their customers has kept them from coming back.

The unique advantage brick-and-mortar retailers have is that they can control the entire customer experience within their four walls. But how do you do it? That’s the key.

Retail customer service needs training. That propels the learner to adopt conscious processing of inputs, conscious decision-making, and conscious exercising of self-control – especially if they are on the sales floor.

And that takes a consistent focus on inspecting that associates are using what is learned, and not just getting through the learning.

I had a guy tell me last week that he kept reminding his staff what to do but to no avail. I told him, “Your job is not to constantly remind – they either don’t have the will or the skill to do it themselves.”

You can’t just learn a new language, a musical instrument, or take a retail sales training lesson and never think about it again; you’ll forget what you learned.

Video NAMM training

As you can see in the above short video from one of my keynote speeches, you don't train until they get it right once; you train until they can't get it wrong before adding another piece of training.

While many retail organizations think that retail salespeople are the only ones who need to excel at retail customer service, anyone who answers the phone, who is at a buy-online-pickup-in-store desk, a warehouse worker, or a driver—in short, anyone who serves a customer—needs to know not just a philosophy of others first, but the exact steps to deliver it again and again.

You can’t create an exceptional customer service experience unless everyone knows exactly what that looks like.

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