May we help you?

That’s the question clerks ask — but for many shoppers, the answer is “no.” These days, customer service involves more than mere courtesy.
Saturday, April 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Jerry Wade realizes his stout “double-short size” may not be a common one. But that doesn’t explain the disconcerting remark he once heard from a clerk at a local clothing store.

When Wade, newly elected to the City Council, tried on a suit that didn’t fit, the clerk proclaimed that suits in Wade’s size are totally unavailable. Since Wade had seen his size at another shop, he knew the real score. Needless to say, the store permanently lost his business.

Bring up the topic of customer service in any gathering, and you’ll find it’s a hot issue. Are sales staffs trained? Does management ensure follow-through? And what do customers want, anyway?

“The current state of retail customer service is pretty poor,” says Charles Fishman, author of the best-selling “The Wal-Mart Effect,” who also writes on customer service. “I would gather, therefore, that the current state of training is relatively poor.”

Chainstores often don’t want to publicly detail their training practices. At Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, says a corporate spokesman, the general policy is that employees are taught “the highest level of service” and “product knowledge.”

An employee at a Gap in Columbia Mall says individual employees’ goals and attitudes are the primary reason service varies so much. A part-time student worker might not be committed to the same depth as a worker who envisions a career with the chain.

A former Victoria’s Secret employee says that as a new clerk she received two days’ training. Mainly, she remembers the emphasis on attracting new credit card customers. Clerks must ask if customers are interested in signing up, and be refused, twice. Failure to meet the credit card quota will result in the clerk being required to attend “credit card school,” which begins at 8 a.m. on Sundays.

Clerks at Gap, as well as at smaller local stores like Britches and Envy, are encouraged to help customers put together outfits. Most of the employees at Envy on Broadway are college fashion majors and trained to be fashion consultants.

“Some people don’t expect that,” says Envy manager Lori Young, yet she thinks most enjoy that approach.

But a lot of people, including Columbia College student Alis Brasen, apparently don’t. Brasen says her pet peeve is clerks who “bring things you don’t want” to a dressing room.

Overzealous sales clerks are high on the list of customer complaints.

“American Eagle used to be the type that was real pushy,” says Zac Niles, a summer camp program manager. He remembers at one point looking for jeans and being shown every pair of pants in the store.

“You want to shop there, but you want to punch every employee,” he says of insistent clerks.

So what do customers want?

“Especially being a guy, I don’t go shopping very often,” says Clinton Pfalser, one of Niles’ colleagues. He says he wants a place he can “walk directly where I want to go. I’m usually not browsing.”

He’s not a fan of trendy stores with complicated layouts that scatter items like socks all over the landscape.

Being greeted upon entering the store is something most customers expect and want but many prefer to be left alone after the initial hello.

“My expectations when I go into a store is for someone to come and ask me if I need help,” says Pfalser. “It’s weird when no one asks you if you need help. You want someone to turn down. I want to have the option.”

Fishman says, “when you walk into a clothing store, there’s a delicate balance between being helped and being overhelped.” He says he does not enjoy a clerk who “pounces on you and is aggrieved if you say you don’t need any help.”

He cites Joseph A. Bank, a men’s clothier with a branch in Columbia Mall, as having the right balance. He recently stopped by one in Philadelphia to buy a shirt. In the end, he walked out of the store with three new shirts and a hat ­— all without feeling pressured.

According to James Fisher, Shaughnessy Fellow at the Emerson Center for Business Ethics and associate professor of marketing at St. Louis University, businesses can use many methods to ensure satisfaction.

Because service is such a variable and subjective area, there’s no one definitive technique. But businesses do employ surveys, recorded telephone conversations and marketing research to keep them in touch with what patrons are thinking.

“I think some of the best companies in the area of customer service are those that listen to their customers,” Fisher says.

He cites the automobile industry as an example of one industry that has improved its focus on pleasing customers. Banks, he says, are the opposite. Automation seems to be diminishing human contact in that sector.

Retail, however, is more difficult to categorize, he says.

“When you look at retailing, you find a tough sector to compete in,” Fisher said. “Not always, but in many cases, retail sales clerks may not be well compensated, so there is a high turnover.”

At smaller, more casual stores, clerks are unlikely to be officially trained.

Arnie Fagan has owned Cool Stuff on Broadway — a funky, colorful novelty shop — for 18 years. His philosophy about training is: “They either got it or they don’t.”

But he has other marketing theories: “I’ve just built a wall down the middle, so I’ve made my store more efficient, smaller and more compact, so it’s actually going to be easier to help people because you’re closer to them,” Fagan says. “An employee can generally do a better job of customer service if they are 5 feet away from a customer as opposed to 50 feet away.”

At Dreamcatcher on Ninth Street, a small shop that sells mixed goods, general manager Yvan Carr-Chua says the necessary amount of attention varies with the product. Typically, skateboards, for example, generate more questions than clothes. All fashions in all sizes are clearly labeled on display.

“Because the store is so small, it’s easy for us to tell when you need our help,” said Carr-Chua.

Some people find smaller stores intimidating.

“A small store with nobody in it... I feel obligated to buy something almost,” says Niles.

Of course, others may prefer the personalized touch.

Jerry Wade just hopes for honest sales clerks who won’t tell him his size is non-existent simply because they don’t have it in stock.

That is what this customer wants.

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