A whole mess of strikes

Post originally appeared in The Observant Customer 3/14/2016

Version 2

My wife and I went to our local bike shop to do some browsing. (Yes, some customers do just want to look around.) Entering the shop, we walked right into the middle of a very excited conversation with one voice louder than all others. Looking around, I discovered the voice belonged to an overly friendly employee that had obviously trapped a helpless customer. With his purchases clasped tightly in his hand and his bike lights already blazing and flashing, the customer was trying to inch towards the door while the employee continued to regale him with wild tales of his own recent bicycling adventures. The employee was talking so loudly; it appeared he missed the day in kindergarten when they teach about the difference between your indoor and outdoor voice as his carried clearly throughout the relatively small store.

My wife and I glanced at each other as we hurried past hoping that he would not engage us. Safely in the store, my wife commented about his excessive volume and his overly familiar behaviors.  Neither of which are characteristics we appreciate in a salesperson.

As my wife and I commenced our browsing, another couple walked through the doorway. Seeing his chance for escape, the trapped customer scurried through the open doors and into the night. Unfortunately, the couple walked right into the line of fire of the Loud, Eager And Friendly clerk. Let’s just call him LEAF. As a student of retail, I figured this was a customer interaction worth watching.

LEAF shouted a greeting to the couple and asked, “What brings you into the store tonight?”

The couple answered in unison, “We are looking for a bike.”

“Well, you certainly came to the right place. You must have seen the word “bike” on our sign. Was that your first clue that we were a bike shop?” Without waiting for a response, he quickly added, “Just kidding, you knew we were a bike shop. Who needs the bike?”

The woman answered, “I do.”

“Is your husband along to make sure you buy the right bike?”

“He is not my husband, he is my boyfriend. And no, he is not along to make sure I buy the right bike. I just want his opinion since he bikes a lot and we hope to bike together.”

Strike #1: LEAF made assumptions about a customer.

Making no apology for his first assumption, the clerk immediately moved into his qualifying questions with the customers.

“Okay, what kind of bike are you looking to buy?”

She stared back at him blankly not sure how to answer. After a short pause, she replied timidly, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“What kind of biking are you looking to buy?” LEAF repeated apparently thinking that repeating the same question would give the needed clarity.

“I thought you could help me figure that out,” she replied.

“Well, are you looking for a cruiser, a hybrid, a commuter, a cross bike, a tourer or something racy?”

“I am not sure. I just want something that is comfortable and affordable and that I will be able to keep up with my boyfriend. I hope to maybe get serious about riding.”

“Where will you be riding?” LEAF continued.

“Portland mostly,” she offered.

“No, I mean where will you be riding?”

At this point the boyfriend offered, “I think he wants to know if we will be riding on or off-road.”

“Oh, on the streets and bike paths,” she responded

Strike #2: LEAF asked customers questions the customer did not understand or did not know how to answer.

Along with confusing his customer with poorly worded questions, LEAF continued to make assumptions about the customer only to be corrected by her. LEAF assumed she would want an upright bike. (Not necessarily) She would want flat bars. (She actually preferred all the hand positions you get on a drop bar bike) She would want a tractor style seat. (Wrong) She was not interested in clipless pedals. (She hoped to try them on her new bike.)

The assumptions continued fast and furious.  Frankly, I was amazed at the patience of the customer. The shop should have been thankful the customers did not run screaming from the store.

It appeared that LEAF felt it was his role to make sure that customer was worthy of the bikes his shop sold. The questions continued as if he was a police interrogator trying to get a confused criminal to slip up.

Soon LEAF lost track of asking questions and moved on to telling the couple about an early season ride he had recently taken on a rainy, cold and windy day with his girlfriend who he reported “dumped him this week.” On the ride in question, he had decided to under-dress because that “toughens you up and makes you a better rider”and he had convinced his girlfriend to do the same. His girlfriend had “ended up crying for no reason.”

Strike #3: LEAF was being overly familiar with customers and sharing irrelevant or inappropriate information about himself.

This reminded LEAF of several other stories about his cycling antics and he continued to share more stories with the couple.

Strike #4: LEAF talked about himself rather than getting the customers to share about themselves.

Strike #5: All of these conversations were in a volume better suited for a drill instructor bellowing to a large group of new recruits rather than a salesperson working in a small shop with other customers in easy ear shot.

The interaction would have been laughable if not for the misery that the customers were in.

After enduring the verbal battery of the salesperson for sometime, the boyfriend finally suggested she test ride a sale bike they were shown. LEAF said that he would have to check with the manager to see if they could test ride this late as he stepped away to talk with the manager at the nearby registers.  (I was amazed that a manager had saw all this going on but showed no inclination to save the poor customers.)

Strike #6: LEAF showed his ignorance of the store policies and procedures for test rides.

As LEAF stepped away, I overheard the customer say to her boyfriend, “OH…MY…GOD, will this guy ever shut up?” I merely chuckled.

LEAF soon returned to tell the customers, “It is too dark to take a test ride, you will have to come back tomorrow during the day.”

The customer asked, “I have to work tomorrow, can you hold the bike until Saturday for me?”

Surrounded by other clearly marked sales bikes sporting pink “Hold” tags, LEAF said, “I can’t put this bike on hold since it is a sale bike.” Then for the first time during the sale, he simply stood there and said nothing.

Strike #7: LEAF did not apologize for the inconvenience, the rigid policy or all the assumptions he made during the sale.

Seeing their opportunity to escape, the couple said, “Okay, well, we will have to see” as they scurried towards the door. LEAF had no response.

Strike #8: LEAF failed to thank the customers for coming in or say goodbye.

As the customers left the store, he turned to me saying, “They won’t be back. When you have been at this as long as I have, you can just tell when people are not serious.”

Strike #9: LEAF spoke poorly about a customer to other visitors.

This floored me.  All along I had held the assumption that LEAF was an over-anxious new employee.  Supposedly LEAF was a tenured salesperson.  I could only imagine how poorly his training had prepared him for the job and how little, if any, effective coaching he received at work.

As LEAF turned to put the sale bike back on the rack, my wife and I saw our opportunity to escape as we scurried towards the doors. Once out the door, my wife said, “I wonder what he is saying about us now.”

Teachable Moment

This situation offers a multitude of teachable moments. So many in fact that had I filmed this interaction, it could have served as a foundation for an entire day of customer service training.  My only fear of using such a video would be that my learners would have doubted its authenticity.

While LEAF appeared well-intentioned, good intentions will only get you so far in retail if you do not back them up with customer centric service skills and product knowledge (and policy knowledge). LEAF’s manager was nearby during this interaction but never seemed to watch LEAF for coaching opportunities. In fact, I bet if I asked the manager, he would say LEAF is friendly, outgoing, not afraid to approach customers and is great with his customers. At least that is what superficial observations of LEAF would show.

But a skilled manage would watch with a more critical eye and realize that LEAF may do far more harm than good.

So where would I start with LEAF. It would have been easy to overwhelm LEAF coaching about the many ways he could have improved his service but that would leave him without focus and likely unable to act. With this salesman, I would focus on one thing.

Stop talking so much.

Ask a question and listen. Let the customer answer and talk. Do not share stories that do not help the customer. Let the customer share their story. Let the customer ask questions.

(I might also coach him on the volume of his voice.)

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