The Best Customer Service Lets Intelligent Human Beings and Intelligent Software Support Each Other

Wally Bock demonstrates the power of a strong, informed staff through his own experience.

[Editor's Note: I received three articles in close succession, offering different slants on customer service. jl scott (lower case at the author's request) talks about accepting responsibility, Tim Geiger discusses building loyalty through great service and great employees, and Wally Bock demonstrates the power of a strong, informed staff through his own experience. At the bottom of each, you'll find direct links to the others. This originally appeared in Wally Bock's Monday Memo]

Karl was awesome. When I was going to college and still in the Marines, I worked part time at a wholesale liquor store where Karl was the manager.

Karl knew the people who shopped with us. He knew what they bought and how much. He knew how they liked it packed and delivered. He knew who he could trust for credit and when.

Karl also knew the merchandise. He'd memorized the code for just about every item in the store, along with their prices and standard packaging. He knew what products could be substituted for others. He served his customers and his employer by mixing the knowledge he had of customers and products to make sure that we gave great service at a profit.

Karl was exceptional. Folks like Karl are always exceptional. But there was a time when they were more common.

When my grandparents went shopping around the turn of the Twentieth Century, they would go to a store where they were served by a clerk. If they were lucky, that clerk would be more like Karl than not. They wouldn't have a lot of selection. There would be few branded items. They would pay in cash.

They lived in the city, so they might shop at one of those new innovations, the department store. Department stores, offering a wide variety of merchandise had been springing up in major population centers. They were a bit like walk-in catalogs for city folks.

If they'd lived on a farm, they probably would have tried that other big innovation in shopping from the late nineteenth century--the catalog. Catalog retailing as we know it began in 1872 when Montgomery Ward began supplying goods to members of the Grange. In 1894, Sears, Roebuck and Company was incorporated and by 1897 was offering a 786 page catalog that offered just about everything you could want, from hoes to houses.

The Twentieth Century brought many changes, including changes in the way we shop. A look at what those changes were, why they happened and how they worked may help us make choices here in the opening years of the Twenty-first Century. Each innovation grew out of need and opportunity. Each innovation caused effects and consequences. And those effects and consequences mixed with those of other innovations to create a new shopping world.

Self-service came first. In 1916, Clarence Saunders opened the first true self-service grocery store in Memphis. He named it Piggly Wiggly. No one is sure why. It had open shelves and items were individually priced. Shoppers received shopping baskets to help them gather what they wanted. The concept worked.

Saunders loved the idea of self-service. After he left Piggly Wiggly over some stock offering irregularities, he tried to develop two other concepts along the same line, but using more and fancier technology. In 1937, he opened a prototype store called "Keedoozle" (for "Key Does All). It worked a bit like automats would work in later years. The concept failed.

When he died in 1953, Saunders was hard at work on a concept called "Foodelectric." That concept died along with Saunders.

At first the innovations that made self-service go were simple ones. They were as simple as the checkout counter and shopping basket. But even those improved over time.

In 1937, Silvan Goldman, a merchant in Oklahoma City saw that some folks were having trouble hauling around heavy shopping baskets. He took a couple of folding chairs from his office, mounted them on wheels and set baskets on them. The first shopping carts were born.

At first nobody wanted to use Goldman's carts, even though they multiplied the number of goods a shopper could move around the store with. Folks seemed to think that they might appear weak, or helpless, or (gasp) unfashionable. So Goldman hired attractive, healthy models to push the carts around his stores, pretending they were shopping. He assigned a worker to greet shoppers and explain how the carts worked. Soon everyone was using them.

Later, innovations got fancier and more high tech. Barcoding debuted in 1974. This helped automate tasks from checkout to inventory management. Computers have also helped manage the mailing lists of catalog companies and communication over the net.

Over the century stores and selections got larger and larger. In 1930 when the first King Kullen Supermarket opened it was considered a giant at 6000 square feet. And it was, since it was four or five times larger than the average food store. But you could fit ten King Kullens into one of today's giant superstores.

So where are we now? During the holiday season, I went shopping at a local electronics store. I was interested in a digital camera. In the world of my youth, electronics stores were staffed by folks who knew something about electronics. That's evidently passť.

I flagged down one red-vested fellow as he wandered down the aisle. He was cheerful enough. "How can I help you?"

I told him I was interested in digital camera and wanted some help sorting out the sixteen models that the store had on display. "Sure thing," he said, "What do you want to know?"

I asked a question about one of the models. The young man pulled a card from under the camera on display and started to read me some information. I stopped him. "I can read the card," I told him, "and I have." I re-stated by question. He read to me from the card. We repeated that dance a couple of more times before I gave up.

The young man I was dealing with didn't know anything about the products he was supposed to sell. I have no idea if he knew about any other products in the store, but as far as digital cameras, what he had was a red vest, a company ID, and the ability to read product literature aloud. My experience was the same at the office supply store and the department store.

In many ways, that experience is typical of today's shopping. There is an incredible array of products available. You can buy them in lots of places--in a store, on the Net, from a catalog. You can pay for them, even on a distant continent, with a credit card that clears almost instantly.

What's missing is that knowledgeable owner or clerk. What's missing is Karl. The folks who serve you at most of the places you shop probably don't recognize you. They almost certainly don't know much about your preferences. They usually don't know much about the products the store sells.

People want the idea of Karl back. In fact, most of us have only experienced a few folks like Karl in the places we shopped. Like the idea of the yeoman farmer tilling the soil in pristine purity and the idea that schools actually used to work, Karl is more ideal than reality.

Still, we're trying to create Karls on our websites and in our stores today by using software. That's a mistake. It's a mistake because software can only replace humans imperfectly. Software, by itself, is what gives you those marvelous voicemail trees that lead you to dead ends and ask you to choose among four choices, none of which is what you want.

If you doubt this, I invite you to visit any site that uses personalization. Amazon is one of the best. When I visit it usually (but not always) greets me with: "Hello, Wally Bock. If you're not Wally Bock, click here." Can you imagine Karl greeting me as "Wally Bock?" It might be "Wally" or it might be "Mr. Bock," but only a software program could think that greeting me by first and last name is a friendly greeting.

Software is good at some things, but not everything. Software is great a scouring databases for information, presenting choices based on prior experience, or filling in forms.

What human beings do that software can't is answer the question you don't know how to ask. What human beings do that software can't is tell you that they sometimes make mistakes in ordering, too.

Here are some suggestions for using software and other technology to improve the shopping experience.

Use a mix of software and human beings to sell and to service. Give folks using technology the option to deal with a human being. Use the software to support the humans, helping them be more effective and efficient. Use training to do the same thing.

Aim for a common experience no matter where folks experience your business. Shoppers expect you to be the same company whether they're talking to you on the phone, using the website, visiting a store, or using the catalog.

As you do that, remember the sources of the innovations that worked. Clarence Saunders self-service concept was a dramatic success when it was simple, but when Saunders put the technology first, his concepts quit working.

Many innovations, like the shopping cart, build on other innovations. Remember, too, that many times you must show and sell folks on even the best ideas.

Everything, every innovation that works, must be rooted in people's needs and want. Every one that works must be tried and modified. Every one is born into a messy world where human perception and prejudice have a say. The next hundred years will change shopping even more, mostly in ways we can't imagine.

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