Independent and chain bookstores are working hard to survive. It is a tough time to be a bookseller. I want bookstores to succeed in a new world where so many books are sold online. In a perfect world, I prefer bricks and mortar and digital.
I’ve been a long time fan of Barnes & Noble. There is one near my office and I visit frequently to check out new arrivals and see what I ought to read next. And I appreciate that they stock some of my books.
But something changed. In the past it could be difficult to find someone to help. Today, it is difficult to avoid someone trying to help whether or not you want it.
An employee is usually waiting at the front of the store to welcome you. They ask what you’re looking for and, if you’re like me, you reply, “Just looking.” That usually results in a spiel about specials and book recommendations and sometimes more. It can be off-putting and starts to feel less like help and more like a hustle.
I agree that successful businesses guide and sell, but customers don’t want to be pressured and pushed. How can you tell when you’ve crossed the line? There are lessons here for anyone who want to provide great customer service.
I believe there are four levels of service:
- Avoidance. Employees aren’t visible or easily identified. You have to hunt for them.
- Apathy. You can find employees to help but they seem at the worst annoyed and at best indifferent to providing assistance. They are going through the motions.
- Assertiveness. Employees are visible, accessible and initiate contact both by greeting customers and offering to help. I’m a fan of the phrase, “How may I help you?” If the customer responds with a “just looking,” the follow up phrase is “Please let me know if I can be of assistance” No pressure.
- Aggressiveness. Employees engage everyone who comes in, regardless of the customer’s receptivity or lack thereof. As in the example above, they assume you know what you want and ask what it is you’re looking for. If you have something in mind, this can be helpful, but if you don’t (or even if you are looking for something but would also like to shop the store), you start to feel pressured. If after telling the employee you are just looking and they launch into a sales pitch, you start to be put off. It is fine to say something like “There is a great sale at the end of aisle four,” but more than that and the customer might feel pressured.
We all like employees who are knowledgeable, friendly and ready to help. But too much enthusiasm to make the sale can turn service into disservice.