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Three Strikes…You’re Out! Six Lessons in Customer Service

April 19, 2015
bad-customer-service I liked my old HP Envy laptop. When I bought it in 2010 it was state of the art. I used it for almost five years for personal use and for contract work. It was well built, powerful and compact. But technology moves on, and things that spin (like hard disks) eventually start balking. So I decided finally early in 2015 to start shopping for a new lap top. This time, however, I wasn’t looking for state of the art but just a well-made laptop.

This proved not to be as easy a gig as I initially thought.

There’s a bewildering array of laptops, notebooks and what I’ll call crapbooks out there. Yes, there’s a quality issue in laptop land. One afternoon while returning home I thought I’d stop in at Best Buy, just down the street from my home. I happened to be the only customer in the entire store. As I watched the blue-shirted employees walking past me repeatedly, I began to feel invisible. Not a single one acknowledged me or asked if I needed assistance. I work part-time in retail (outdoor gear) and I would be promptly spoken to if I ever pulled that stunt of ignoring customers.

I quickly left Best Buy, from whom I’ve bought a lot of merchandise in the past, vowing never to return. A few days later my wife, Sue, had the experience in the same store. No wonder Best Buy has been having problems over the past few years; its once solid customer service has become virtually non-existent.

After leaving Best Buy, I walked across the parking lot to Future Shop, which was acquired from Best Buy a number of years ago. Sue and I bought our last three laptops from Future Shop. The service is better than Best Buy (some employees are on commission), but the service is still pretty shaky.

I continued my laptop search.

man-hiding-behind-computer In the end I purchased a laptop from Canada Computers near my home. While not known for great customer service, at least I was able to engage one of the employees, a nice knowledgeable young guy, in a frank conversation. I’ll call it a no-bullshit chat. He gave me the pros and cons of the different models, and was even critical of the company’s head office for how it was dropping the ball on stocking computer accessories.

Perhaps it was because I’m an old-fart and he was a young guy, and because when I’ve helped people over my near 40 years in the labor market I’ve always been straight with them, I decided to buy my laptop from Canada Computers. Plus they’re very price competitive.

The curve ball that got thrown after most of this post was written was a media release on March 28: Best Buy, which bought Future Shop in 2001 (Future Shop was created in 1982 in Vancouver by an Iranian-Canadian entrepreneur), was shutting down Future Shop’s 131 stores immediately, re-opening 65 of them under the Best Buy banner. The end result is 192 Best Buy stores (136 big box and 56 mobile stores). The loss of an estimated 500 fulltime and 1,000 part-time jobs are the end result after the re-organization.

Blame it on changing demographics, technology (flat screen TVs have a saturation point) and increasing online shopping, combined with weak customer service, and you have a recipe for corporate collapse. Many people in Canada thought that Best Buy would follow the company’s path in the US, leaving Future Shop to struggle on.

There’s nothing worse than a dead man walking in retail. Best Buy, despite the March announcement, is at that point in Canada, with empty aisles and employees who don’t give a crap. Sounds like Sears Canada. Will Best Buy’s new organizational restructuring and major downsizing effect a positive change? Perhaps, but don’t place any bets. Technology and evolving consumer spending habits march on.

Cust serv not our priority Then there’s Target’s nanosecond entry and collapse into Canada. Employees were trying very hard, but top management never had a clue. Arrogance and thinking you know the market you’re entering is a very dangerous approach, full of risk and landmines. Target, in effect, got blown up in short order, shutting down all its stores in early 2015, leaving Canada with its tail between its legs.

And how about Rogers Communications.

I must be a sucker for pain and punishment. Sue and I have been bundled (four service) customers for 15 years. Recently, we sacked our home phone (which almost required a mourning ritual) for Majic Jack (free plug here). Our ongoing soap opera has been our cable service, involving an in-home Cisco dual-box PVR/secondary box.

It would be too painful to recount my interactions with Rogers in my fading efforts to correct technical problems and broken promises. After countless hours on the phone and five visits from technicians over the past few months Rogers finally got the message and gave me what I wanted: two separate hard dish PVRs, not to mention heavily discounted internet and cable services. But I had to work like a dog to achieve this.

Rogers Communications, one of the power players in Canada’s triad telecom oligopoly, comes last in customer service, based on independent research. That’s an indictment of bad customer service when Bell comes second. Winning first place is Alberta-based Telus, known just a few years ago for horrendously bad customer service. But for some strange reason, those at the top of the company’s food chain got the message and turned around that ugly scene.

Witness the recent visit Sue and I had to a Telus retail store near our home. We’d never been in a Telus store until that day. Sue wanted a smart phone and the staff at the nearby Rogers store were indifferent, despite our history with the company and the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve paid them over 15 years. The young fellow at the Telus store was amazing–and patient. Jake knew we were Rogers customers, just inquiring about Telus’ offerings. The next day Sue returned to buy a smart phone; I’ll probably follow in the next year.

Meanwhile, Rogers sleeps.

Now that some big name Canadian and US retailers have been slammed up against the wall, let’s shift gears and look at one amazing retailer that has been in business for 114 years and that has set the benchmark for extraordinary customer service.

Nordstrum The Seattle-based company has an established folklore of customer service stories going back decades. Except they’re true.

The irony inherent in this post is that around the same time that Target announced its imminent invasion of Canada a few years ago, which not long afterwards collapsed in spectacular fashion as noted above, Nordstrom also stated it, too, was on its way to The Great White North. Not long before this post, Nordstrom opened for business on March 6, 2015, in downtown Ottawa, the nation’s capital, a few blocks from Parliament Hill in the massive Rideau Centre. Nordstrom took over the space from Sears, which had become a ghost town over the years. (Nordstrom’s first store in Canada opened in Calgary at the end of 2014.)

Nordstrom doesn’t fool around. It’s all business, focused on the market it is going to serve, bringing the values and legendary customer service for which it is known. Sue and I visited a Nordstrom store while in San Diego several years ago; it was an eye opening experience. And two weeks ago we checked out the new Ottawa store and were super impressed with one young fellow who helped us in one of the departments.

Now, one could argue that comparing Nordstrom to a company like Target is like comparing apples to oranges, or BMWs to Russian-made Ladas. Sure. Except that both companies have well established and defined consumer markets where economic opportunities reside. Witness the huge success that Walmart Canada has had over the past two decades, the result of it buying out Woolco in Canada (a once prominent US retailer).

Besides the typical high-end merchandise, with accompanying big price tags, combined with its superb customer service, some of the extras at the new Ottawa Nordstrom store include its Bazille restaurant, known for its excellent food; a children’s interactive center; a comfy waiting area, replete with couch and flat screen TV; a shoe shine service; and complimentary wardrobe service. And employees uber eager to serve you.

Expect Better Excellent customer service is not rocket science, and even providing extraordinary customer service, such as Nordstrom, doesn’t require huge brains. Here are six important lessons on customer service:

1) Visible leadership from the top, ensuring that everyone in the organization is enrolled in its mission and vision.

2) Laser focus on exceeding, not meeting, customer expectations.

3) Making every customer feel like they’re number one.

4) 100% commitment by ALL employees.

5) Constant communication–both down and back up to the top.

6) Recognizing and rewarding performers, while not accepting inferior performance from employees.

If you’re in the business of serving others, whether customers directly or indirectly, take a page from Nordstrom’s play book. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” However, you can set yourself, and your team, on the proper foundation for success by learning from the masters of customer service.

Take a moment to share your thoughts and experiences on customer service and leadership.


In the pursuit of any championship, your team must move and act as one.

– Timothy J. Leiweke (President and CEO, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment)


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2015 2:36 pm

    There are a number of things in this great article that impel me to comment!

    I feel extremely disturbed that Best Buy with their terrible service in Canada, is taking over Future Shop with their excellent corporate culture of excellence and good service, and replacing it with the lackadaisical attitude of Best Buy Canada. Too bad it can’t be the other way around! Conversely, I feel super-impressed with what you’ve said about Nordstrom. I would be shopping there (just based on your recommendation) if I lived again in a city with this store.

    One place where the free-enterprise system really does work through competition is in the area of customer service. Clearly, Best Buy Canada is losing all their customers and will clearly go the way of Target, if they don’t improve. I’m glad there are a few places that still offer superior customer service.

    The other thing that really strikes me about this article is the changes that happen in society from generation-to-generation. Twenty years ago, customer service most places (at least in the United States) was excellent everywhere; it was the NORM. From what I’m hearing, it seems to be declining everywhere.

    Actually, speaking as a parent and educator of 30 years, I think some of this decline has a lot to do with the hedonistic direction modern society has taken. Some of this is caused by technology; much is caused by television programs that youth watch while they are growing up, during their period of values formation, in their late childhood and early adolescent years. We grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and other programs that presented moral dilemmas that were resolved in an inspiring and non-egotistic manner. Contrast that with today’s programs of Mean Girls, Gossip Girl,, and shows that promote bullying as “fun” and making smart remarks as the way to show off and gain status. Combine that with the draft having been eliminated and the switch to an all-volunteer military, and people only watching news which agrees with their political points of view or personal interests due to new technologies that permit it. Society has changed dramatically, and poor service in establishments is just a reflection of this societal change.

    • April 20, 2015 2:57 pm

      Very insightful comments, Lynne. Yes, service seems to be deteriorating overall, especially in my home country. What I would call collective narcissism is at the root of the problem. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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