Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Keeping the customer

Bill writes: I can’t remember where I heard it first, but an expression I’ve always liked --- it’s used to describe how fast calamity can come – is the one about someone who just “pulls a single thread and the whole sleeve falls off.”

Cut to me at Whole Foods on a recent shopping sojourn. I had a grocery list of more than 50 items, one of which was watercress, that tangy leaf vegetable with the slightly bitter peppery taste that doesn’t have many uses beyond being filler for ladies’ tea sandwiches. With produce as the first department along the perimeter from the store’s entry, it was my first stop. After several futile minutes attempting to find the item, I asked for help. The clerk couldn’t find the watercress either. He went to the back room and looked. Nothing. Sorry, sir. I looked at the rest of my long list and my completely empty cart, and weighed my options. I could continue shopping and then go to a second store for just the watercress, or bail now and get everything done together at a single (other) store. I chose the latter, and with that decision, Whole Foods was out more than $225--what I ended up spending at the competitor.

What the Whole Foods produce guy might have asked is what I needed watercress for. Had he done so, he would have found out that it was to act as nothing more than a garnish for a plate of Super Bowl deviled eggs, a green bed on which to splay and display these old school treats. Then he would have been able to suggest Italian parsley or arugula as worthy substitutes, and I would have stayed at the store.

Is this asking too much of employees? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Taking an interest in the customer has to go beyond “we’re out of it” or “it’s over there.” Finding out a “why” beyond a “what” is always a reasonable goal.
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