January 25, 2013
Yesterday, I brought merchandise returns from two different departments into Nordstrom. I entered the north entrance of the store on the second level and approached the nearest salesperson, Stacy, asking, “I have a couple of returns, including an online return. Should I take them to Customer Service on the third level?”
She smiled and said, “Oh, there’s no longer a Customer Service department on the third floor. Any one of us can help you with a return.”
Within the next two minutes I’d completed my returns and was on to the next item on my to-do list, grateful that, due to Nordstrom’s customer focus and efficiency, I was ahead of schedule.
You might be thinking, “Not another blog about Nordstrom’s exceptional customer service! Who are you going to profile next? Zappos?”
However, this is not a story about Nordstrom’s customer service acumen as much as it is a post about the limitations of customer service functions that consumers used to accept—or at least tolerate—when customer service used to be someone’s assigned job function.
Not that long ago, retail customer service departments were nestled in some distant corner of the store. When you arrived with your returns, you could expect a line of customers ahead of you preparing to do battle with the hardened customer service representative on the other side of the counter.
Consumers were trained to have the item’s original packaging (to avoid punitive restocking fees), a valid reason for the return, an original receipt (generally not dated beyond 30 days), a government-issued photo ID, and (assuming the merchandise was charged) the original bankcard used to complete the transaction. And they were prepared to wait, and wait…
Eventually, like the defendants addressing Judge Judy in the courtroom, customers would plead their cases to the surly customer service reps, hoping to, if not qualify for a full refund, at least salvage a merchandise credit.
Today, as consumers increasingly demand a convenient and hassle-free shopping experience (and as bricks-and-mortar retailers increasingly compete with customer-friendly online competitors such as L.L.Bean and Zappos), you’re beginning to see relaxed merchandise return policies (e.g., Kohl’s “Hassle-Free Return & Exchange Policy”), Customer Service counters are moving to the front of the store (e.g., Target, Home Depot, and Lowes), and employees are increasingly cross-trained and cross-utilized to serve customers rather than merely execute a rigid set of job functions associated with their assigned job roles (e.g., Apple Stores and Nordstrom).
Large organizations tend to rely on specialization. Because of this, functions such as human resources, sales, and customer service are often viewed by employees as separate departments and someone else’s responsibility.
Problems arise when managers abdicate the responsibility for recognizing the contributions of employees to the HR department, employees rely exclusively on the sales team to generate revenue, or frontline service providers pass customers off to a customer service department, 800 number, or website to receive service.
Like recognition and sales, customer service isn’t anyone’s job. It’s everyone’s job.
Illustration by Aaron McKissen