Getting around the barrier

So I'm in Marshall Field's the other day, and I watch a very clever maneuver. A woman is buying shoes. The salesman boxes them up. He takes the shopping bag, steps out from behind the desk and walks around to stand next to her. He hands her the bag and smiles. They share a moment. She takes the bag.

This isn't the first time the "come out from behind the counter" move has been pulled. I would actually bet money that Nordstrom started it, since they basically invented customer service with "the customer is always right." When I bought pillows at Nordstrom, I distinctly remember the small saleswoman stuffing them into a giant bag, and instead of lifting it over the counter, she came out from behind the register. She stood facing me. Nothing between us but the pillows. She handed me the bag. I felt close to this woman, I really did.

I think this move is smart because it breaks through a big barrier - the sales counter. This everpresent structure is found in practically every store on the planet, but what does it really do? It holds the register, provides a writing surface, and acts as a big fat wall between you and the person who is helping you.

But instead of removing this barrier, Field's and Nordstrom have created a protocol to get around it, literally. I think it actually goes a great deal towards the perception of "personal" service. If anything, you feel as if you were helped by a real person, who surprisingly has not only a face, but a whole body! No longer just an anonymous hand giving you your receipt.

There's one more place that pulls this move, and they do an excellent job: Enterprise Rent-A-Car. When their employees show you the rental agreement, they come out from behind the counter and stand at your side, walking you step by step through the contract. The employees win because they don't have to read upside down. The customers win because they no longer feel relegated to 'their side of the wall.'

As a customer at Enterprise, I feel like the employee likes me, trusts me, isn't afraid to come stand next to me. I see how tall he is, and what kind of shoes he is wearing. He becomes a real person; it's amazingly humanizing. I remember Enterprise employees longer than I have ever remembered strangers.

Closing the deal with a physically human encounter can change the way you feel about a store, because it's truly adding a human being to the brand. Retailers everywhere should look for ways to get around the barriers in their stores. Bank tellers coming out from behind the glass. Hotel concierges standing in front of their counters. Pharmacists sitting with you on a couch. Sounds crazy, I know. But talk about a connection.


Steve Portigal said...

That's funny - I won't rent from Enterprise anymore because I always feel like I'm being pulled into some weird cult or MLM or something. I've found them incredibly shticky and insencere, peppering me with personal questions and giving me a ridiculous glad-hand that is way out of scale for the transaction.

I'm en route, I need to get my vehicle and get on my way. I don't need a relationship and I don't want to know about them and I certainly don't want to tell them more about myself than is necessary to secure the rental.

Not to mention they always seem to be located in ridiculously out-of-the-way off-airport locations.

I'd probably put up with that if it wasn't for the incredibly awkward and inappropriate (IMHO) interpersonal interactions.

sara said...

I've found that within the world of travel, you have ticket counter reps with zero empathy, flight attendants with fake personality and hotel agents with boring business mentality. I tend to welcome a little personal sharing.

And the only reason it seems out of scale for the transaction is that nobody's ever made that transaction special; therefore it is expected to be mundane. Enterprise might be trying to make it more special.

Plus, car rental for me has always been linked to exciting things like new internships and road trips. So I welcome the chance to go "Yes, I have a new job!...It's in Michigan...Six weeks...Thanks!"

Perhaps Enterprise should train its employees to identify their "open to chatting" customers from their "let's get this over with" customers, and not give everyone the same treatment.

fueledbycoffee said...

Nice observation, Sara!

Speaking of Nordstrom, I'd like to see you "review" the check out experience of Nordstrom Rack. (Especially the one on State Street in Chicago) I think of you everytime the cashiers wave a flag to get the customer's attention...