Was anyone helping you today?

So I walk into Banana Republic and start shopping. A guy comes up and asks if I need help. I do, in fact, need help. "Do they have these pants in black?" He goes to check.

It turns out they are out of stock, but he will be getting more in next week. The salesguy kindly writes down the store's phone number, and the pants' item number, so that I may call before coming. I found this to be exceedingly good customer service. He not only got me information, he held the promise of the pants I wanted. At this moment, he was my favorite salesperson ever.

But at this same moment, could I remember what he looked like?

Eh. Not really. He was oh, yea high, with brown hair, I think, and tannish skin. Yeah, he was definitely tan. Perhaps he was Indian? He might have been Indian. What if he wasn't Indian at all? I shouldn't say that, just in case I am wrong. What was he wearing? Did he say his name? How embarassing.

These thoughts ran through my head twenty minutes later, as the girl at the cashier asked me one very simple question: "Was anyone helping you today?"


I've noticed more and more clothing stores using this strange protocol. It basically helps assign commission to higher-performing employees. The theory is simple - if the customer says Kelly with the purple shirt was helping her, then Kelly with the purple shirt gets a little something added to her paycheck.

But what if you can't remember Kelly's name, or the color of her shirt? What if in your memory, Kelly's only identifying feature was that she was overweight? Good god.

To finish the episode, I continued to shop after the guy went away. The minute I picked up my second shirt, a nearby saleswoman asked if I'd like to start a dressing room. Fine, sure. A minute later, I picked up a skirt. "Do you want me to add that to your dressing room too?" I guess so, but you are starting to get on my nerves.

This woman added things to my dressing room. She "checked in on me." She was generally nice, but a bit intrusive. Sure, though, I suppose it was she who actually "sold" me the shirt, for no other reason than the fact that she was there before I decided to buy it, and she was there right afterwards.

So when the girl at checkout asked the question, I felt nothing but awkward. What I wanted to say was, "Well you see, two people helped me today, and the woman was technically the one to 'sell' me the shirt. But the guy helped me with a future purchase, while leaving a lasting positive impression of your store. Which the woman actually diminished. So I'd prefer to name him, but I guess I'll name both if I can. However, I can't remember what either of them looks like, I don't know their names, I can't see them from where I'm standing, and any attempt to describe them will only dig me deeper into this hole."

This response actually came out like, "Oh, uh, this lady..." I trailed off as I looked around. "Was it Kelly?" "Yes! I mean, I think so. Sure. Kelly."

I'm sure that this system works well from ten thousand feet away. Managers at corporate pore over the numbers and see that shoppers are responding, commission is being awarded, and associates are being incented to work a little harder. But when you are on the ground, standing at the desk, I believe that the system has some fundamental flaws.

First, the question implies that either someone helped, or no one helped. It's essentially a yes-or-no question. There is no gray area for qualitative feedback. I think stores should allow me to commend someone even though he or she didn't actually help me with the item I bought. What about the more general, "Did you experience good service today?" Or the more benefit-oriented, "Did anyone make your shopping trip easier?" Or the more frank, "Is there anyone you think we should pay more?" Hey - people appreciate a little honesty.

And this qualitative feedback should apply whether the response is good or bad. If someone made my shopping trip easier, but someone else made my shopping trip harder, why can't I say both? I know the cashier only has so much time when there are impatient customers behind me, but if you are taking down one name, you can take down two. If you are putting Kelly's name on the good list, you can just as easily put it on the bad list.

Second, the question forces shoppers to recall at least one awkward piece of physical information. Which is no doubt the last thing on their minds. I know that when I am in the midst of feeling distraught, because this shirt is too much money but I really love it, don't ask me to take note of someone else's personal details. They are just not that important right now.

And especially when we don't know which details are appropriate. My first identifier of the guy was his race, but that would be weird if it was right, weird if it was wrong. How about asking us to identify one specific, objective feature, like hair color? Or how about pointing to a poster of employee names and photos? (Even if you couldn't draw Kelly from memory, you could surely pick her out of a lineup). And what could Kelly do to help us remember? Wear a shirt with her name on it in large font? Escort us to the checkout? Hand us a plastic "business card" that we could give back when we pay? The shopper needs a little help here.

Finally, the whole incentive system leads employees to try to be memorable, not necessarily helpful. Because the real question ends up being, "Can you remember anyone in our store today?" That woman was erring on the side of annoying because she knew there was a chance I'd name her at the register. And you know what, I did. But if half your shoppers welcome assistance, and the other half just want to be left alone, you are going to strike out every other time. You personally might benefit from higher commissions, but your whole store suffers from the feeling of pushy staff.

So perhaps the goal shouldn't be to commend individuals, but rather the whole team. Maybe they are graded on specific attributes, so that the entire store may improve in certain areas. On a scale of 1 to 5, how friendly were our staff today? And tomorrow we ask, how helpful were our staff today? And the day after that we ask, how available were our staff today?

In a perfect world, all employees would be mind-readers, able to know in an instant whether a shopper wanted a helping hand or total avoidance. It's never going to happen quite like that. But if stores are looking for feedback on how their staff are really doing, they should think a little harder about the ways they gather it. Because when the answer isn't black and white, the question shouldn't be either.


Anand said...

simple solution..either get an easily noticeable badge on everyone, or train the employees to start their service with, "How can Kelly help you ma'am?"

PS: I am starting to love this blog..keep writing...bookmarked..

hillary said...

dude. that happens to me all the time. i hate it. i was in nordstrom recently and this girl was SUPER helpful. while i did have minimal interactions with two other women, she was the one that really helped me. when i got to the register i'm all, "uh, she had a hat on?" girl: blank. me: "um...she was african american?" i felt like such a loser. at least i was nearly positive that she was black (instead of a less certain nationality).

sometimes they say "was anyone helping you today?" and i say "no" and they apologize. i'm not an idiot. if i needed help i'd ask.

it's a dumb system. i don't have anything else to write. you pretty much got it.

Monostereo said...

I used to work at Banana and no-one works on commission. They use the amount of money you 'earn' for the store to decide how many hours you get to work for the next week. Sometimes there are contests based on the amount of merch sold.

As a former worker, I can say that I hated introducing myself to people. And as a consumer I can say that I hate it when store people introduce themselves to me. All I want to do is shop, if 'Do you need any help' could be shortened to 'help?' I'd be happy.

In that vein, though they may ask to help it is rare to get someone who's help is actually helpful. Help is generally translated to 'Let me try and sell you something that you don't really want'.

And for all of this trouble, like I said before, many of these reps aren't even working for commission. This is mostly misguided corporate thinking trying to emulate the characteristics of a well-meaning sales person as opposed to hiring/training the real thing.

Nancy said...

Sure wish some of those clothing store managers were reading this!!!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the person who is helping you can introduce him or herself and then ask for your name? It would seem polite and at the same time good customer servise. If that transaction happens then you will remember that persons name, I promise you.

Kira said...

Hi. Retail Manager here. I got my latest copy of FastCompany in the mail and that's how I found out about you. I love the blog and the feedback is very important and helpful. All I want to do is grow myself, my associates and my business... I'll keep what you have to say in mind. Thanks.

Jeannie said...

Hi, I'm a brand manager in Chicago and love your blog. I read about it in Fast Company and have spent the last hour reading your archives! Continue the great work!