Monday, February 16, 2009

The customer is always right ( the way of my social life)

Let me tell you a tale of two customer service experiences which reveal a lot about what is terribly right and terribly wrong with the razor sharp edge of all marketing where your front line meets your purchaser, the art of customer service.

The first was a wet market in Chow Kit where I have just started to buy food essentials on a regular basis. It was a little bit daunting at first the market is huge but it's extremely rewarding if you are prepared to dodge flying chicken parts and wade through puddles of animal's blood and other liquids.

Here I can get served by the guy who caught the fish, slaughtered the chickens and grew the chillies. In terms of his company, him and his family, he is the brand custodian, he knows his product, he can tell you where it came from and he can tell you quite a bit about it. Despite clearly getting up at a time on a Saturday morning when many of us are just getting to bed, he's relatively cheery. His prices, even though i am pretty sure I am getting a "special price", are still a lot cheaper than the fancier supermarkets.

Which brings me to the comparative experience.

If the market in Chow Kit sold coffee beans, decent olive oils and poncy tomatoes dried to about five different stages then I'd have no need to go to a more conventional supermarket at all, particularly the sort set up to separate foreigners, who suffer from occasional culinary home sickness, from their money.

I do once a week have to visit a particularly fancy supermarket in the Pavilion and on Saturday I found myself in this very supermarket and with a basket full of over priced items approached a check out.

This and not the prices is always the worst part of a visit to this particular supermarket. Often when you approach there are one but usually two very young staff clearly making plans for the rest of the weekend, none of which involve running your grocery items through their check out.

If they do break up their conversations long enough to provide some customer service, it is only to lazily push things across the scanner whilst getting involved in conversations going on several checkouts away where, like myself, there are more frustrated customers helpless to do anything but wait until the misery ends and they are out of the store.

Instead of providing a welcoming environment, which makes you want to linger and therefore help the store's owners with their ultimate goal of shifting inventory, makes you feel like you are an un-invited, over-aged and therefore somewhat creepy guest at a teenager's birthday party.

I'm fine with this vibe in a clothing shop, because it's a great indicator I am too old to be shopping there, and I am ok with this in a music shop, I can even tolerate a certain amount of it in an Apple store as long as the young staff know at least as much as I do about the products and preferably more - but in a place where I buy bread - no thanks.

Don't get me wrong I used to have part time jobs when to put myself through university myself and spent a bright shining year as a pizza maker where I was every bit not there as these guys, however I had a boss who'd kick us up the proverbial if we ever misbehaved in front of, or disrespected, customers.

The final straw on this particular visit on Saturday and I have to say most visits to this supermarket are very, very similar, was when my cashier and his cheer squad managed to ring up something wrong with my bill and had no idea how to undo it. What ensued was an argument about who would go and get the manager that went on for several minutes and left me asking "aren't there any adults that work here".

Of course my reply was a shrug from my server and his cheerleaders and after several more minutes, during which absolutely nothing happened I grabbed my credit card and said "you know what I'll come back another time". The reply was a giggle.

So the store loses a customer, one who buys something at least once a week and I tell everyone I know, and no one ever even hears about it and the customer service staff really don't care and there in lies the problem.

The marketing department may be pretty busy tying up partnerships, running campaigns both in-store and external, managing the extremely complex art of in store marketing and point of sale for numerous brands, but it never hears that a lot of the good work it does is undone by transient part-time staff who really have no association with brand or even know they are representing one.

It certainly isn't a unique Malaysia issue. Down South the problem there as well but shows itself in a different way (yes even in the service culture of Singapore). Five people will over-enthusiastically yell "good morning" as you walk into a store which is nice, but then really don't know enough about what they are selling or have the communications skills to carry through on the initial promise.

Lets cut back to the stall owner in the wet market, he can tell you anything you want to know, he isn't sitting texting on his phone or talking to his other stall buddies or watching what is going on three stalls over while you are asking when and where the prawns were caught.

He might not have a fancy orange uniform or take credit cards but he's living his brand because he knows his brand and he knows there are 40 other guys who could just as easily take my money.

You'd be surprised how many marketers are talking about a return to values and understanding customers on a more personal level as part of their survival strategy.

I say bring it on.


Anonymous said...

You've just described the all too familiar frustrations of dealing with frontliners in Malaysia, but done it with such good humour and insight. Great stuff.

TK said...

Haha thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

There's a company out there helping their clients to brand the customer experience from the inside out and to make sure the brand gets represented well at all touchpoints, especially the ones between brand and consumer.

You can find more about them at

Anonymous said...

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