Noah Parsons, our COO, raised a good point last week in his post on the sometimes squandered customer service advantages of local businesses. Although in theory local companies should be better than chain-store corporations at being friendly and familiar to local customers, the reality is sometimes the opposite. It depends a lot on the outlook and approach of the individuals running and staffing the specific local store.

Sometimes, though, a corporation is just clumsy enough to doom its employees to customer service failure, regardless of their efforts. Here’s a quick example, something I posted on another blog recently:

We live two blocks from a Safeway store, but we still tend to shop at the Albertson’s down the hill, where the clerks know us and we already know where to find things. There’s also something I really hate about our particular Safeway: its commitment to friendly, personalized customer service.

Friendly and personalized are not generally offputting, depending on your default level of misanthropy, but phoniness and bad faith are.

It appears that someone in the Safeway chain of command, perhaps fresh of a “Cheers” marathon on Nick at Nite, decided that the modern world is a lonely, atomized place, a community lacking in community (which is probably true), and that what we all crave is a return to the bucolic small-town America where we all belong together and everybody knows your name. Hence, when you check out at the Safeway, the clerk gives you a smile and says, “Thank you, Mr. Cochrane!” and you are supposed to leave with a warm glow.

Except theory is not implementation, a sad lesson that anyone responsible for setting policy needs to learn quickly. In the Safeway model, here’s what actually happens:

The clerk does not actually know my name, especially not my last name, which is required since the Safeway policy favors the nostalgic “Mr. Cochrane” over the more contemporary “Josh” (or the more fun “Master of Darkness,” for that matter). They are supposed to know me, but they don’t, just as they don’t know the names of virtually all of their customers.

No problem, says the policymaker, it’s on the receipt, thanks to the Club Card I’m supposed to provide every time we shop to avoid being overcharged for sale items.

There are two flaws with this solution. First, the clerk does not have time to slyly review the receipt; when it’s ready, they are already reflexively handing it to me. And more confusingly, since I was annoyed with the card requirement when the program first started, I’ve never bothered setting up a card of my own. Grandpa Mike got one, and I just use his phone number.

I’m not sure if that’s subversiveness or laziness. Regardless, though, when my purchase is complete, the Safeway clerk takes my receipt from the register, says “Thank you, Mr…,” holds the receipt out so they can see it (despite the fact I’m already reaching for it), reads “Alexander,” and gives me a smile. I smile back. If my 11-year-old daughter’s along, she cracks up, because we have agreed making people do that is the dumbest version of customer care yet.

At the Albertson’s, where we shop more regularly and have for years, the clerks don’t necessarily know our names, but they know us. They ask about the kids, about the weekend soccer games, about the Ducks’ chances. It’s a real version of what the Safeway policy is trying to imitate.

And when the Albertson’s managers, in their own hamfisted way, require the clerks to pitch the Scorching Deal of the Day to every customer or it’s free (”Did you see our Flaming Hot Cheetos for only 89 cents?”), the clerks roll their eyes as they say it, and we laugh back, and we leave the store with a warm sense of community.

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Got your own example of disingenuous attempts at “friendly” customer service that left you cold? Share them in the comments — I’d love to hear.

Josh Cochrane
Director of Online Marketing
Palo Alto Software

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