The Public Relations game and the illusion of Customer Service

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you are used to hearing the phrase, “Give great customer service!”   None of us really know what it means, but we nod our heads to reassure the store manager that we are indeed all about the famed customer services that corporate demands.  Oh, and bringing in those sales.

Does anyone actually know what it means to give great customer service?  Usually when it comes to retail, I automatically assume that the phrase “customer service” is more of a company mandated hands-on PR stunt conducted by each employee on a daily basis: Act like you care and hopefully they’ll give you their money and come back to give us even more of their money. For the lowly retail employee this simply boils down to a kind of daily fake display of “caring” about the customer in the way you try to pick up a random girl at the bar who’s alcohol intake has sparked possibilities of a “sale.”

It becomes fairly obvious that sales and not  people and real customer service is the priority.  The two concepts should ideally go hand-in-hand, but for the most part, it seems that they don’t.   One reason for this is because of the worldview and dare I say – purpose – of each company. What is the company’s ultimate purpose as long as it exists? Philosophy might bore those of us who slept through it, but its importance and impact is in direct correlation to what customer service is today.  

To find the truth, one must sift through the countless pandering  of online corporate twitter and facebook accounts that brag about their involvement in their local communities and come to an incredible conclusion; these businesses only care about anyone that gives them money,  harms or promotes their reputation, and returns to spend more money.  The reward they give their consumers is highly advertised “give backs” to the local communities.  Well, it is at least something, I suppose.

So why do these big business in the area give “back” to the community? Do they truly and genuinely care about their communities or their pocket books? The great Ron Burgundy from Anchorman summed it up in one sentence , “Hey everyone, come see how good I look.”   Public Relations (PR) is the name of the game. Doing good isn’t nearly as important as actually doing good in the local community.  But as the sang goes, “Image is everything.”   Would some of these large companies like Target, Walmart, ect do anything for their local community if there wasn’t enough profit that could be made and positive PR generated from doing so?  I’d venture to suggest that they probably wouldn’t.  Why? Because their priority isn’t to live as if people matter – it’s to make money.  Now there is nothing wrong with making money and generating a profit.

Here’s a blunt thought; Do retail companies actually legitimately care about any customer?  When I worked at Tiger Direct they insisted that they did indeed care about the customer above all else.  Well here is a story from inside the brutal world of retail. Prepare yourself for horror, shock, and appalling dismay.

I worked at Tiger Direct as a cashier during the Holiday season, I recall one customer had bought a TV the previous night.  He had to come back and get a replacement because the TV was actually defective. He didn’t know this till he drove all the way back home into Wisconsin and discovered this when he tried to set the TV up. So, he made rather simple request for the next TV he was about to buy: He wanted to have the TV tested to see if it worked before he drove all the way back again. I told him without a second thought or hesitation that this should be no problem and that we would be happy to do it.

Well I apparently didn’t know my store’s concept of customer service as well as I thought I did.  Relieved to take my lunch, sit down,  and munch on food that was bad for me, I was surprised by my store manager who just kind of seethed into the room. I proceeded to get an adult version of one’s principle glaring them down and scolding them for doing things in the classroom they shouldn’t.  The mini yell-down and scolding from the store manager – yes, the store manager –  only lasted for a mere minute, but it etched itself in my memory.

He informed that I had wasted the time of the sales personnel that would have to take the TV out and test it. In fact,  I was impeding on their chance to make more sales on the floor and that with certain employees in his day that would have come down to fisticuffs. He said something along the lines of that if I was going to tell a customer that a TV could be taken out, set up, and tested, I should have done it myself. I however couldn’t do this because I was a cashier and the store that day was quite busy and I was only 1 of 3 cashiers there at the time.

I recall thinking to myself, “Are you ******* kidding me?” I thought I had just performed this great simple feat of great customer service, and not because of some fake company PR customer service policy, but because I legitimately didn’t want the guy to have to waste any more time by having to come back if this TV was defective as well.  This was my newly discovered inconvenient truth of the year.

Most people who have worked retail with me hate their jobs.  In fact, quite a few of them hated customers with a passion. No, I’m serious. My daily routine at a previous job involved me hearing co-workers tell horror stories about the customer who knew and demanded too much.  Affectionate  nick-names like Medusa, Hitler, and many other expletive laced names were what those customers became known as.  In one case, the Medusa one was actually somewhat disturbingly accurate; the woman looked like Medusa with the exception of being quite overweight. 

Retail employees after just a few months into it seem almost burnt out and it may not be completely for the primary reasons we usually think of.  What am I talking about?   I too dislike retail, but its not because of dealing with unpleasant customers.  I dislike retail because of companies that require me to be fake and to deliberately mislead PEOPLE as to what they may need for any given situation.  Notice how I didn’t use the word customer and I used the word, “people.” Customers are actual in-the-flesh people who should be told the truth, not treated like unnamed and faceless piggy banks whose mere existence is  to feed the companies pockets.  Let’s be honest instead of trying to put a PR spin on everything;  attempting to sell people something they don’t need – like useless warranties – is dishonest. It might be business, but it is the mark of dishonest business conduct.  It is greed at the cost of honesty and possibly encouraging people to spend money frivolously instead of saving it for emergencies that happen way more than we like to admit.

Can business still make a profit and help the community around them?   Yes, they can, but their priority must be the ultimate customer service; genuine care for the community around them.   Some of made the mistake of vilifying profit as some kind of nasty evil in the world.  Profit itself isn’t evil, but people’ whose ultimate goal is money and not helping their fellow man can make the concept of “profit” into just that.  A question that  should be asked, “What is my purpose with which to use the money that I make?” From a Christian worldview – oh how horrible, ignorant, bigoted, and mistaken certain people will insist-  all our time and the money we make is God’s. Our obligation is to use that money to advance his Kingdom and to help the desolate, poor, downtrodden, and needy in our community for His glory. (It’s commanded, not requested.)   This communal obligation is of particular importance. Why?  Those particular sinful people in our communities  is exactly who the Kingdom is for.

Helping those who are down, distraught, and left with very little from the recession doesn’t just make sense from a compassionate point-of-view, but from a business sense as well.  If people’s lives and well-beings are restored, usually their financial situations are as well. That equates to financial return and investment into the stores in their local communities. All it takes is the most important investment – time,  which leads to making money.


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