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Staff Requires Trust to Render Good Service

You don’t generally go to an International House of Pancakes expecting outstanding service--it’s basic fare served with expediency. Yet in the course of a $4.95 chicken dinner at the restaurant on Figueroa, waitress Maria Licata cheerfully explains how to save a dollar or two by forgoing salad and carrots, suggests that a little honey would go well with the roast chicken and notices that a drop of catsup might get on a customer’s sleeve. Pretty soon, you forget the pervasive smell of syrup, and you feel that you’re in the finest place in town.

It’s not surprising to hear her say she loves her job. In this modern world where quick service often translates into no service at all, it’s refreshing to find somebody who cares about the customer.

In the wake of the rush to self-serve, some gas stations are rediscovering the art. A Chevron dealer in Klamath Falls, Ore., wears a tie and sees that every window is cleaned. At the Union 76 station in Studio City, service manager Tom Naber displays an attitude that he’s there to solve problems for customers rather than just doing them a favor by working them in. A driver stops in with a car that had been in a minor accident, leaving it with a noisy cooling fan. One of the station’s mechanics interrupts to take a quick look and fixes it on the spot--and at no charge.

Now the department stores have stumbled on service as a way to cope with the low-price, no- sales-clerk-in-sight formula of the discounters. As Nancy Yoshihara reported recently in The Times, the stores are beefing up their sales staffs and giving them new incentives to serve people better. Sales associates (a more attractive title than clerk) are being given more information about the merchandise and more training in how to deal with people. It’s a good start. But there’s a lot more to service than product information and a Dale Carnegie course. Part of the problem is to get the bureaucracy out of the way and let good salespeople follow their instincts. Let’s wander through a couple of department stores to stress the point.

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In the luggage department of The Broadway in Sherman Oaks, a woman showed up with a flier announcing a sale on briefcases. Trouble is, she didn’t notice that the sale didn’t start for a few days. The assistant manager of the department, Joey Terreri, pointed that out to her and said it was against store policy to offer the sale price ahead of time. What she could do was pay full price and come back for a refund after the sale began.

It sounded like a needless waste of time--to her and to Terreri. Fortunately, Terreri had the sense to get on the phone to his boss and insist that he was going to honor the sale price. It wasn’t quite that way at Robinson’s in Pasadena when a customer brought back some perfume found to have specks of dirt in it. The sales person looked a bit unbelieving at the item, asked for the sales slip, called other sales personnel over to have a look and then went to find a supervisor. She insisted on taking the customer’s credit card and ringing up a whole new transaction, all the while keeping the customer waiting and slightly embarrassed.

The problem in this case wasn’t store policy. “It should have been a simple exchange involving no credit card at all,” says a Robinson’s official. The problem was that the clerk believed she lacked the authority to make a decision.

Considering that many department stores haven’t stressed service for many years, it’s not surprising that they face a real task educating their people. Sales jobs, which once were held in some esteem, lost attractiveness as stores began emphasizing price and volume. Now there’s a chance to restore some of the excitement to the job, but it will involve some risk- taking by the stores. They have to be willing to rely on the sales associates to make on-the-spot decisions--and to heck with a lot of inhibiting policies.

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Giving the people on the spot more authority has advantages that outweigh what top management may see as a loss of control. Above all, they’ll feel good about their jobs because they have some control over them. And when the situation calls for it, they’ll be a lot more likely to take matters into their own hands and really respond to a customer’s needs.

Then it will be clear who’s really in charge. It’s the customer.


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