Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When The Customer Wasn't King

When Southern California met Nordstrom in the late 70’s we were instantly addicted. What started out as a small, successful shoe business in Seattle, Washington turned into large department stores with the Nordstrom family eventually meeting the Segerstrom family of Orange County and making a deal to bring their store to South Coast Plaza.

We were transfixed. They brought a whole new concept in customer service into the arena, unmatched by anyone at that time. I’ll admit, I am a huge fan of Nordstrom. I am a past employee of one of their stores and after going through their orientation and working in their store I am impressed.

What doesn’t impress me though, is what has happened to our nation because of what I like to call my King theory. Businesses and people are all suffering because of it.

Nordstrom was a pioneer in the customer service field and many businesses followed suit seeing their huge financial success. They had a radically lenient return policy unheard of at the time. During my orientation they addressed their theory. Nordstrom said research showed their profit margins continued to soar even while taking returns on anything and everything they sold in the store, no questions asked, no receipt required, no time deadline; no rules whatsoever. No manager had to be called to sign anything, no special keys required to open the register for doling out the cash you wanted back, you simply got whatever you asked for. It was heaven on earth, everyone’s dream store, and the place where you were always King.

Sadly, as this customer service concept swept the nation, it taught the customer that short of stealing, any behavior as the King was ok, even when it came to the way you treated employees. Wrong, isn’t it? We’ve all witnessed it. The obnoxious customer with the employee trying their best to cajole, right a situation, and the customer taking their King posture and demanding a higher authority. The supervisor or manager then responding and immediately looking to the Kings needs and wants and demanding the employee make the King leave happy. Usually followed up with the employee being reprimanded on how to better serve the King in the future; or else! It really is a disgusting display.

I love to read books written about the simpler times in American history, and small town life across America written by authors such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Bill Bryson. Those were the days when the customer wasn’t King. If you walked down to the town department store you knew everyone. If you treated someone wrong, whoever owned the store would have probably told you to leave, behave or called your parents. Did adults treat sales associates, cashiers, receptionists or servers in the despicable manner they often are witnessed doing on a daily basis now?

People’s lives are more difficult and stressful as the years continue and the strain is beginning to show. Jobs are scarce. Real estate seems to be at a standstill in many areas. Money is tight. The list goes on. What happens? People who have lost jobs are hurting, stressed and scared. Responsible people are staying in unhappy job situations simply because they have to in this rough economy. People who overspent and lost their dream homes, trailers, boats and cars are now living within their means and not very happy about it.

I've worked in many service industries and watched and learned a lot from seeing Kings in action, the very good ones and the worst of the bunch. I didn't mind serving them because I knew they needed to feel some power, even for just a little while. My goal was to be humble and allow them that short period of time to be King. I was there to do a job, and I could suck it up. I used to call it "serving up some humble pie."

Many people who feel powerless in their lives, marriages, homes and jobs can walk into any situation as a customer and be the King. It probably feels good. They are craving a serving of humble pie because they aren't getting any in their own lives. Ministers I know tell me there is a church wide problem with volunteers getting on power trips because of basically wanting and needing to be the King. Powerless in life, they come into churches and run rampant trying to take over committees and wreak havoc on a church. That’s all we need when Christianity is needed more than ever and church attendance is down.

We sure don’t need the same power trippers who have been rude to our service personnel coming into our churches and ruining our experiences there either. Haven't we all volunteered in a variety of situations? I sure have. Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, PTA, churches, philanthropic organizations; the scary volunteers who need power are all there turning what could be a good experience into a circus and making you wish you'd never signed up. So, turn around scary power tripper. Go home powerless little person and pray, work on your marriage, family life, thank God you have a job (or get one), and start spreading kindness wherever you go.

We can all start by thanking every single person who serves us. Look them in the eye and thank them. How about putting our phones down and saying thank you, eyeball to eyeball? Taking 5 minutes to fill out the customer service form listing a persons name for good service. What about noticing someones name tag and thanking them by name? Quit complaining and say something nice. People inherently are trying to do their best.

So, you decide it’s time to go shopping, go to a restaurant, go to the doctor, dentist, buy some stamps or get your hair done. Grab your crown and your scepter, because suddenly you have been chosen King of your universe and you have the power to do good or to be King Henry the 8th. Choose wisely. And if someone else has decided to be King in your presence and they are an embarrassment to the crown it’s time to stand up and say something. We, the people need to take our power back from the power trippers who are abusing it. Put your crown on, pick up your scepter and get busy. You good Kings can take it from here.

Be the change you want to see in the world. -Ghandi