It’s Still About Customer Service

64844240_f13e32a4e8At a bookstore, a huge number of factors determine if customers buy a book from you or look for it somewhere else.  Price, selection, location (location location) and tons of other intangibles weigh on a book buyer’s mind.  However, there isn’t anything more important to a typical customer than service.  In his book Pursuit of Wow, Tom Peters notes that a hefty “70% of customers [that went elsewhere] hit the road not because of price or product quality issues, but because they did not like the human side of doing business with the provider.”  That’s a huge number of customers, and they are reacting to the most elastic and easily changed part of a store.

Social Media guru Gary Vaynerchuk also stresses the importance of customer service in his book Crush It!, especially in terms of being passionate about giving good service and addressing customer concerns immediately and aggressively.  In his address at BEA this year, Vaynerchuk mentioned that while indies sell themselves as offering better customer service than the chains, this high level of service isn’t necessarily there.  Unfortunately, I kind of agree with the man.

I’ve been to quite a few indies here in the northeast, and I’ll be honest – this belief that there is inherently better service at independent stores isn’t always true.  I’ve been ignored at stores ,  I’ve had unhelpful clerks, and I’ve had people that don’t know their stock.  Now, I know that indies have to trim staff and take on more work at their stores (especially in this economy), but it blows my mind that service isn’t more important.

What’s the point of promoting indie bookstores as the choice for better service, more expertise and a better experience than chains if we can’t actually do it?  Here’s a couple things that just feel like no-brainers – I’m sure there’s plenty I’m missing, so please chime in in the comments.

  • Greet customers when they come in the store.  Don’t be aggressive or rude, but at least acknowledge their entry into the store.
  • When a customer asks where a book is, take them to the shelf and put the book in their hands.  Don’t be an “over-there” store.  Taking customers to a section is a policy at most chains, and if they can do it we can do it.
  • If you don’t have a book, don’t just shrug it off – offer to order the book for the customer, or at least order it for the store if it isn’t too niche.
  • Don’t assume that a customer will ask if they can’t find a book they are looking for.  Don’t assume a customer will find a book if you’ve placed it in a display.  If a customer looks like they are looking for something, help them find it.
  • Engage your customers, either in-store or with social media.  It’s about community!
  • Know the stock in your store.  If you don’t know anything about your books other than the titles, you’re offering less to the customer than they get from a Google search.
  • Smile, for chrissakes!  We sell books for a living – we have the best job in the world!

If you aren’t adding anything to the in-store experience, there is no reason customers shouldn’t shop online.  If you aren’t offering an experience that feels personal and catered to the customer, there is no reason customers shouldn’t go to a chain.

Obviously, the other reasons to choose an independent store (helping the local economy, being environmentally conscious, and everything else Indiebound touts) are important to some customers.  But it’s still about customer service.  If indies aren’t offering the best possible customer service, it means someone else is doing it better.

So, am I right about this, or is customer service less important now than it used to be?  Am I being too hard on indies, or is being stretched thin not a good enough excuse?  Is shopping at an independent store an inherently different experience, and do customers expect something different on a service level?

[Editor’s Note – Obviously, there are a TON of indies that offer stellar service.  Unfortunately, there’s plenty that don’t.]

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6 responses to “It’s Still About Customer Service

  1. I think you make fair points, Josh. However, I don’t think indie bookstores are any worse than any other kind of retailer. What we have to remember is not all staff at a bookstore consider themselves booksellers — many are just doing a job, and will be happy to sell shoes next week if the pay is higher. They can still be perfectly nice people to work with, or be served by, but their instincts and commitment may not be that of a lifelong or “professional” bookseller.

    You’ve reminded me of Bookavore’s post about a certification for booksellers — maybe that would be a way to raise customer service standards. Then again, isn’t there always a panel on customer service at most trade shows? Anyway, it’s good to keep the need for great customer service on our minds, as it’s one of the most fundamental factors in the success of a book store.

  2. Rich – I guess I’m not trying to say that indies are worse than any other retailer when it comes to customer service. However, a lot of the promotion of going to independent stores seems to either implicitly or explicitly say that you’re going to get better service than at a big box. It’s tough to hear that, and then to see that customer service policies at chains hold their employees to a higher standard.

    As for some of the staff at a bookstore not necessarily all being as committed as a lifelong bookseller (and struggling to give employees enough pay and benefits to keep them invested) – while that’s true from a management standpoint, the problem is that the distinction between employees is meaningless in the eyes of a customer. If the customer service isn’t made a crucial part of the experience for a customer, the fact that the employee isn’t committed to the work won’t get the store a pass.

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  4. Another aspect that I try to reinforce with my staff is that store upkeep and proper shelving are really aspects of customer service as well.

    There are people who don’t want help from a bookseller… they’d rather find it themselves. So just by having something properly shelved we are providing another service.

    Sweeping the sidewalk and re-alphabetizing may be the unglamorous sides of bookselling, but are just as important as the book salon aspects.

  5. I love the local bookstore and grew up buying my books from them. The experience of seeing the cover, picking up the book, and reading the back is a sensory connection to that book. You can’t get that online. However, you can get that from the larger bookstores, like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Salespeople are inportant and need to be helpful with a smile, no matter which store, large or small. What to me is inportant that will set the small bookstore apart from the larger is promotion of their local authors. I understand that the price of the book to that small store may be more than the big stores are charged but just one or two ordered in and promoted by a prominent position inside the store or in a window could steer customers in and get them shopping. Support for the local bookstores is inportant, but then again, so is the bookstores support to local authors. Thanks for reading! Launa McNeilly,Author of, Lies in a Season of Tribulation

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