At 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.]