Kill Your Customer: Classic Customer Disservice

A friend of mine was in a Borders yesterday looking for a couple of books. She sat down on the carpeted floor in the travel section so she could comfortably pull out a few titles from a low shelf and check them out. A clerk came up and said, “Ma’am, customers are not allowed to sit on the floor.” She asked if he had a chair, and he said she would have to go to the cafe if she wanted to sit down.

They haven’t invented the right profanity for this situation yet, but let me express why it deserves one most sour: These are the days in which bookstores are going down. Amazon, ebooks, self-distribution, shortened attention spans—there are a raft of reasons. In this time when bookstores are at least on the threatened, if not endangered species list, you tell a customer they can’t sit in the store when they are looking at books? Greatgodalmighty!

When I was a kid, one of my greatest delights was to go to the library and surround myself with books I pulled off the shelves. I sat in the aisles for hours sometimes, lost in the world of words. Many years later (and the jobs years apart), I managed a couple of bookstores, even one owned by a corporation. There was no stiff-backed rule about sitting in the aisles—I couldn’t imagine shooing a customer away like that unless they were putting ice-cream cones in the books, or taking Magic Markers to them. Of course, of course, you don’t want your customers literally blocking the aisle, but this wasn’t the case.

Howl of Customer Cruelty
The kicker is that besides looking for a travel book, my friend was looking to buy a copy of Howl, the seminal Allen Ginsberg work. Why Howl? Because one of her clients is a poet. The client is moving to New Orleans, and she wanted to give him a gift. THAT’S customer service. Her customer is leaving, yet she is making him a generous gesture. That’s rising above—not practicing rule-making folly.

Don’t treat your customers like trash in your aisles. Find a connection, not a stiff-stick-up-the-rear rule. Share life’s poetry with them instead.

And for surviving my rant, you get a bonus treat: here is the last paragraph of Sunflower Sutra, one of the selections from Howl. Let’s be sunflowers instead of automaton clerks at bloodless corporations.

--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
sitdown vision.

16 thoughts on “Kill Your Customer: Classic Customer Disservice

  1. Tom,
    I worked at Barnes & Noble for 3 years as a bookseller, within the last decade so it was rather recently, and if you knew how dirty those carpets were you’d want to get the customer into a chair too. But usually if they weren’t blocking foot traffic I’d let them sit there. Usually, however, they were blocking traffic because the aisles were so narrow.

    We had a regular who would come in a lie down and sleep in the aisles. He was homeless I guess and needed a place to sleep. We’d find him in the Mythology section snoring on his back, and would take turns waking him up and kicking him out. I believe he was a professional gigolo, and was propositioning female customers.

    I’m not saying that your friend is a female gigolo who sleeps in the aisles, even if she does read Ginsberg. However, the Borders bookseller probably only had her best interests at heart, looking out for her health and safety. Indeed, one could say he was guarding her pocketbook in these rough economic times, provoking her NOT to buy either the travel book or the Ginsberg! Good man! Would that there were more such.

    Now, back to my online shopping experience at B&…

  2. Daniel, I’m with you on the general circumstances of not wanting people lolling in aisles and as for your mythological gigolo, I can match him with the guy who took full showers in our bookstore bathroom, so that when you walked in later, there was about 1/2 inch of water on the floor and EVERY paper towel was used, and on the floor too. Dear me.

    What I’m talking about here is just a rigid, unthinking policy. Agreed, the clerk was just enforcing rules he may have thought stupid himself, but there’s no creativity in it, no sense of exploring how we might make this customer happy—instead it’s just “move along here.” Bookstores, even corporate ones, can do better than that.

    You do have to watch out for those Ginsberg readers though—at least she wasn’t carrying her harmonium…

  3. Where does a woman strong enough to carry around a harmonium sit while perusing books at Borders?

    Anywhere she wants.

  4. While the aisle in a bookstore shouldn’t be the equivalent of a private hotel room, unless someone is camped out for that kind of reason, you’d think that the endangered bookstores would be making their customers feel as comfy as they could. Aftter all, if there’s an experience worth talking about, they’ll come back. If it looks like Amazon but smaller and with walls, then they’ll shop at Amazon.

    Like this:

    And Tom, on my latest post, I might have actually mentioned teeth but more relevant to your discussion I have suggested a bar stool design which could be readily adapted to bookstore aisles, solving this dilemma. You see, the time that you can spend sitting on one would be limited, as the balance requires a lot of effort. What with the three asymmetrical legs and all…

  5. Rick, the Montague Bookmill sounds like a dandy place; even their directions have some personality.

    And of course barstools and bookstores go together like mustard and antimacassars, or something like that. Thanks for keeping the faith (or if that’s too burdensome, for keeping the counter clean).

  6. Well, not until you suggested it, Tom.

    Actually, some would say that being a psychologist prepares me nicely for a career of nudging people to use intuition, rather than rationality, to find meaning in stories.

    Why don’t chain bookstores install the barstools and reinvent themselves as the new/old place for singles to mingle?

  7. Annie, bookstore bars are a fine idea, though the water rings on the new publications might be a problem. Having worked in a bookstore cafe before, adding alcohol to the mix might bring the poet out in many a patron (literary taste beware!). But I’d certainly spend some time in Books ‘n Booze.

    Hey, do you psychologists ever take a break or are you always (draw back in fear) psychologizing?

  8. OK- we’re really on to something with these tooth-pulp-shaped-three-legged-barstools for bookstores. The advantages:
    -Allow patrons to hang out awhile without being shooshed away by staff.
    -Yet Teetery enough that they won’t browse TOO long, or camp out, or come to think of the store as their personal hotel room.
    -Attract singles mixing.
    -Adaptable to alcoholic beverages or the caffeinated varieties.
    -Purple Cows fer sure, especially if they’re actually purple three-legged barstools.
    -Finally, gives the sales force the excuse to say, “We have a grand plan to recharge the brick-and-mortar bookstore business in the face of competition from the online and eBook models. Allow me to show you our stool samples…”

  9. Rick, your arguments are compelling indeed—I think Amazon shareholders are shaking in their electron-enabled boots. We may have to make an adjustment or two to the stools for OSHA though: seat belts. But they can be stylish as well.

    As for the stool samples statement, I can’t even dignify that comment with a comment (mostly because my dignity is at the cleaners).

  10. A polite move for a pro salesperson would be to …

    … offer a chair. Whiz out a camping foldable tucked between shelf crevices, if nothing else, would leave a positive impression about this chance. I do anything within reason to retain a customer.

  11. Bernd, yes. Of course an engineer would figure out a simple solution: have small folding chairs, easily stored, easily available, in a few niches in the stores. Perhaps you should go into the save-the-bookstores consulting trade?

  12. Tom, that’s a myth about us psychologist-types that we’re always turning the psychologizing ear on others.

    Sometimes we’re not even listening.

  13. Tom, I don’t mean to go off on a tangent like I do on that OTHER thread- well, yes I do, but anyway- one of my super-talented repair guys had taken two of our actual dental stools just last week for re-upholstering. So of course I used that line on him as well… Hey, I HAD to see what they’d look like, right? So a sample is a perfectly reasonable request.

    Now for the wainscoting refurbishing…

  14. Rick, you’ve inadvertently come up with a stellar design idea: wainscoting on stools! How elegant, how distinctive, how utterly unnecessary. I look forward to seeing them in the next Pottery Barn catalog.

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