A couple days ago, I returned a dress to Kenneth Cole in NYC. Clearly criminal behavior, based on the way I was treated. The staff seemed almost surprised that I had the receipt AND the credit card associated with it.

Once the associate began the return, he asked for my phone number. I declined to provide it. He said “they” needed it, or he couldn’t process the return. Since the card associations (in this case Mastercard) do not require a phone number for a return, the “they” in these cases is clearly the retailer. But in some cases – where providing a phone number is the shortest path between me and my money – I provide a phone number. Sometimes it’s mine and sometimes, not so much.

Since I squeaked out a weak protestation, I suppose, the associate snarkily replied, “Are you having a good morning, miss?”

Grr.

I said yes.  What I really wanted to say was, “Why? Does Kenneth Cole require a phone number AND a good attitude for a return?”

How much business do these companies need to lose to Internet shopping before they realize that they’re going to have to make a face-to-face transaction really, really good?

Which reminds me of another experience I had recently at Best Buy. I bought a not-unusual item for about $30. I paid cash. Simple.

‘Turns out the item did not have the feature I needed, so I went back to the store a few days later to return it. I had not opened the blister pack, etc. – the item was pristine.

The rep at Returns asked for my phone number. Then I think she may have asked for my email address. Since I use an email specifically for this purpose (cataloguers and the like) I gave it to her. I did ask why it was relevant for a return, and again it was the mysterious “they” who needed it.

Sidebar: Do you think there’s a “They Club” somewhere where all the theys hang out, eat candy and plot their next diabolical scheme? The TSA could run it.

So anyway, the associate has my phone number and my email and I’m holding on, I can do this, go with the flow. Then she asked for my driver’s license.

This is a problem.

My driver’s license for a $30 item? My driver’s license number is not a retailer’s business, particularly when I make a (low-value) purchase with cash. I don’t recall anyone at the store when I purchased the item having any trouble taking my cash: they only appear to have a problem giving it back.

But this post isn’t about the fact that fraud and theft have driven some retailers to do crazy lengths and that they clearly believe an employee can’t do hard things like ask for a driver’s license only for items priced at more than, say, $100.

No, this post is about creating an environment where employees and customers feel welcome and understood.

This “they” thing is pervasive – and completely unnecessary. What it means is that associates are either trained to say “they” – which would be super obnoxious – or they’re not trained for pushback from the consumer at all, and squeeze out a “they” because they truly do not know what to say. In either scenario, the retailer has pitted some innocent, often 19-year-old kid against an unhappy customer, transforming this stranger across from me into the faceless “they” – The Corporation.  And no harried consumer appreciates this when s/he’s trying to get something done.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The associate is human, the shopper is human. Why aren’t employees trained to diffuse the situation but making eye contact and saying something like (insert head shake here): “I know, but Best Buy requires me to do it. I’m really sorry.” Or replace the “sorry” with an “I know it can be annoying.” Or “I know it seems silly and I will try to get you out of here as quickly as possible.”

Something – anything – that reinforces and reminds the customer that the employee is not the company. We all do things we don’t like to do: when a sincere rep looks me in the face sympathetically and says anything close to the phrases above (and the smart ones do), it is a far warmer transaction for both parties.  Then we’re in this together.

And let’s not forget the employee’s feelings too, by the way: how does Best Buy think this rep feels about her job if half of it is occupied by unhappy shoppers? So the company is whittling away at morale by tossing these kids out on the floor without the appropriate “human interaction” training, as well.

Once again I am inclined to say… Grrr.

So the next time, gentle reader, an employee says that “they” need you to swab the inside of your mouth to prove that you’re you, take a deep breath, consider writing an email or letter to the retailer and assess all of your shopping options. Fortunately for us, there are more choices than ever.

 

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