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Funny You Should Ask

October 1, 2005
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Customer Service Falls Flat by Gary Tetz

Customer service falls flat I know what you're wondering-and no, a body like mine doesn't just happen by accident. It requires a lifetime commitment to televised sports, comfortable seating, and big bags of tortilla chips. So it made perfect sense that I went shopping for athletic shoes.

Actually, shopping may be the wrong word. It implies a certain expertise, an ability to choose intelligently from diverse options. I have none of that. My footwear might as well be randomly expelled from one of those bubble-shaped toy dispensers in the lobby at Denny's. In fact, I would gladly feed $85 in quarters into the coin slot, twist that big silver knob for an hour, and have rehabilitative wrist surgery if it meant I never had to set foot in a shoe store again.

But in the perplexing absence of such technology, I was forced to visit the mall, where shoe emporiums are indigenous. Being a smart shopper, I chose the first one I saw. In fairness to the merchant, I'm not going to reveal its name, except to say it consisted of two words-the first identifying the toe-topped body part that generally gets stuffed into a shoe, and the second, a place at the airport where you could stash your laundered money, until Homeland Security came along.

Oh, OK, it was Foot Locker. And as I drew near the store entrance, I observed two employees in earnest conversation. I assumed they would intercept me with an energetic offer of high-quality customer service, but instead they continued avidly discussing what I'm sure was a shoe-related topic of great import. In fairness, one of them managed to turn his head a full 3.7 degrees and grunt a welcoming, "Hey." But when no friendly, "Can I help you?" followed, I strode confidently past them, through the yawning portal and into a veritable footwear wonderland.

What I saw left me breathless, much as I am when I cross the living room to pick up the TV remote. On all sides, from floor to ceiling and in every direction, were athletic shoes. Shoes of all shapes, sizes, colors, and brands. Shoes for every gender and sport. Shoes for every imaginable condition. If I were planning to run uphill on asphalt with a slight limp on a cloudy day, there was a shoe designed exactly for that. If I needed a pair that was solar powered with a cappuccino maker in one heel and a DVD player in the other, I'm sure they had one in the back.

Every pair seemed to bear the name of a speedy mammal-the antelope, cheetah, gazelle, or puma. Where, I wondered, was the shelf containing the rhino, warthog, hippo, or bison-animals more reflective of my athletic prowess? I stood frozen, transfixed. In my black blazer, crisp dress shirt, zippy tie, and dapper slacks, I was doing my best to project an aura of confidence but, inside, I was seething with self-doubt. I clearly needed professional help, but those two salesmen, let's call them Zeke and Ned, paid me no heed. I was left all alone fondling shoes signed by LeBron or Kobe, when all I really longed to ask was, "Excuse me, but do you happen to have the Air Limbaugh in a size 10?"

When it happened, it happened quickly.

Glancing to my right and across the store, a miraculous vision suddenly appeared-yet another unexplored wall of athletic footwear! More colors! More styles and possibilities! Compelled against my will like a moth to a flame, I moved toward it at a rapid pace, eyes high and fixed on the prize. My left shin hit the low wooden bench with the force of an NFL punter's kick, and I experienced a searing pain greater than I have ever known.

And then I was falling-going down hard, like a giant oak, in the middle of Foot Locker. As the oblivious Zeke and Ned continued their heart-to-heart just a few feet away, I tried to catch myself, but both hands were hopelessly trapped in my pockets. I somehow managed to pull one free and slow the descent just before my skull bounced off the tile, in the process tearing a puck-size patch of skin from my wrist and ripping my pants down one side from the belt halfway to my knee.

So there I was, lying on the floor with my legs in the air, as though I had just performed the world's worst pommel horse dismount. I had mostly scrambled back on my feet when Zeke, or was it Ned, finally turned around, having registered deep in his subconscious that something unusual was happening nearby. "Are you OK?" he asked halfheartedly.

"Oh, yes," I responded with a nonchalant grin, which I somehow forced while biting my tongue and digging my fingers into my thigh to quell the pain. "Maybe I shouldn't be buying athletic shoes if I can't even stand up in the store!" We shared a brief, insincere chuckle, and then I quickly exited the premises, determined not to limp, weep, or bleed on those lily-white Nikes.

After considerable reflection, I've reduced this painful and embarrassing personal experience down to what I believe is an essential business truth: If a heavy man can leave his easy chair and noisily fall flat on his face in the middle of your store and you still don't notice, you might not be providing optimal customer service.

Now, I realize that dozens of thick, expensive books have been written on this topic and multiday seminars presented, but we tend to make things too complicated. What I'm offering is the world's simplest, yet most revolutionary, solution to meeting customer needs:

Pay attention.

Not long ago, while conducting research for an article I was writing, I spent some quality time in the lobby of an assisted living facility nowhere near the shoe store. Three elderly residents were gathered nearby, knitting and loudly engaging in an extended conversation, punctuated by long periods of obvious melancholy.

"Why don't they give us something to do?" asked one.