On a hot summer night, my wife and I ventured to Home Depot around 8PM to shop for carpet. The store was empty as we made our way to the carpet section. The young gentleman that was helping a client, finished, then excused himself and told us that he had to run to make a customer delivery. "I'll be right back". Twenty five minutes later, with our nerves at dangerous levels, we grabbed anyone with an apron who would talk to us. The nicest guy we talked to was a night stock boy, who apologized for wearing an apron because he does not work with the public but they "make us wear it". About thirty five minutes later and five paiges, our carpet guy returned. I'll spare you our agony. He was clueless, could not find the sample box, "they never showed me where it is" and basically give us a rough quote that was 50% higher than anyone else. "I'm sorry; I've only been in this department for a few weeks". At around 9PM we left the store in total disgust and frustration. Not a great date night to say the least.
I remember in the early 90's when I bought my first house, Home Depot was the place to go. Aisles were full of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, you name it. They were great, helpful and save us time and money. Then, a few years later, they all disappeared and so did the attraction to Home Depot. Why would you go shopping to get overwhelmed with products and no one to talk to? I missed those guys.
Then, Lowe's opens up on LI. Lowe's was the place to go. Clean, well-organized store with...yes, plenty of people to help you. It was a novelty because no one I knew liked to go to Home Depot and get frustrated.
A few years went by and I decide to give Home Depot a shot. To my surprise, the "people with aprons in the aisles" returned, to my short-lived delight. It took about 10 seconds of speaking to one of them to realize they had no clue. Don't get me wrong, they were helpful, smiled a lot and could read out the labels just like I could. To add insult to injury, Home Depot added more floating bodies into the mix -- I was now being followed down the aisles and pitched on remodeled kitchens, baths, you name it.
I can hear those brilliant corporate marketing guys pointing to their PowerPoint and saying " Our customers are telling us that we need more sales reps in the aisles. That's a good point right? Doesn't that also mean that they are ready to buy? Why not leverage that great positive attitude and upsell them on large projects? What could be better than a customer shopping for a plunger and going home with a new remodeled bathroom?
In case it isn't apparent to Home Depot that we now live in the "educated consumer" world, none of these meager attempts to provide service are going unnoticed. It's true, some of us have to shop at a Home Depot because all the neighborhood hardware stores went out of business and there are not enough Lowe's around. But, as they say, if you don't study history you are likely to repeat it. And history has taught us that this type of "service" can only result in one outcome. The sad truth is that Home Depot has experienced a serious decline when they eliminated the best assets they had in the stores. They apparently think that filling the store with untrained "bodies" is a solution. Sorry, that won't work.
So what can we learn from Home Depot?
- If your differentiating point is your store hours, then you better make sure your service levels are consistent throughout the day. I would never shop for a carpet at Home Depot and this was a $2,000 sale they lost.
- We live in the age of the educated consumer. Information is cheap and readily available. If a customer decides to shop at your store, do everything you can to provide value and a great shopping experience. Otherwise, you have downgraded your business and your future to a commodity.
- Train your employees. All of them. The overnight stock boy was great but he resolved nothing. When he went back to the warehouse, we were left with new and higher levels of frustration. He should have stayed with us, called the manager to come over and only then, leave us.
- Coach your staff to never, ever, point fingers at someone or something else. It only makes things worse. Our carpet guy was untrained and thrown into customer interaction without a chance to succeed. We didn't have to know that. There are much better ways to handle these types of challenges.
Lucky for us, our town still has an old style hardware store. They don't sell refrigerators or offer to remodel our kitchen. But, you get serviced within less than a minute by a competent person who apparently enjoys what he does. At the end of the day, I want to feel welcomed, get real help and go back to my errands. Simple.