How Customer Service Doesn’t Work

Walmart cares, too. About having you save as much as possible.

You know how a satisfied customer tells one person about her experience while a dissatisfied customer tells 10? Safeway, America’s 3rd largest grocery chain, is staffed and run by morons.

Safeway (and its sister company, Vons) sets a policy for the way its checkers speak with customers. Here’s how our checker policy would work if we were running a grocery chain, Control Your Cash Foods:

  1. Smile and greet the customers.
  2. Ask them how they’re going to pay if they don’t make it obvious.
  3. Take their money, give them their change, thank them and send them on their way.

Then again, we don’t have human resources managers and assistants on our payroll – internally damaged, self-loathing women (they’re always female) whose own limited intellects forced them against a glass ceiling, hard, on the way up and who need to justify their existences by inconveniencing and hampering others’. They’re the same idiots who can’t explain away filling up a workday with scheduling meetings and formulating mission statements, so they create policies and procedures devoid of any connection to real life.

Here’s what we’re talking about. Safeway requires its checkers to address the customers by name whenever the customers give them a cue. But the checkers make assumptions. Years ago Betty had a Safeway frequent buyer card that she never got rid of. It saves you money for doing absolutely nothing, so the only incentive to not use it or to formally close the account would be to keep Safeway from knowing our grocery-buying habits. We wouldn’t want there to be a record of us buying weekly jars of those Mexican pigs’ feet*, but we still kept the card because we Control Our Cash.

When Greg buys groceries and enters the phone number linked to Betty’s account onto the keypad at the checkout lane, the checker routinely finishes the transaction by reading the cardholder’s name off the receipt and saying “You saved $24.15, Mr. Kincaid.” I can’t even rebut that with the standard old-timey line, “No, that’s my father.” If I wanted to be accurate I could say, “No, Mr. Kincaid is the guy my girlfriend dumped 10 years ago because he cheated on her with an orangutan-faced woman,” but the checkers only pretend to have an interest in your life.

That’s not even the beef. Safeway middle management is welcome to have its checkers assume that every man who’s paying with a woman’s discount card must share a last name with that woman, just as they should assume every black customer will be paying with food stamps.

The beef is this – Safeway’s infinitely more retarded policy of asking every customer who buys at least 2 bags worth of groceries whether she (or in my case, he) needs assistance out to the parking lot.

Here’s an upper-body shot of the dainty little flower that is 6’2”, 200-lb. me:

This reached its crescendo a few weeks later when my entire purchase consisted of a quart of milk and a quart of chemical drain opener. The checker dutifully put them into separate bags – you know, because there was almost certainly a pinhole in both the milk and the Drano, which would cause them to commingle and me to die. Even so, that’s nothing that two polyethylene bags each .003” thick can’t fix.

A quart of milk weighs 2 pounds and maybe 1 ounce; the Drāno, a few ounces more. Here’s what happened:

Checker: You saved 19¢, Mr. Kincaid. Do you need help out?
Me: (making eye contact, saying nothing)
Checker: Do you need help out?
Me: Are you serious?
Checker: I have to ask.

I pointed out that I was neither a) in a wheelchair, b) blind, nor c) a nonagenarian woman with a walker. I added that each of my arms is capable of lifting 1% of my bodyweight. (That gym membership really pays off in situations like this.)

The checker continued, clearly annoyed that I was inconveniencing her by cutting into her precious small-talk time with the semi-literate male teenage bagger. For the record, there was no one behind me in the line. Not that that would have stopped me from making my point. The checker attempted to put me at ease by explaining that she asked if I needed assistance only because I might be a “secret shopper” sent from the corporate office to determine whether the checkers at this particular store are asking the appropriate stupid questions of not just some, but all, of the customers.

I asked under what set of circumstances a man who looks like me (and can clearly stand on his own power, and was strong enough to have carried the milk and the Drāno from their respective aisles to the checkout lane in the first place) would ever need a store employee to accompany him to his car. She reiterated that she’s required to ask me, and, by inference, that’s there’s no room for independent thought in her job. I half-expected that she’d show me the relevant page of the particular subsection of the Safeway employee manual.

I explained that by turning off the part of her brain that discerns differences among people, she’s not being courteous, she’s being stupid. If Nancy Reagan shows up, offer to help her out. If LeBron James comes in, he can probably handle his own business.

We have a team comprised of people from all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. They bring to the workplace a variety of styles, abilities and skills.

That’s from the 60ish white man who serves as president and CEO of Safeway and made $11 million last year.

First off, bullcrap. “All…ethnic backgrounds”? Show me the Ainu and the Amungme people working at Safeway. Second, he continues:

We recognize, celebrate and benefit from the uniqueness of each employee and customer…We value, respect and support these differences in our workplace.

An even bigger lie. The employees make it a point of neither valuing, respecting nor supporting the uniqueness of each customer. I’m not saying I want the checker to hold me and tell me I’m worthwhile. Quite the opposite, in fact. I want her to determine that I can carry 4 goddamned pounds of groceries on my own.

The more jaded among you are thinking: “She’s an $8.89/hour checker, you can’t expect her to give you a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.” No, but she’s entrusted with taking money, making change, and not putting the pasta sauce on top of the eggs. Do those tasks sound more or less intellectually demanding than sizing up customers and figuring out who needs their bags carried and who doesn’t?

The worst part about this dingbat’s excuse is its bizarro logic. There’s a thousands-to-one chance that I might be a corporate plant, so she’s going to take the long odds and treat me like one. Instead of treating me like a, you know, customer.

When your employees go out of their way to please some faceless higher-up in the human resources department before pleasing the customer who’s staring them in the face and handing them his money, you’ve clearly decided, consciously or otherwise, to compete on price and quality. Because you’re clearly given up on competing on service.

*We don’t.

**This article is featured in the Carnival of Wealth #30-Value Investing Premium Edition**

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