The Best Customer Service Lets Intelligent Human Beings and
Intelligent Software Support Each Other

Wally Bock demonstrates the power of a strong,
informed staff through his own experience.

[Editor’s Note: I received three articles in close succession,
offering different slants on customer service. jl scott (lower case
at the author’s request) talks about accepting responsibility, Tim
Geiger discusses building loyalty through great service and great
employees, and Wally Bock demonstrates the power of a strong,
informed staff through his own experience. At the bottom of each,
you’ll find direct links to the others. This originally appeared in
Wally Bock’s Monday Memo]

Karl was awesome. When I was going to college and still in the
Marines, I worked part time at a wholesale liquor store where Karl
was the manager.

Karl knew the people who shopped with us. He knew what they bought
and how much. He knew how they liked it packed and delivered. He
knew who he could trust for credit and when.

Karl also knew the merchandise. He’d memorized the code for just
about every item in the store, along with their prices and standard
packaging. He knew what products could be substituted for others.
He served his customers and his employer by mixing the knowledge he
had of customers and products to make sure that we gave great service
at a profit.

Karl was exceptional. Folks like Karl are always exceptional. But
there was a time when they were more common.

When my grandparents went shopping around the turn of the Twentieth
Century, they would go to a store where they were served by a clerk.
If they were lucky, that clerk would be more like Karl than not.
They wouldn’t have a lot of selection. There would be few branded
items. They would pay in cash.

They lived in the city, so they might shop at one of those new
innovations, the department store. Department stores, offering a
wide variety of merchandise had been springing up in major population
centers. They were a bit like walk-in catalogs for city folks.

If they’d lived on a farm, they probably would have tried that other
big innovation in shopping from the late nineteenth century–the
catalog. Catalog retailing as we know it began in 1872 when
Montgomery Ward began supplying goods to members of the Grange. In
1894, Sears, Roebuck and Company was incorporated and by 1897 was
offering a 786 page catalog that offered just about everything you
could want, from hoes to houses.

The Twentieth Century brought many changes, including changes in the
way we shop. A look at what those changes were, why they happened
and how they worked may help us make choices here in the opening
years of the Twenty-first Century. Each innovation grew out of need
and opportunity. Each innovation caused effects and consequences.
And those effects and consequences mixed with those of other
innovations to create a new shopping world.

Self-service came first. In 1916, Clarence Saunders opened the first
true self-service grocery store in Memphis. He named it Piggly
Wiggly. No one is sure why. It had open shelves and items were
individually priced. Shoppers received shopping baskets to help them
gather what they wanted. The concept worked.

Saunders loved the idea of self-service. After he left Piggly Wiggly
over some stock offering irregularities, he tried to develop two
other concepts along the same line, but using more and fancier
technology. In 1937, he opened a prototype store called “Keedoozle”
(for “Key Does All). It worked a bit like automats would work in
later years. The concept failed.

When he died in 1953, Saunders was hard at work on a concept called
“Foodelectric.” That concept died along with Saunders.

At first the innovations that made self-service go were simple ones.
They were as simple as the checkout counter and shopping basket. But
even those improved over time.

In 1937, Silvan Goldman, a merchant in Oklahoma City saw that some
folks were having trouble hauling around heavy shopping baskets. He
took a couple of folding chairs from his office, mounted them on
wheels and set baskets on them. The first shopping carts were born.

At first nobody wanted to use Goldman’s carts, even though they
multiplied the number of goods a shopper could move around the store
with. Folks seemed to think that they might appear weak, or
helpless, or (gasp) unfashionable. So Goldman hired attractive,
healthy models to push the carts around his stores, pretending they
were shopping. He assigned a worker to greet shoppers and explain
how the carts worked. Soon everyone was using them.

Later, innovations got fancier and more high tech. Barcoding debuted
in 1974. This helped automate tasks from checkout to inventory
management. Computers have also helped manage the mailing lists of
catalog companies and communication over the net.

Over the century stores and selections got larger and larger. In
1930 when the first King Kullen Supermarket opened it was considered
a giant at 6000 square feet. And it was, since it was four or five
times larger than the average food store. But you could fit ten King
Kullens into one of today’s giant superstores.

So where are we now? During the holiday season, I went shopping at a
local electronics store. I was interested in a digital camera. In
the world of my youth, electronics stores were staffed by folks who
knew something about electronics. That’s evidently passĂ©.

I flagged down one red-vested fellow as he wandered down the aisle.
He was cheerful enough. “How can I help you?”

I told him I was interested in digital camera and wanted some help
sorting out the sixteen models that the store had on display. “Sure
thing,” he said, “What do you want to know?”

I asked a question about one of the models. The young man pulled a
card from under the camera on display and started to read me some
information. I stopped him. “I can read the card,” I told him, “and
I have.” I re-stated by question. He read to me from the card. We
repeated that dance a couple of more times before I gave up.

The young man I was dealing with didn’t know anything about the
products he was supposed to sell. I have no idea if he knew about
any other products in the store, but as far as digital cameras, what
he had was a red vest, a company ID, and the ability to read product
literature aloud. My experience was the same at the office supply
store and the department store.

In many ways, that experience is typical of today’s shopping. There
is an incredible array of products available. You can buy them in
lots of places–in a store, on the Net, from a catalog. You can pay
for them, even on a distant continent, with a credit card that clears
almost instantly.

What’s missing is that knowledgeable owner or clerk. What’s missing
is Karl. The folks who serve you at most of the places you shop
probably don’t recognize you. They almost certainly don’t know much
about your preferences. They usually don’t know much about the
products the store sells.

People want the idea of Karl back. In fact, most of us have only
experienced a few folks like Karl in the places we shopped. Like the
idea of the yeoman farmer tilling the soil in pristine purity and the
idea that schools actually used to work, Karl is more ideal than

Still, we’re trying to create Karls on our websites and in our stores
today by using software. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because
software can only replace humans imperfectly. Software, by itself,
is what gives you those marvelous voicemail trees that lead you to
dead ends and ask you to choose among four choices, none of which is
what you want.

If you doubt this, I invite you to visit any site that uses
personalization. Amazon is one of the best. When I visit it usually
(but not always) greets me with: “Hello, Wally Bock. If you’re not
Wally Bock, click here.” Can you imagine Karl greeting me as “Wally
Bock?” It might be “Wally” or it might be “Mr. Bock,” but only a
software program could think that greeting me by first and last name
is a friendly greeting.

Software is good at some things, but not everything. Software is
great a scouring databases for information, presenting choices based
on prior experience, or filling in forms.

What human beings do that software can’t is answer the question you
don’t know how to ask. What human beings do that software can’t is
tell you that they sometimes make mistakes in ordering, too.

Here are some suggestions for using software and other technology to
improve the shopping experience.

Use a mix of software and human beings to sell and to service. Give
folks using technology the option to deal with a human being. Use
the software to support the humans, helping them be more effective
and efficient. Use training to do the same thing.

Aim for a common experience no matter where folks experience your
business. Shoppers expect you to be the same company whether they’re
talking to you on the phone, using the website, visiting a store, or
using the catalog.

As you do that, remember the sources of the innovations that worked.
Clarence Saunders self-service concept was a dramatic success when it
was simple, but when Saunders put the technology first, his concepts
quit working.

Many innovations, like the shopping cart, build on other innovations.
Remember, too, that many times you must show and sell folks on even
the best ideas.

Everything, every innovation that works, must be rooted in people’s
needs and want. Every one that works must be tried and modified.
Every one is born into a messy world where human perception and
prejudice have a say. The next hundred years will change shopping
even more, mostly in ways we can’t imagine.