By Jeff Beals
When working out of town and eating meals by myself, I feel like I need to bring along a newspaper or magazine when I sit down at a restaurant. Not sure why, but if I’m having lunch by myself, it feels more comfortable to have something to read.
There’s a process to follow when choosing lunchtime reading material when I’m on the road. I stop by one of those banks of newspaper machines, the big, long row of them that you see on downtown street corners. I randomly pick up a couple local periodicals – generally the free ones – and read them to get a sense of the city’s flavor, the community’s character.
That’s exactly what I did on a recent trip to Boston.
While sitting in a restaurant and thumbing through The Improper Bostonian, a letter-to-the-editor jumped out:
“To my least-favorite bookstore: Instead of having a greeter stand at the door with a goofy smile, perhaps he could assist by directing me through this labyrinth of horse calendars to find the book I’m looking for when it’s not alphabetized by author name. The search kiosk offers no more help than a ‘most likely in-store’ response. Bigfoot or Amelia Earhart could ‘likely’ be in-store! Fitting that the franchise is on the verge of bankruptcy. The closest it is to finding a book is Chapter 11.” The letter was signed by “Novel Idea.”
Ha! That’s stickin’ it to ’em.
As an author, I must confess to a little guilty satisfaction in reading this. After all, the big bookstore chains don’t treat authors and publishers very nicely. They’re slow in paying bills and return books damaged without any financial penalty on their part whatsoever.
After smugly chuckling at the letter, I got to thinking about those large bookstore chains and wondered why a couple of them are struggling so much. Conventional wisdom blames changing reading habits – many people now read on line or use electronic reading devices instead of curling up with a good book on the sofa.
You could also blame Amazon.com and Wal-Mart for the bookstores’ troubles. Certainly those two businesses sell in such volume that they can beat the traditional bookstores on price, but the question remains. Why are they struggling so much?
Despite competition from other businesses, big bookstores have advantages. They are comfortable, inviting and appealing places to shop. They usually occupy prominent real estate with great demographics, visibility and traffic flow. They have in-house coffee shops, which provide additional income.
Then there’s the BIG benefit: bookstore chains don’t pay for their inventory. Yes, you read that right. They don’t have to pay for the books. Those thousands of books sitting on the shelves are there on consignment. If they don’t sell, the bookstore simply returns them to the publisher. Even if books are damaged, no matter how badly, the bookstore simply returns them to the publisher, no questions asked. In fact, my publishing company received one of my books back with a chocolate bar mashed between two pages.
Despite all these advantages, bookstores are struggling. Is customer service – or a lack thereof – part of the problem? Could be. I’ve heard other complaints similar to the one voiced in the Boston magazine.
In an increasingly complex economy in which bookstores and darned near every other type of business compete in hyper-competitive environments, customer service ought to be a no-brainer. But it’s not. It seems like everyone can tell stories of times they have encountered legendarily bad customer service.
Usually those stories come from the stereotypical “customer-service” businesses like stores, restaurants and hotels. We can all relate to bad customer service in a retail environment, because we interact with these types of businesses several times a day.
But most readers of this article don’t work in retail environments. Most of you work in offices, providing or supporting high-end services that cost clients a lot of money. Given that, take a moment to ask yourself, are you providing as high a level of customer service to your clients as you demand from your neighborhood store or your favorite restaurant? Are you doing it consistently? Most of us are guilty when it comes to the “consistency” question. Sometimes I am guilty.
I once observed a successful real estate broker deliver a blistering tongue-lashing to the manager of an upscale restaurant that had wronged him. He wondered loudly and forcefully, “Why the hell can’t that waitress just do her damned job.”
It’s kind of ironic that the same broker once blew off a prospective client, because the guy had a thick foreign accent and didn’t appear to have deep pockets. The big-shot broker was frustrated when he learned that a competing broker took time for that same client, built rapport with him and eventually cashed a $250,000 commission check. Ouch.
Jeff Beals is an award-winning author, who helps professionals do more business and have a greater impact on the world through effective sales, marketing and personal branding techniques. As a professional speaker, he delivers energetic and humorous keynote speeches and workshops to audiences worldwide. To discuss booking a presentation, go to JeffBeals.com or call (402) 637-9300.
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