Are You Being Served? The Difference Between Customer Service and Sales Assistants.

Mrs. Slocombe

How often have you visited a store and found that the customer service assistant knows less about their products than you do? As a business owner, how much are you paying for “customer service” employees who add little or no value to the customer’s experience in your store?

Let me begin with a couple of definitions, which you may agree or disagree with:

Customer service employees are knowledgeable, share information that’s valuable to the customer, and provides a positive in-store experience. Employers pay more for that expertise.

Sales assistants help customers by letting them know which aisle the widgets they’re looking for can be found in. They add little value to the company or the customer experience, and their cost reflects that value.

In the old days, if you needed something, you’d identify the type of thing you’re looking for and get recommendations from your friends and family for which stores you should visit. The store assistants would give you advice to help you narrow down the number of products on your list, and help you figure out if the products in the store met your needs.

Then the world went crazy, with every company vying to be the biggest, the best, the most ubiquitous, the most one-stop, all-encompassing, needs-meeting place you could wish to imagine.

So answer this question: when you go to Wal-Mart to buy just about anything, or even Home Depot to buy hardware, how many people do you talk to who have less knowledge about how to resolve your problem than you do?

In this interaction, shouldn’t the store employee be the expert? Shouldn’t you be able to rely on their advice and recommendations? Instead, many of them simply read the packaging to you, or confirm the research you’ve already done, without actually adding any insight.

Customer service should mean something more than customer concierge — more than a switchboard to shuffle you along to the next person who might know more than the last.

Retail stores have become homogenized. They fill their staffing needs, not with experts, but with sales assistants. Not people with experience and knowledge of the products they sell. Sales assistants: as though you need someone to hold your hand to the register.

Stores now sell such a diverse range of products that the sales assistants are jacks-of-all-trades, but masters of none. They’re there to spoon-feed us the things we choose from their buffet of convenience, not help us make choices that will satisfy our hunger. And all to often the choice we make is to buy one of many imperfect options suggested to us by the sales assistant.

Think about the average computer-buying customer. Their research consists of walking into a Best Buy and asking a disaffected and snarky sales assistant to help them decide what computer they need. But the assistant at Best Buy is not there to solve the customer’s problem, they’re there to sell Best Buy’s product range. And so they address the customer’s problem with the Best Buy product they judge to be the most likely to address it. Which is not always the same thing as solving the problem.

If you own a restaurant and a customer comes in looking for a gas station, you wouldn’t try to sell them a case of liquor because that might work in place of gasoline. No, you’d direct them to the nearest gas station, and the customer would remember your kindness and probably come back, or at least pass along this story of your helpfulness.

Recognizing that there’s a difference between customer service and sales assistance is the first step to assessing which you’re delivering, which you want to deliver, and whether your choice represents who you want to be. It will help you determine whether what you’re doing represents good value to your company’s stakeholders, and whether these interactions provide enough value to the customer to sustain your business in the long-term.

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