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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

The customer is always right

Aligning incentives My very first job in the world was as a cashier in the men's department at my local JCPenney. All in, it remains to be the job I've held in fits and spurts for the longest in my life -- throughout a couple of years in high school and during most summer and winter breaks while home from college. (See: This essay I wrote to all of my colleagues before I left for college if you want a good chuckle.) There's something important that you learn when you see customers face-to-face on a daily basis -- fielding their requests, their questions, and most of all, their problems. The era when I worked at JCP was right in the middle of the heyday of the coupon. There was always a sale and always a coupon. We made quite a show out of the coupon thing. A couple of times a year, we'd even have these things called "Sweet Sales," where each customer would get a free piece of chocolate wrapped up in a coupon worth either 20%, 30%, or 40% off. That's right, we were giving out sugar highs and insanely good deals all at once. Those were wild times, I'm telling you. But if there's one thing I learned through this job, it was the importance of aligning incentives wherever possible. You forgot your coupon today? That's okay, I'll slip you one on the side. You saw a sign for a better deal than those jeans are ringing up? Let's check it out -- if it's our mistake, the discount is yours. Why does this matter? Because the number one priority of anyone in a customer-facing role is to be on the same side as the customer.  This isn't rocket science. There's a lot of business strategy behind this concept. People don't like to buy stuff from jerks, for one. Second, if you're a pleasant person to be around when shopping, it's more likely that your customers will spend more money. Because they are having fun.  I fall victim to this all the time. There's a boutique on the Upper West Side that I had to ban myself from entering because I literally found it impossible to walk out empty-handed. That's good technique. What isn't good technique is to openly admit to your customers that you are NOT on their side, to confess that you are actively working against them getting a better deal. And that's why, with that one seemingly benign comment, I decided that the war was on between me and Sales Associate #829692. I was going to stand there as long as it took to get my extra $26 off that purchase.

A better customer experience In the end, I got the discount. I knew this would happen. Mike told her (essentially), well, if it's ringing up that way, go ahead and sell it to her. I saw her pulse elevate immediately. "So you mean, sell it to her...at this discount?!?" She hung up the phone and looked glumly at me. "Okay," she pulled herself together, as if I hadn't seen the shock and distaste that I would be receiving a "too good to be true" deal. "I am going to sell you the blouse at this price. I'm sorry again about all this." Once again, I was struck with her completely misaligned attitude. Rather than grin at my luck in scoring a great deal, she apologized to me. I thought a lot about this customer service experience after I left the store. Wouldn't it have been better to lean into the excitement that I might be feeling? Isn't it possible that, in my heightened joy on stealing such a deal, I might have impulse bought the necklace I'd been eyeing that was sitting right on the cash register? Might there have been an opportunity for me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey in her favor as a result of my happiness? Here's how I might have reframed the entire scenario from the start: "Okay, so I'm really sorry that this is taking so long. It looks like our system is trying to give you an even better deal on this blouse. I can't seem to override it, so you may end up with more of a discount, but I do need to run this by my manager first to see if there's anything else I should be doing." And then, of course, when the deal was confirmed: "Well, looks like you're in luck! I've never seen anyone get an extra 30% off a half-off rack before. Have a great rest of your Saturday. Enjoy it!" If you can't put yourself in the customer's shoes and get on their side, you shouldn't be in customer service. If you can't celebrate wins with your customer, you've got your incentives completely misaligned. And if you can't read the room enough to recognize an opportunity to turn a situation like this on its head, you might push customers away, rather than bring them closer. There's some truth yet to that old adage: The customer is always right.

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