Smiths lose to the young Bucks…


My inspiration to blog about all things sales-y comes from many sources, and often from the observations I make as I make my way through my every day, normal life – like this morning for instance.

It’s a Saturday and I have just been to the gym and was looking forward to having a flick through the newspapers whilst enjoying a Starbucks coffee. But first I needed the newspaper, so I went to the WH Smiths store across the road.

I have fond memories of WH Smiths from my childhood – it was where I used to buy my drawing pads and pencils so I could draw my favourite super-heroes from the comics I had just bought with my pocket money. In fact, its name is almost as much a part of my childhood memories as the much-missed Woolworths. Anyway back to today…

WH Smiths is no longer the jewel in the crown of the high street it once was, and the store I was in has in recent years reduced its floor-space to about a third of what it was – cost saving no doubt. Unfortunately, those saving don’t appear to have been passed onto staff training!

With newspaper in hand, I stood in a queue the size of which made me think someone must have been giving away a free bar of gold bullion with every Daily Telegraph, or had Smiths just had a resurgence in popularity that was going to result in a hundred new shops opening before the end of the year?

No – they only had one person serving, and she had all the enthusiasm of a turkey writing Christmas cards. Not once did she make eye contact with any customer, not once did she ask if there was anything else we needed, and not once did she say sorry for our wait.

I looked around me for reinforcements – someone to help this girl from her slow, lingering retail sales death. Yes there was one – a young guy with his WH Smith embossed shirt unbuttoned low enough to reveal a heavily tattooed chest and a crucifix around his neck so big even Van Helsing the vampire-slayer might need a fork-lift to borrow it.

Would he be her knight in shining armour and “jump on” the till beside her?

 No – instead he adopted a well-developed hundred-yard stare focussed on nothing particular, and especially not the snaking queue or his fast-withering sales colleague.   

In front of me, a lady was trying to exchange a cut-out newspaper voucher showing a picture of a pack of pens for an actual pack of pens.

“They’re not the same,” said the sales girl.

“Yes they are. They’re the same make and colour,” said the customer.

“No, you’re wrong. They’re not the same. We sold out of those this morning,” said the sales girl.

“Can you check?” asked the customer.

The sales girl gave a tut (yes, a TUT!) and waved to someone who looked vaguely like the manager, who had been hitherto hiding behind a pile of hard-back books, no doubt wondering why God had put her on this planet to work in WH Smiths.

The manageress came across, snatched the voucher from the customer’s fingers, snatched the pack of pens from the sales girl’s fingers and flounced off over to the stationary display, only to return with another pack of pens which she gave to the customer and said, “You can have these.”

I couldn’t keep the wide grin of surprise and incredulousness off my face. This shocking display of bad customer service was then topped off like a cherry on a cake, when the manageress did in fact “jump on” the next till. I was next in line.

Did she register my smile? Did she say sorry for my wait? Did she even ask if I wanted a bag? No, no and – no. I was summarily dismissed with a curt “Next!”

I was still shaking my head when I walked into Starbucks – the difference in service hit me in the face like a bucket of cold water.

Smiles, eye-contact, engagement and almost genuine interest in how your day was going – crowned by the master-stroke of asking your name when you ordered so when your drink was ready it wasn’t simply a tall skinny latte extra hot wet, but Damian, your latte is ready – brilliant!

Is it a surprise that Starbucks is a 21st century sensation that has become a mainstay of our new coffee culture? No.

Also, is it a surprise that WH Smiths is disappearing down the dumper faster than I can say CUSTOMER SERVICE? Definitely NO!

Why? Because the Starbucks staff are well trained, supported and their interaction with the customers is monitored. Not in a Big Brother way, but to just ensure that we, the customers, get the service we expect.

As for WH Smiths, I would imagine their staff training stops at how to make sure the newspapers are the right way up!

Don’t make the same WH Smiths mistakes with your business, or you could end the same way as Woolies!


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