Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ramblings on the use of experts

I was thinking about the use of so-called experts in retail environments. Some are a huge positive, but often it may be helpful to have someone a little more clueless but with a great attitude in customer support.

There used to be several local bookstores under the Duthies name. They were a Vancouver institution. One was located right below the DDB offices where I used to work. They only hired people who were really into books and had read most of the works that came through their door. There was no one more knowledgable to talk to if you had a specific question about books. They were also incredibly intimidating, with an elitist air. They were book snobs. So, while they might have the right answer to your question, you didn't want to deal with them.

Just down the street from Duthie's flagship downtown location was the new Chapters. Their staff didn't really know that much about the books in the store, but they were cheerful and eager to help. If they didn't know the answer, which they usually didn't, they'd go try to find out. And they'd do it with a smile.

Guess where I usually bought my books. Now Duthies is down to one niche location.

Service 1 - Experts 0. Hiring people that are super knowledgable doesn't help if they scare your customers away.

Apple has their Genius Bar. Where I can go get a hand from a pretty helpful person who really knows their stuff. Personally, I don't mind asking someone pointed questions about my laptop, but you've got to admit that the Apple Stores do have a hipper-than-thou feeling to them. And do people really feel comfortable going to talk to someone whose job title is "genius".

Microsoft has come out with their very unimaginitive "gurus", to be based at retailers like Circuit City and Best Buy. While I can imagine that those gurus might be less intimidating to some, simply due to their more low end locations, I also imagine that the actual interactions will be far more befuddling and frustrating. I'm picturing a lot of "Well that's not Microsoft's problem, you've got to talk to HP." discussions with these Gurus.

One of my favourite places to shop, Mountain Equipment Co-op (the REI of Canada) tends to hire very knowledgable employees. They pick people with a love of the outdoors. But in MEC's case the knowledge can be a little hit and miss. Sometimes the staff has moved to another department that they don't know much about. Sometimes they just aren't that knowledgable in the first place. And other times, as often happens in areas where people have varying levels of passion, they can just be a lot more hardcore than the average user, which can be very intimidating. I've had some amazing customer experiences at MEC, and I've had terrible ones, and I never know which I'm going to get.

I believe that hiring experts can be a great benefit for any service based business. But I believe that the attitude and approach of the service staff is even more important than their core knowledge. In an ideal world you'd want to be in the top right quadrant of great service and expert knowledge but, if that's not realistic, then a great attitude, an eagerness to help, and the ability to find information is a better solution than surly experts.


RN said...

I think you might have missed your calling and ended up in the wrong business...customer service consultancy seems to be your passion.

Spot on with Duthies/Chapters (although the staff at Duthies on 4th are really good now), not sure on the Apple store - the sales per square foot are incredible, some of the highest in NA, people can't be that intimidated. My experience at MEC has always been you're lucky if you can find a MEC employee anywhere, they're so understaffed.

Great post!

The Station Master said...

I agree on the 'expert 'thing. I heard Robert Stephens, who founded Geek Squad, talk a while ago. He recognized that IT departments - especially the people who man the helplines -are more often than not patronizing and unhelpful and people will go to lengths to avoid dealing with those people. So he designed the Geek squad uniforms in a way that made his staff look really unintimidating - they are copies of the 'mission control' standard kit Nasa scientists used in the 60's, so they look old fashioned - and the trousers are always too short. So when someone from the Geek Squad calls, you won't feel intimidated.

he's a marketing genius, that man.

The Station Master said...

Found this about geek squad - which sums it all up beautifully

Stefan said...

Great thought SM. The key with both Apple Geniuses and Geek Squad is how you take someone intimidating and make them approachable without reducing their expert factor.