What if Customers WERE the Service?

I walked into my local Best Buy store because I needed technical assistance with my Palm. What I didn’t know is that they don’t support the device, they just sell it. For support, the nice albeit a bit detached girl at the Geek Squad desk said, you need to call the Palm customer service.

Visions of long queues at a busy 800-number or voice-recorded prompts flashed in my mind. How is it possible that the most important part for customers — service — is left to the customers to figure out? I did not know how true that statement would be until I met Jim.

Jim is the gentleman who was waiting for his laptop and recovered hard drive when he noticed I was about to step away from the counter without receiving help. Maybe it was the shoes I was wearing that caught his attention, or the accent he couldn’t quite place. We started talking. And in the course of our conversation, a long one in which we got absorbed, he proceeded to help me with my Palm problem.

"I have one too," he said, "It’s another model, but I know what happens when it freezes like this." At that point we were still at the Best Buy customer service counter. Other customers were coming and going. A nice young lady who was picking up a piece of equipment talked with us about her heritage — Japanese and Italian. She was quite striking and very cordial.

Meanwhile, nobody was getting restless, nobody complained about us standing right in front of the counter. Many joined the conversation, even as distant listeners. People can’t help it; other people are the subject of constant fascination. Different, interesting, and engaging are all words I would use to describe the experience. And we looked quite at home right where we were.

So the thought occurred to me. We were talking about innovation in business and how innovation is mostly about looking at the same things and seeing something different. What if Best Buy were to provide space to encourage those conversations? What if instead of just having a counter where, by necessity – being short on staff, long on help needed – they placed a nice set of armchairs and small tables nearby.

Customers could sit down. Some coffee company could provide coffee and snacks. People dropping by after work might enjoy a little something while waiting. Most importantly, what if they helped customers talk with each other by putting the space there for them to do so? Jim solved my Palm problem and I walked away having made a new friend and feeling good about Best Buy.

Instead of feeling let down, I now have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the store where I had such a good experience. Never mind that it wasn’t the staff to provide it. I had it anyway, and it’s associated with the store. Let’s take the idea a little further and think about what would happen if Brian, another customer, stopped in for a repair and during the wait learned that Jane, also waiting, knows everything about digital cameras. He has been thinking about buying one, but he feels skittish about asking the store staff. He doesn’t want to be sold to just yet; he wants to buy after taking his time exploring options.

They strike a conversation, and now Bill writes down a list of features he wants in a camera. Jane just asked him how he was thinking of using it adding stories of her purchases and what she learned from them. We all love to learn, we all hate to study and many of us dislike researching, especially when we feel harried in the store.

The business gets to keep its costs down by maintaining a fixed number of geeks on hand to help. The customers get the help they need by receiving assistance also from other customers. And the store now has the potential to sell more, all wrapped up nicely in good will. But wait, you say, what if I’m the only one there on a given night?

Word of mouth travels faster than information on fiber optic cable, you could:

- Wait until someone else arrives in for help – I was there probably short of two hours and the flow of people was constant
- Self select as the "go to" person for certain types of devices and volunteer help while you’re there

People love being helpful and there isn’t always time to meet new people by going to networking events. The businesses that can help lower the barriers to entry to make conversations among customers happen, win. Now, how about a good cup of coffee at, you guessed it, Best Buy? I was thinking about purchasing a digital camera…

Valeria Maltoni • Conversation Agent • Philadelphia, PA • ConversationAgent@gmail.comwww.conversationagent.com

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  • Valeria Maltoni

    I'm late to the conversation. I have not been receiving notices of these comments from FC.

    Lucas -- your point is well taken. 'What if' doesn't replace the work the company should be doing. This model is working well online and people tend to live offline as well.

    Kurt -- my thinking does stem from a cultural base. My scenario takes into account the fact that Best Buy store staff and Geek Squad staff are trained to facilitate conversations. If it can be done online, why can't it be done in store?

    Liz -- you got it. Thank you for relating this to the bookstore model.

    Mike -- there is always risk with anything new, and learning to be had on the way. The greatest risk though is doing nothing and having your customers walk out unhappy to go elsewhere.

    Tommy -- I like that: the in store karma points. The fact is that we can all do our work dragging our feet and being unhappy, or we can choose to be creative and productive. I vote for the latter. And one can meet interesting people in the process.

    TheHobbyGuy -- another great analogy. Let's inject a little passion into the experience.

    Mike -- thank you for visiting.

  • TheHobbyGUy

    As a Best Buy Stock holder and avid customer, I agree with you 110%. I guess you could say this would be WEB 2.0 played out in the "real world". Customers, businesses and services do not need to fit into a silo or box, but are interdependent and can grow from the sum of the parts.

    This does play out in other types of businesses, such as Hobby Shops. Unfortunately the trend has regressed as people move towards online "shopping" . However check it out, walk into your local hobby shop on the weekend and see how fellow enthusiasts interact. It could be trains, planes, cars, boats, comics or whatever but it is much more social than typical stores.

    As I grow TheHobbyGuy.tv I have been keeping this same concept in mind. Great article and I agree 110%!

  • TommyGun

    I have had the same experience in BestBuy and wondered the same thing. In my case I was there to pick up a check 4 port network switch for home and noticed a blurry-eyed customer 'wandering' up and down the network gear aisles. I asked him what he was looking for and he said he was trying to share his home dsl connection wirelessly. I walked him through several choices for how to do it, gave him suggestions for brands based on personal experience and even drew the connections out for him on a piece of paper. In about 10 minutes, he knew what he needed to buy and made the purchase.

    I'm sure a bestbuy staffer could have helped as well, but he said he'd been there for 30 minutes and received no help.

    They should encourage this type of peer-to-peer support and maybe give the person who helped out a discount card or something. Sorta like Karma points in the opensource world.

  • Mike

    A great idea! But if I was managing the store, I'd be concerned about competitors and others taking advantage of the opportunity to prey on my customers. I wonder what could be done to mitigate this risk...?

  • Liz Taylor

    I've been dreaming of this type of service for years! And I'm no geek. I agree that retailers such as Best Buy would do well to take a cue from the Borders and B&N models of encouraging customer interaction with book clubs, etc. In addition to helping facilitate user groups and discussions -- both planned and informal -- they could no doubt get manufacturer sponsorship and participation. This would be profitable for all.

  • Kurt Gooden

    Valerie, I think what you describe here is an excellent experience and definitely a potential model for many companies in the future.

    It is however a very culture-centric phenomenon, one that does not necessarily follow the 'if you build it, they will come' philosophy. As many organizations know, changing a culture is difficult. You don't want to end up alienating your customers or have them trading horror stories about your poor customer service or products. To kick off a culture like this, the staff has to start by being on the same level. They need to break rank and actually say truthfully that they bought that product last week and it stinks, but that one is better. If they participate in these open conversations and engage those around them to join in, it can easily become the norm. Unfortunately the norm for many of these stores is duck and hide from the pushy know-it-all (but actually knows little) sales guy.

    On the positive side, the culture that would support your model is growing effectively online, a trend that could fuel this type of interactivity in the real world.

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    What if companies employed people who actually knew what they were selling and could help customers?

    What if when you needed to contact technical support, a human being answered the phone on the 2nd ring and routed your call to someone who could help you, who also picked up the phone on the 2nd ring?

    What if companies hired competant native English speakers who could actually understand the question that you're asking instead of repeating the same nonsense over and over while you keep repeating the question over and over again, hoping in vain that the person he's going to understand the question this time and not give the same stupid answer yet again?

    What if companies actually gave a shit about their customers instead of cynically realizing that service is the same everywhere, so why bother being the one company to provide it?

    After reading this piece, I came up with a better idea. Why not have a lounge with comfy chairs and coffee for the salespeople and customer service people at Best Buy and let the customers sell merchandise to other customers. Some customers could serve coffee to the salespeople.