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You Say You Want Service ? : Retailing: There's really only one way to get service, says 'customer terrorist' Peter Glen, and that's to stand up and demand decent treatment.

December 05, 1990|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Glen, the country's self-proclaimed "customer terrorist," is loose in Beverly Center. He's lying in wait for an AWOL salesclerk in the holiday decorations section of a big department store.

"It's the most important department in the store right now and nobody's here! " he bellows, noting that this is more evidence of The Great Retailing Suicide of 1990.

But Glen doesn't just huff off. Rather, the author of "It's Not My Department! How to Get the Service You Want, Exactly the Way You Want It," waits to see just how long it takes to get some help.

He's used to this sort of challenge. Indeed, he gets paid $5,000 a day to sample and critique service from the customer's point of view. Then he suggests ways to shape things up. A New York-based retailing consultant, he's been at this for 25 of his 51 years, working with such clients as Bloomingdale's, Esprit and General Foods.

Now in his William Morrow book, Glen has catalogued both the horrors and the triumphs of his customer service surveys in such chapters as "A Nation of Whiners," "The Rudeness Sweepstakes," "The Meek Will Inherit Nothing," "Keep Your Mints Off My Pillow," "Things an Airline Doesn't Want You to Know" and "Brain Surgery at Home." In the book, he provides numerous tips for doing end-runs around potential disasters, such as booking an alternate flight the moment you learn yours has been delayed. (For other tactics, see accompanying story on E5).

Today, in the holiday decorations department, the service delay has lasted nearly 10 minutes. Finally, the clerk shows up and Glen asks where she's been.

A beatific grin appears on her face.

"Shhhh! Don't tell anybody," she says with a finger pressed to her lips. "I've been shopping. There's a $2,000 bedroom suite I want to buy. So I visit it every day."

It's never easy when nit-picking Peter Glen comes to call. "He's a consultant who doesn't act like a consultant. He doesn't hesitate to point up your weaknesses and give you a kick in the seat. He's like that Mennen Skin Bracer commercial where the guy slaps his face and says, 'Thanks, I needed that,' " reports Kenneth Banks, vice president of marketing and communication for Eckerd Drugs, a chain of 1,700 drugstores throughout the Southeast and Southwest.

Glen would agree. He volunteers that many people, his clients included, think of him as an "opinionated (expletive)."

According to Banks, the folks at Eckerd survived and apparently profited from working with Glen, but "it was painful for several people here. A lot of people were outraged."

However, Banks found that after his colleagues got past the initial sting of Glen's critiques, they saw "a very insightful, sensitive individual who has keen feelings for the way people feel and how to motivate them. Four years later, our chairman is still quoting Glen."

In most of the stores that Glen visits, the service is just as he predicts. Nobody tries to provide him with any more assistance than, "Hi. How are you?" At every stop he acts eager to buy, but he has to demand that he be helped.

It's not easy to miss Glen, who is dressed this day in a peacock blue jacket, matching cummerbund, white tuxedo shirt loose at the collar, white pleated pants and white sneakers. But this spirited, white-haired elf of a man is ignored when he hangs over the counter in an eyeglasses boutique, his body posture silently daring a clerk to get off the phone and wait on him. (The clerk doesn't budge.)

In a pet store, Glen repeatedly asks why the "patio kittens" are called patio kittens--and not bedroom kittens or kitchen kittens. He rephrases his question three times, giving a young woman three opportunities to say, "I'll find out." Instead, she keeps saying, "I don't know." When he finally advises her to ask someone else, she comes back with an answer that Glen says is so good it could generate a sale: "We call them patio kittens because it sounds better than mutts."

In another department store, Glen is so miffed by the prolonged lack of attention that he creates a scene. He repeatedly yells "Help!" until a clerk rushes over.

"I just did not know how long we could stand here without getting your attention," Glen explains, indignantly.

"Well, I was writing something. It would have been a few minutes," replies the clerk.

"But if you're writing, how can you sell?" Glen demands.

"Because I'm doing both," says the clerk, anger seeping into his voice. "If I saw somebody who needed help, I'd give them help. I didn't know that you needed help."

"That's why I screamed 'Help! OK?"

"OK," says the salesman. "No problem."

Glen walks away, mocking the clerk. "No problem." Then he adds, "It's a big problem. . . . He is completely enraged, offended and he sold nothing."

It's pointed out to Glen that the young man must do something right. He is wearing a badge on his jacket proclaiming he was a top salesman of 1989.

The author is unimpressed: "It said 1939!"

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