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The sad illusion of happy customers

Retailers say they want shoppers to be satisfied, but few have the resources to deliver the goods.

November 11, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

Customer satisfaction has become such a scarce commodity in the business world, it's now a selling point at a time when companies are increasingly desperate for shoppers' dollars.

This week, electronics heavyweight Best Buy launched a nationwide marketing campaign under the banner "They'll be happy, you'll be happy, we'll be happy."

What they're saying is that the company will bend over backward to help you shop for gifts this holiday season and will do whatever it takes to ensure that gift recipients are pleased with what they get. This, in turn, will warm the hearts of Best Buy shareholders.

"Happy customers is a long-term strategy for us," Best Buy's chief marketing officer, Barry Judge, told me. "If they're happy, they'll want to buy more."

That's the idea anyway. But after visiting a couple of Best Buy stores and chatting with customers, I'd say the company still has some work to do on the happiness front.

"The trade-off is that you get the selection and square footage, but you have to hunt to find someone to help you," said Glendale resident Howard Erickson after buying a mini-fridge at the Best Buy in Los Feliz.

So how'd he do?

"I had to hunt to find someone to help me."

I had a similar experience when I wandered around the appliance section with a perplexed look on my face (not the greatest challenge of my career). After 10 minutes of gazing forlornly at refrigerators and washing machines, I was still on my own, not a single blue-shirted salesperson in sight.

I had a similar experience in the computer section until I finally spotted a salesguy and asked if he could show me a computer for under $500. He steered me toward a Hewlett-Packard model.

I asked if there was anything else. The salesguy pointed me toward a Dell model for about the same price. I asked which was better.

"I don't know," the salesguy replied. "I guess they're about the same."

Not that I'm picking on Best Buy, even though this week's TV and print ads all but dare consumers to judge the company by the quality of their shopping experience.

In fact, customer satisfaction ranks pretty far down on most businesses' to-do lists.

You know what I mean: Epic lines at the cash register. Salespeople who don't have a clue about what they're selling or are nowhere to be found when you have a question.

Customer support that makes you feel like an uninvited dinner guest. A general indifference among employees as to whether you'll ever shop there again.

Sometimes it feels like companies are determined to chase us away, rather than do everything in their power -- especially at times like these -- to build customer loyalty.

"Customer satisfaction has always been a major concern for most companies," said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business. "But it's fairly difficult to implement. It's pretty labor intensive."

He said that as long as low-low-low prices remain consumers' main priority, and as long as turnover remains relatively high among workers at service-oriented businesses, most companies just can't afford to keep sufficient numbers of well-trained staff on hand to meet customers' needs.

"So they make do with what they have," Perner said.

Some retailers, such as Nordstrom, still pride themselves on attentive customer service. But their prices reflect that extra effort.

Others pay lip service to the idea that customer satisfaction is a high priority. But they're still trying to walk the walk.

"We know we don't get it right all the time," Best Buy's Judge said. "But we're getting it right more and more."

Los Angeles resident Eric Perez said he was perfectly pleased as he hefted a flat-screen TV into his shopping cart at Best Buy's West L.A. store. "No problem at all," he said. "The salesman was very helpful."

I'm thinking it helps when you're browsing for a big-ticket item such as a high-def TV. When I stopped in front of a $10,000 home theater setup, a salesman was beside me within seconds asking if I had any questions.

I mentioned this to a home-improvement-minded colleague who told me he's had some lousy experiences at Best Buy but also some good ones.

He said that when he stopped recently at a Best Buy near Sacramento, salespeople were practically falling over themselves to help, even for the purchase of something as picayune as a power cord.

This is the way it's supposed to be.

It's not rocket science. To make customers happy, all you need to do is offer high-quality goods at competitive prices and staff your stores with a sufficient number of well-trained personnel to ensure a smooth shopping experience.

Like the man said, you should make your money the old-fashioned way: by earning it.

Trust me, that's the shortest route to making your customers happy.


David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to

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