Hello shoppers...


"Go to Home Depot...please!!! They're idiots...complete idiots!!!"

-received from Facebook friend, 48 hours before this review


Run - run for your little life!

I'm contemplating installing huge spotlights at select Des Moines street corners that can be - in case of a customer service emergency - flipped on, to shine this silhouette onto the capital city's horizon:


"The Unsecret mask! A shopper's in trouble, Robin!"

When an aging, easily-frightened blogger starts receiving Facebook and Twitter messages blasting a particular store, while I'm standing in the "lights/electrical" aisle of one of the locations of that particular franchise, it starts feeling less like a blog and more like a Stephen King novel.

No need to fear, fair FB friend - I will save you from The Dead (Retail) Zone.

This is not the first fed-up shopper, via Facebook, Twitter, email, letter or just yelling real loud, to express their fed-up concern over a less than stellar customer service experience at Home Depot - which is why HD, at 3700 University in West Des Moines,  is the focus of today's Secret Shopper review.

Can it be that bad?

Another - is it all Des Moines locations?

Here's three more.

1. How do dozens of employees of any 100,000+ square foot retail location with 29 aisles divided by 20 foot high shelves crammed full of saws and mowers and lumber and goop, keep track of any patron not equipped with a claxon's bell on their head.

2. If your expertise is sand-blasting limestone, cutting lumber and hanging drywall, how good will you be at shaking hands, kissing babies and dolling out warm suga fuzzies?

3. Can you make do-it-yourself stupid customers feel un-stupid about their stupidity? 

 Number 3 - present and accounted for!

Yet there are also some distinct advantages that home improvement stores have over other retail settings.

First and foremost, they are overwhelmingly kinesthetic.

To observe patrons meandering through the aisles of any hardware store or lumberyard is to watch giddy children surrounded by happily frolicking puppies, albeit more subdued, euphorically gorging themselves on a sensory orgy overload of plant gawking, box of bolt rummaging, paint can shaker listening, bag of fertilizer sniffing and the occasional, end of a grade 3 quarter-sawn teak 2 x 4 gnawing. ("Tastes like chicken!")

But no matter how much Play-dough and Lincoln Logs you pile in front of the kids, they're still gonna want to eventually see the soft smiling faces of mom and dad - which means any store's success, in any category, still depends primarily on effectively executing the four fundamental pillars of customer service: smile, greet, engage and thank.

How would Home Depot do?


First, a quick review of the Secret Shopper rating system:

   Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.   

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.   

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.   

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.   

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.   

I went in twice, dressed in every article of clothing I own,  below:


          " Jonnie"                       "Jonathan"

Normally the point for this is that a better dressed patron might logically be noticed sooner, and/or perhaps get better service or at least not be beaten by someone who has friends who work at Jordan Creek Mall, or Karl Chevrolet.

But in this setting - where flannel shirts, knee-skinned jeans and casual wear is the typical customer's apparel of choice - a suit may just look ridiculous and out-of-place.

Okay, not "may," it just does.

How may employees react? Let us find out.


Staff Greeting/Jonathan:    


I stepped through Home Depot's auto-sliding glass doors at 8:49am on a sunny, cool Tuesday morning.

There is no designated greeter at HD's entrance nor was one expected.  Whichever employee I stumble across first, becomes the ad-hoc greeter - and the future of the entire Home Depot empire, rests in that singular human being's facial muscles and vocal chords.

A female cashier on the right, who watched me as I came in, was too busy watching me to watch and greet me.  

Hanging a left, I entered the Home and Garden Center, walking past another employee at the entryway, who remained moot while I slowly mooved my carcass by, pushing my day-glo orange shopping cart .

0-2. I'm the Cubs in early April.

After browsing bags of turf builder, I came upon, oddly enough, Scott (Scott's Turf Builder? Huh? Huh? Who's with me?) who was kneeling on the concrete floor, assembling a table - or maybe he was dismantling it. Or painting it, or...

This statement should demonstrate everything you need to know about my home improvement credentials. I'm not even sure the floor was concrete. Is that, like, the gray, hard junk?

To be fair, Scott was intently working on - whatever he was working on - and so I'll cut him some slack for not immediately jumping and yelling, "Hi, wonderful great awesome clueless customer!"

Instead, after staring at a shelf full of lights for a few minutes, I walked over and asked him a question.

Is this stuff we're standing on, concrete?

Then I asked where I could find more of the lights I'd been staring at. Scott stood up and engaged me, helpful and friendly, including sharing that he'd worked previously at the south side Home Depot.

Nice guy, good smile - we'll call that the official greeting, even though I started it, and move onward.

Staff greeting/Jonnie:   


At 5:05pm, now out of his suit and into the unofficial uniform of the handyman, a very unhandyman, indeed, entered the same doors he'd stepped through some 8 hours and change ago.

I walked past Wendy, off to my right - who I believe was the same woman at the checkout counter I'd passed earlier that morning  - and, like the Wendy before her, looked at me, and said nothing.

Inside the Home and Garden Center, I hovered around Miles and another employee, who were moving a palette of what appeared to be bags of turf builder.

After not getting a "Hi - why are you hovering around us like a dork?" from either one, I clumsily stepped between Miles and the other guy, which probably seemed even stranger but hey, this is the same guy who almost knocked employees over at Hy-Vee three weeks ago, just to get an acknowledgement, and by gum, I was gonna get mine this time, too.

And sure enough, I did, from Miles: "Help you find anything?"

We were off and shopping.


Staff interaction/Jonathan:   


After leaving the home and garden center, the interaction began in earnest - and in the lighting aisle.

I walked past two employees who immediately greeted me with energetic "Hi sir"'s and "How ya doin"'s, as did Bill, who then said, "Help you with anything?" The closed-ended question wasn't so hot, but Bill's obvious desire to help me was cool.  

One word here on names.

No employee ever told me their name outright. I got it by either asking them what it was, or getting close enough to read it on their company apron.

One word here on aprons.

Each Home Depot employee wears a smock the same color of orange as the shopping carts, or a Story County Jail inmate's jumper - so I've heard. 

Also written in hand upon each apron, at least at this Home Depot location, is that employee's name - in black magic marker.  

I like the idea. The employees themselves write their name in black marker - how fun! The problem is that some people (that's why I'm typing) don't have particularly legible handwriting.

Home Depot has adopted a clever solution to that.

A few artistic people on staff have written some of the employees names for them. They're extremely colorful, fun designs - and almost impossible for a customer to read, unless you're less than three feet from their chest, and stare.

Again, I love the idea, and never want to stifle employees having fun in the workplace.

But if the bigger goal is to make it easy for patrons to quickly know the names of the employees they're talking with, then I, President Party Pooper, vote for less creative but easier to read, in large, dull, block letters. Just a large, dull thought.

"Storage" "Kitchen" "Plumbing" "Bath" - I worked my way down the center row, head on a swivel, looking for employees I could saunter towards, in hopes of continuing a nice streak of greetings and salutations.

No employees were immediately visible, so I went to the end of the middle row, turned right, up to the front of the store where I hung another right that took me along the back-end of the check-out counters - and no response from two cashiers who waited to ring up patrons.

Then, paydirt with Missy, who said a very friendly "hi!" as I walked by and also explained the evolution of the hand-written names on the Home Depot smocks. Great smile, very friendly attitude from Missy - but more of it is needed from the other cashiers.

Into the "Tool Rental" room I went, where Jim Barnett greeted me with a nice big, closed-ended "Can I help you?" and sent me out after a few minutes of browsing with a respectful, "Thank you, sir."

In-between, he talked about his previous six-year stint at The Woodsmith Store. Very engaging, nice job - just choose a better question at the beginning.

Jason was next - or, as I'll refer to him, "King of the multi-taskers."

As Jason talked to a customer - while he was backing up a  riding mower stationed atop a motorized hand cart - he also glanced at me walking past and shouted, "Are ya good? Anything I can help you with?"

In that case I didn't expect any greeting, so the closed-ended question was gravy. He also engaged me, sans mower, on his trip back past me. "Anything I can get ya? Anything I can help ya with?"

He could have assumed that I was good, since he'd just engaged me a few minutes earlier. But like all great retail people - actually, all great people period - understand, Jason knows that no one ever ended up in the ER due to another person's excessive kindness. Nope - he engaged me again, as if he'd never seen me before.

Jason rocked it. Totally awesome.

Jared didn't carry the mo over to the cleanser aisle (my name, not HD's) where he walked within three feet of me without saying anything.

But Brandi picked it right back up behind the paint center counter, with a respectful but closed-ended, "Can I help you, sir?" when she got to me.

One drawback that wasn't her fault - and this happened more than once in more than one Home Depot department - was that Brandi was on the phone, talking to a customer, while she mixed paint and tried to engage the patron who waited in front of her.

You never want any employee to have to divide their attention in that way. But sometimes, an employee's gotta do what an employee's gotta do.

In this case, you could see that what Brandi gotted to do, was slowing her down - as she had to pause what she was doing at the counter to think about her responses to the phone caller, which of course hampered her ability to get the customer in front of her, taken care of and on his way in a timely fashion.

As much as it is a necessary evil of retail staff in high demand to often have to multi-task in this way, I'm wondering if Home Depot could implement some sort of "roving expert" on the front lines of incoming consumer calls - someone well versed in how each department works, whose responsibility it is to field phone inquiries, walk to the particular department and try to answer the question themselves.

That would allow whoever is working in that particular department, to more effectively engage the customers in front of them, without interruption. It may already be in place, but - just a thought.  

As I moved on and walked by Don, he smiled and sounded off with a "Anything I can help you with here?" - one of a dozen closed-ended questions I was greeted with throughout the morning.

I've clubbed other employees in other stores for doing the same thing, and I can't get soft now in my old Secret Shopper age. Bottom line is that a closed-ended question is not the best way to engage customers, and is not the most effective way to motivate shoppers to part with their hard-earned tax return jack.

Closed-ended retail questions - "Can I help you?" "Anything I can help you with," "Are you good?" etc, imply an "if," as in, "If I can help you, tell me."

That is what order takers ask.

Professionals use open-ended questions  - "What can we help you find today," "What can I help you with," "I'm here to help you..." and so on.

Make no mistake, every employee at Home Depot is a pro, and each deserves to be asking the questions pros ask, of the shoppers they serve.

Enough said.

More needed to be said by Dan and Willie in Doors and Windows - "more" being "anything," as I stood in the section for 17 minutes, browsing three displays, and was never greeted by Willie, who was helping a customer at the counter but should have verbally acknowledged me, or Dan, who was on the phone most of the time but should have at least waved or said "I'll be right with you." 

This sounds knit-picky. It is. It's also how companies raise their customer service bar. 

And to do it, employees have to be on their toes and alert for all shoppers, who can simply not be allowed to romp unacknowledged for that long in a retail space, especially in an area that's specifically being staffed, and esp esp when a patron was never more than 25 feet away - usually less - and was almost always within their eyeshot.

Charlene and Bryan did the same thing, in Blinds and Hardwood Floors. Neither, though, was engaging customers - just each other.

After four minutes, Bryan finally turned to me and said, "Anything I can help you with?" Ouch. But at least he said something. Charlene never said a word, even after I hovered around her for another 2-3 minutes.

All of that was forgiven as I grabbed a bottle of 409 and headed towards the checkout counter.

As I walked past three men who were walking towards me in a group, each greeted me enthusiastically with "Good morning!" "How are you?" and "How are you this morning?" Fantastic energy, wonderful vibe and great job except out of me, who didn't get their names to acknowledge them here. I'll refer to it as "Watching great customer service in HD3," and hope it sticks.

Stopping by and hovering around the customer service desk for two minutes on my way to checkout, the energy was lost - as Pat, standing behind the counter - the customer service counter - said nothing, while she looked at a computer screen.

After two minutes she noticed me, and said, "May I help you?"

Yes - ask a little better question, a lot sooner.

While I'm pointing this out, it's also fair to say that, after Pat engaged me, she was very engaging - her smile touched her eyes, and she laughed easily and often.

Just give it sooner - that's all.

At the checkout counter, Tara - who said nothing to me as I walked past her three times earlier that morning - nearly made up for it, with a pleasant "How are you?" as she scanned my bottle o' cleanser.

59 minutes later, I was on my way back out through the door I'd come in, 59 minutes earlier. Which would be freaky if it was a different number.

One shopping experience for Jonathan in the books. How would Jonnie fare?


Staff Interaction/Jonnie:   


I got to the paint aisle before I found another employee - Ron, who was slowly pushing a  tall ladder scaffolding down the aisle behind me, waiting for me to move my kaboose so he could climb up and do what needed done. 

I moved aside and let him pass - he said nothing as he did. Nor did he say anything while I stared at rollers, about 15 feet from him. Finally, as he turned around I was sort of right there, and startled him into a "Hi!"

I felt worse about making him jump than I did about not being verbally engaged. Sorry, Ron! :)  

Two other guys pushing a similar scaffolding down another aisle, didn't miss the opportunity to greet.

"How you doin, sir!" said Don. And smiles from both - a particularly non-so-easy reaction when you're also schleping around an ungainly, 15 feet high wheeled ladder, especially if it's using the same wheels as old school grocery store carts.

To the "Tool Rental" room - where Morris was now on duty, and greeted me with a booming, "Help you find anything?" As I walked towards the tillers, Morris said to Matt, his co-worker, "You've got questions. We've got answers." Funny line, and Radioshack's brander, it fit better than "More Saving. More Doing. That's the power of The Home Depot."

Back out into the main store, a woman, rapidly walking, quickly moved towards me and what I assumed would next be her car, cause nobody in retail walks that fast unless their shift is over or the place is on fire. 

Yet she still took the time - and this was truly one of the best moments of a day filled with good ones - to stop and share her happiness with me, with a huge smile, and a "Finding everything okay?"

I was so pleasantly surprised that an employee getting off work would still engage me, I could only shake my head, then stare at her as she hustled away.

I snapped out of it and boot-scooted after her, to get her name so I could share it with you, but to no avail - she was Post Toast-ies, hustling out the door and off, to go spend time with others lucky enough to bask in the warmth of that beautiful smile of hers.

That's the power of The Home Depot.   

Less of that power was on display on the return trip to the Doors and Windows section, where two different employees, a man and a woman, both ignored me. (Is this area possessed, like The Amityville Horror house, except the result is customer service ambivalence, instead of poor special effects and bad acting from James Brolin and Margot Kidder?)  

Then Penn appeared and, like Rod Steiger as "The Priest," saved them both.

He was walking fast and nearly flew past but was thoughtful enough when he saw me to slow down and say, "Need anything?"

In that particular area, the question was more than enough.

The best was saved for last - Jorge Ann.

If we're very lucky, we'll occasionally meet that person working retail who has such a sweet, kind, engaging disposition, that they feel more like a member of our family, than someone paid to help us find our way around a store. Or, depending on the family member, someone we'd gladly nominate as a replacement.  

Jorge Ann was that person. I'm adopting her as at least a cousin, with a "Great Aunt" option.

She sort of chased me down as I headed towards the checkout counter, then got in front of me and said through a big smile, "Can I help you, sir?"

We talked a bit. He smile never left her eyes - Jorge Ann is, I suspect, a happy person, wherever you put her, at work or play.

Then she did something that seems so very insignificant - something that doesn't appear in the Home Depot manual, or any other manual - and yet is something I talk about frequently in training:

The power of touch.

As we continued to talk, Jeorge Ann took a small step forward as did I, then leaned a bit and let her shoulder touch my own - probably a motion that our cavepeople ancestors did by design, to signal that a member of a different tribe was welcome among their own - and hey, can I get ya a cup of Sanka-saurus? It's really no trouble!

A handshake, a back tap, a shoulder touch, a belly bump - in retail, touching is knocking down walls, and that's bonding, which creates the deepest sense of loyalty between customers and employees. In fact, it blows up those titles, and replaces it with just one: friends.

Incredible job, Jeorge Ann - you're a superstar. Thank you.

At the checkout counter, it was almost as good, with Semir.

He didn't wait for me to put my spray bottle of cleanser on the counter. Instead, Semir (who is Bosnian) thoughtfully took it from me, over to the self-assist counter, where he scanned it, told me my total, took my money, put it in the slot, handed me my change, receipt and cleanser, and thanked me.

If that's how they do it at the Home Depot in Sarajevo, I at least gotta check out their Windows And Doors Department.

Then I left - and it was over.




Let me say, first off, that this was one of the better overall customer service experiences I've had since I started doing these reviews.

Of the total number of times employees could engage me, most did - that by itself puts the Home Depot staff at 3700 University Avenue in pretty rarified air.

Add to that some employees doing truly extraordinary work on the floor, and you have the foundation for building a customer service template that can be one of the best in Des Moines - in any category.

What ultimately prevented the score from being a four, was the lack of an open-ended question - not one, in the nearly two hours total I spent in the store.

The great news is that this is a very trainable customer service element - with a staff that I'm guessing has been extensively trained (and well done, to whoever did/does it) as it is.

The other thing - and I want to be careful here, as not to sound sexist...after all, I'm the dude who went in drag to the DOT, hello! - is that while a handful of employees of both genders can do a better job of engaging customers, it's some of the female checkout counter clerks and customer service department staff who I'd really like to see step up, smile, greet and engage more consistently.

While there is no "front of the store," the employees who work the registers - who appear to be predominantly women - have an important responsibility, as the first faces that many customers encounter.

I know that all of the staff working those registers, male and female, have beautiful smiles - now just remember to share them, especially with the unhandymen and women who come in, needing a bit more reassurance than the Bob and Bobbi Villas of the world.

Give 'em your best smile, every time. I promise - if you feel like you're running out, you've got the tools to make more :)



Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show," Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350 KRNT. You can email Jonnie at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com.

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