Hello shoppers...


It's Day 2, round 2 of a return Secret Shopper trip, and review, of 18 stores at Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines.

Yesterday I evaluated 9 stores. Today, we'll polish off another 9, breaking down each via The Pillars of Great Customer Service, plus using some common sense expectations of how any of us shoppers might want to be treated by store employees.

Thursday's group set the bar pretty high. (That's actually a much funnier caption for the above photo.) Let us see if employees at today's batch of stores can keep the good customer service mojo going.

This store - which sells a more plush, higher-end version of what we used to call "bean bag chairs" (and probably still do), has a cool, laid-back vibe, which Zachariah added to by offering a nicely pleasant but unsmiling "How are you?" as I entered the store.

Zachariah asked me if I'd been in that store before - a very reasonable closed-ended question. (I hadn't.) He had me try out several of the very comfortable chairs and we chit-chatted along the way. There was one particular chair I sat in that was a little more lumpy and less cooperative in letting its fibers shape to my backside (likely operator error). Zachariah noticed, and did a nice job of talking about that chair being on the newer, less broken-in side.

The chairs are pretty big investments (at least from where my wallet is standing) and Zachariah probably could have and should have introduced himself at some point, and gotten my name, and used it. Names in retail transactions are important. We're more likely to drop more moo-lah on higher end products if we know who we're buying from, and if they act like they want to get to know us. It's a fine line - between wanting to connect, and seeming "salesmaney," but step up to it and even across it once in a while, Zachariah, and you'll figure out how close you can get.

Zach's a pleasant guy, working in a nice store. Now just smile and engage more, young man, and you'll bag more sales.


There were six customers and just one salesperson. So I browsed for seven minutes until the place was cleared out.

Then Mike approached.

"Is there anything I can help you with, sir?"

Long wait time + closed-ended question + old geezer "sir" reference = likely loss of sale.

A customer always needs help. Always. Particularly if they've been browsing awhile. They may need help finding something. They may need help understanding a product. They may need help locating the potty.

Yet even if they don't, customers still want to feel like an employee sees them, has their back and is ready to help at the first sign of confusion, product ignorance or bladder control issues.

Mike, next time, try "Hi, how are you? How can I help you today?" It will feel like you really care, to the person you're saying it to.

Mike smiled and was pleasant as we chatted. He was also very knowledgeable about cell phones and plans, and did a good job of explaining them to someone feigning ignorance. (Okay, it was real.)

I told Mike I wanted to look some more, and he was very good about giving me space yet assuring me that he was nearby, if I had any questions.

Later, Mike ended our interaction with "Have a good one," which isn't exactly "Peace, out!" on the informality scale, but it's in the same zip code. Try "Thanks for shopping with us. Have a great day!" for a little more polish.

This probably means a bit less to Mike, as he is leaving RS for MetLife - and is probably already gone. He mentioned that Russell, the store manager, was a great guy to work for, which was a nice touch.  

Maybe have the new guy read this, Russell. :)

An employee who was engaged with a customer - I believe his name was Matthew (the employee, not the customer) - looked at me, smiled and said, "There will be somebody with you in just a few moments."

A busy employee in a busy store who is not too busy to reassure a shopper, who may need reassuring? That's called having empathy, and it's at the core of rock star customer service treatment. Awesome job, Matthew!

A few minutes later, Nathan approached, with the customer service version of a grating busy signal. "Have you been helped?"

Ouch. I'll call back.

That question is the opposite of reassuring, and sort of killed what Matthew did. It makes shoppers feel like the staff has lost track of them. It also starts out the interaction on a note of uncertainty, and that's baaad for sales. Plus, it's a closed-ended question.

Take control of the conversation, Nathan. Open with something friendly and inviting, like, "Hi, how are you?" That feels less transactional than "Have you been helped?" Then follow up with an open-ended, "What can I help you find today?" If the customer is being waited on, they'll tell you. "Oh my! What a helpful staff you all are!" If they haven't, they'll tell you. Either way, they'll feel like you cared enough to engage them, in a positive, pro-active way.

At that point, Nathan dialed up a perfect connection.

"Welcome to AT&T! My name is Nathan!" Awesome!

He didn't ask for my name right away, but did remember to, later - nice catch. :) I told him it was Jonnie. He said, "Jon?" It felt like he meant, why would you use that stupid version of Jon? He may have just been trying to clarify what he heard. Working retail is like walking through a minefield at night.

After I told Nathan why I was there (a phone for my 16-year-old daughter) he did a great job of showing me different models, and their features, and benefits. He also asked if I might want a new phone, since AT&T had a "Buy one, get one free" offer going on, on their Windows model. Way to pimp, young man!

One thing Nathan could have done was to ask me what I liked about my Blackberry Touch. That would have helped direct him towards the best phone for me. He actually didn't ask me what I was looking for in a phone at all - that's an opportunity. Instead, Nathan very enthusiastically described the picture-taking ability of some of the phones, without knowing if that meant anything to me. He also described other features, and focused in on the clarity and sharpness of the screen on the Windows model.

To demonstrate this, Nathan brought up a pre-loaded photo, to show me the image contrast on the Windows screen vs. another model. It was a picture of a couple lying next to each other, on a bed, shot from the torso, down, fully clothed, room well-lit, the woman's back sort of turned to the dude.

I would call the picture gently provocative - and would probably bring up a different photo next time, unless it's 10pm on a Saturday night, and you're featuring a live band, and pizza.

Nathan did a very good job of explaining everything. He also referenced my daughter. Nice! Then I told him I wanted to look some more.

"Feel free to browse. I'm Nathan." Nice. Now make sure you use my name in the conversation, since you know what it is.

Later, Carla, noticing that I was taking notes (on Nathan, not the phone), eventually came over.

"Did you have any questions on anything?"

Just if I look obvious, taking notes - which apparently I do.

On that note, I left.

There were some really good connections made by staff at this store, with the occasional misdial. Nice job, overall!

I was greeted by some fantastic Christmas music that put me (W)right in the holiday buying mood.

Hear that, raTget! 

After several minutes of browsing in a very busy store, I was approached by a smiling Jane, who said, closed-endedly, "Finding everything okay?"

Fine. But taking a little extra time to say "hi" first, makes the customer feel like you're going to take time with them - even on a busy shopping day. An open-ended question, adds to that feeling.

I told her I was shopping for my daughter and my wife. Jane warmed immediately, describing photo holders, plaques, collectibles, cards - without knowing what my daughter and wife might want. Don't forget to ask that little question, Jane! :) Later, after she'd sort of run out of stuff to show me (on that side of the store), Jane asked if this was a collective gift for both, or separate gifts. Great question!

Jane smiled throughout and was very engaging, even offering up a polite "You're welcome" after I'd thanked her - the first, and only person in 18 stores to do so. Nice job!

Deann, the store manager, also came up to me later, and, smiling, asked, "Anything I can help you find?"

Yes. A plaque that says: An open-ended question is the Hallmark of great service. :)  

Mina was balancing a stack of shoe boxes in her arms and stocking shelves with them, but still managed a very friendly "Hi there!" as I entered. Awesome!

She approached me a bit later, and asked, "Something I can help you find?"

Before I had a chance to closed-endedly ask, "Can you ask that in an open-ended way?" Mina smiled, laughed, pointed and said, "Men's shoes are over there." She was way ahead of me.

I told her I was looking for dress shoes. She replied, with a giggle, "We've got 50 pair of dress shoes for women, and 5 for men." It was cute and honest, but not terribly conducive to selling shoes. Always try to put a positive spin on what you do have, rather than emphasizing what you ain't got, said the minor blogger who claims to be an "author."

Later, Mina did a bit more lamenting (This was after I told her I was a Secret Shopper). She complained, gently, about customers leaving the shoes they try on, all over the showroom floor. "They wouldn't do that at home. Why do they do it here?"

That's because shoppers shop in their I, their individuality - the most selfish, me!me!me! part of who we all are. And employees serve in their R, their role - the most selfless, empathetic part of who we all are.

With noteworthy exceptions to the latter.

Mina is a very friendly, laid-back person with a lot of soul - and not just because I'm going to make a joke about a store full of soles. My advice is to keep the happiest part of your soul, front and center, Mina. Customers will thrive on it. And maybe those still happy, but not quite as much, parts will learn to play a little better in your visible-to-customers sandbox - wearing some very nice Christian Siriano's.

Another store playing great Christmas music - cool caroling beans!

Literally within 3 seconds of stepping into the store, I was greeted by a female employee, who said, "Hi there. Need help finding anything?" I hadn't had time to not find anything.

That's why training employees to plug into the customer's needs - vs. uttering that sort of knee-jerk reactive phrase (that was closed-ended, to boot) - is so important.

In this case, the employee had been working on stocking when I came in, and seemed like she wanted to get back to it. Sure. Stuff's gotta get done, understood. But making a customer feel like you got stuff to do, and want to get back to it, can lead to having less customers, and thus, less stuff to do.

So she quickly cut to the chase and asked a question designed for quick interaction, and in a way that suggested she didn't really mean it, which would cut down on her interaction time, and get her back to stocking.

Less than 60 seconds later, Jessica, who had been smiling and stocking with the other woman, and was now not stocking and not smiling with me, asked, "Still doing alright, sir?"

I'd had 63 seconds to do anything - I had no idea if it was right.

These girls just wanted to stock shelves and be left alone - I needed to leave them be. First though, I approached the girl unnamed, told her I was a secret shopper, and asked her what her name was. She declined - with as much warmth as she'd asked the closed-ended question, minus 20 degrees. She did grudgingly cough up the name of the store manager, Becky.  

I try to be kind and understanding with people working in retail when I share the fact that I'm a customer service evaluator, and they've just been evaluated. I wouldn't like it if I was in their shoes, no matter how good I thought I had been at taking care of the (now unsecret) shopper. 

My overall experience suggests that the people who are doing a great job in retail, know it and welcome the fact that somebody else knows it, and is going to share what he knows, with the world.

When my agenda, which isn't purely to shop, meets an employee's agenda that isn't purely to help, a little friction can occur.

Jessica and the other woman are likely very good employees who do a consistently good job of making customers feel taken care of. They were having an off day on this day - or, more accurately, an off 63 seconds.

The greatest lesson to be learned by employees is that a minute, in retail, can last forever.

Kathy, the store manager,  was looking at something up at the register, with her back to the retail floor, so she didn't see me, or a few other customers browsing. The thing she was working on appeared to be something she could have done while facing the showroom - probably a better idea, so she's sending that subtle (and nothing to customers is ever really subtle) signal to customers that they're just as important as what she's working on.

Doris started the interaction off on a smiling and pleasant but closed-ended note, asking, "Is there anything I can help you find?"

I told her I was looking for a gift for my grandmother, and she let me browse. That was fine. I was probably allowed to look around a few clicks longer than you'd like to see a dude turned loose inside a women's clothing store without being engaged a second time. That included several drive-bys by Jeanne, who didn't say a word or make eye contact.

Then Kathy approached. "Can we help you with sizes or anything?" She was very pleasant, and asked me a few questions about color and style preferences.

Then I saw, to paraphrase Charlie Rich, the most beautiful Pillar in the world.


Pieces of chocolate, chocolate chip cookies - here was a store that a man could get used to bringing his woman to.

Ladies, you were happy when you engaged me, and were absolutely delightful when I came out of the Secret Shopper closet. Keep smiling, keep greeting, keep (open-ended) engaging, keep thanking and most important, keep choclatizing.

Kathy was about as pleasant as a person can be, without smiling - which is the only tip I can give her...to :) ! more.

"Is there anything I can help you find?"

Okay, and to ask open-ended questions. Other than that, she was terrific. :)

Kathy asked a ton of questions about my grandma - the first of which was her size. I, being Einstein, responded she was a 6, which isn't the thing to say when you're Secret Shopping a store whose branding statement is: SIZE 14 AND MORE.

Kathy began walking towards the front entrance of the store, directing me towards another shop i.e. tossing me and my size 6 granny outta there.

With the smoothness of cake batter beaten inadequately, I said, "Uh...I meant size 16."


Now that we knew I was playing baseball on the right diamond, Kathy started hitting a barrage of doubles and triples: What was her color preference? Jacket or sweater? Open or closed necked? Ornamental or dressed down? Kathy made me feel like she cared, because she did. She was the absolute selling stud of all the employees I met over the 18 stores I shopped, in terms of asking me questions in order to hone in on what I really wanted/needed. Awesome job, Kathy!!

Now just show that beautiful smile, especially when Julie, your manager, is around. She'll dig that - in any size, no questions asked.

There is some pretty cool stuff in this store. What wasn't so cool is browsing it for 20 minutes without being smiled at, greeted, engaged or thanked by any of the two, then three employees who were on the floor.

The register at this store is towards the back. That's where I made my way, checking out merchandise, picking it up, putting it down, normal buying cues.

Andy didn't really give a hoot about cues. He was initially on the phone, then was talking with another employee, about what sounded like the store's manager, someone neither person appeared to be terribly fond of.

I'm 20 feet away, and could hear everything said, in the deadly quiet store.

"If you yell at your staff, they won't respect you," said Andy. "I know she does."

Tossing management under the train. Within customer earshot. And not caring. Not cool.

Then a woman came into the store, wearing a coat. She took it off.  Andy engaged her. This appeared to be the female manager they had been clubbing.

She did turn out to be the manager - Krystal.

I'd put the coat back on and make a run for it, lady.

A buzzer sounded, towards an area behind a back door. "Sounds like fun," said another employee, moving in that direction.

Yep. Nothing but good times and great oldies here!

I gave them 20 full minutes to wait on me. Another customer who came into the store after I did, gave them less - he walked out.

Finally, my Scorpio mouth got the best of me.

I engaged Andy, told him I'd heard his conversation and thought it was rude to be talking about a store manager in such a way, around customers.

He smiled and said, "Oh I wasn't talking about our manager."

Turns out Andy had a problem with a store manager at an adjacent store. Apparently employees from Brookstone hang out in the back and take smoke breaks, and this other store manager complains to them, about it.

"She's a gem," Andy said.

I wonder if her employees smell like cigarettes, and ignore customers, too.

I quickly walked over to Clark's Shoe Store, next door, to find this sour-puss fun-stealer - and was immediately greeted with one of the biggest, warmest, most engaging smiles of the entire two-day, 18 store, secret shopping excursion, along with, "Hi! How are you today?!" from Charity, the store manager, and resident neighborhood troublemaker.

Travis, the assistant manager at Clark's, told me that "We stole one of their employees recently."

Charity is now my favorite person in the whole entire world.



Best of the best/salesperson: Martie, from Sleep Number. She's an incredibly warm, engaging and nurturing person, and you feel that, every second you're around her.  Honorable mention goes to Todd, at Teavana, for great product knowledge, along with Kathy at CJ Banks, for continuing to ask questions, which helped her help me, and made me feel good.

Best of the best/company: Apple, hands down. Their staff is highly trained, and they care. You can teach one, but the other is a talent - and those are some very talented people. Honorable mention goes to AT&T, whose employees showed what good customer service and sales training can do.

What needs work:  Out of 18 opening questions from store employees, 16 were closed-ended. Either those companies don't teach the power of open-ended - or they do, but their employees need a refresher course. Or they don't, and need something stronger. Regardless, there's a tremendous amount of opportunity for those companies to improve their customer loyalty, and their bottom line. Also, these companies should stress the importance of basic introductions - ask for the customer's name, share their own, ask questions, get to know who comes through their doors. After all, retail is just people meeting people, (W)right?

The overall high quality of customer service at the stores at Jordan Creek Mall was a pleasant surprise. I hope it continues - right through the busy Christmas season, into the not so busy winter months, throughout the Spring thaw, into Summer's heat, rolling on into Fall...

You've got your Christmas wish, gentle reader. I've got mine.


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.       


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Phone: 515-480-4190

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