TDmonthly Magazine!
September 2010 | Vol. IX - No. 9


Take a Cue: Good Customer Service is Like Billiards

Scatter Your Staff to Increase Your Score

The following article was reprinted with permission from the author.

Ever played pool? It starts off with all the balls together, the cue ball comes along to break them up, they scatter and the game commences. That’s what I expect in a retail store. In fact it’s one of my pet peeves when employees stay clustered, like a beehive daring someone to come in and be stung.

There's no appliance store within 30 miles of my home in NY so I went into a Home Depot last Friday afternoon in one of the most torrential rains I’ve ever been though, looking for a particular panel I’d seen over the weekend to build a backsplash. The place was dead and devoid of customers.

I returned to the display, discovered that it had only 10 pieces and began searching for someone to check the back stock since I needed a total of 18 pieces. I looked around to the left and saw nothing but empty work desks, then to the right. No one was there either. There were some signs of life: the computers were on and stuff was stacked in front like someone had been there.

Disperse or Customers Will Curse

I went around to the right, then left, then to the right and discovered three male employees standing around a workstation desk and a fourth employee sitting back in her chair. She was chatting about the lack of customers, I think.

I came within 10 feet of the desk and they kept talking. She remained tilted back in the chair and looking at me. No one said a word.

"Excuse me," I said. "Can I get some help?"

Without moving, the woman said, "What are you looking for?"

"There’s something over here…"

She jumped in, "Well what is it?"

In frustration, I blurted out, "If you would get off your butt, I could show you."

She got up and moved towards me and I led her back to the display. As I explained what I needed, I began to feel bad and said, "Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that."

She replied, "That’s OK. People don’t always get what we’re saying."

I don’t think she knew what I was saying.

It’s not up to the customer to respond correctly. The employees should have broken up and one of them should have immediately come over and offered to assist. Instead, they stayed in their pack, making the customer, who was trying to spit out the correct name of the product more uncomfortable. I still can’t recall the name of that backsplash tile, but I do recall with clarity my own laid-back, customer-ignoring behavior from more than 20 years ago.

I was just out of high school and working at the Nunn Bush Shoe Shop. I was talking to my boss behind the counter while a customer looked through all the shoe displays. Instead of breaking and talking to him to assess his needs, we kept right on talking.

Finally, the customer came up to us and asked, "Is this all you have?" I guess I was feeling my oats that day when I said, "No, we have three floors above us — we want people to guess what we have."

The customer said, "Next time, take your bad mood out on somebody else!"

Dispense with Your Attitude

I wish I could say I was put in my place and immediately gave him the attention and apology he deserved. But it wasn’t until later that I realized why and how I’d truly been a jerk that day I think it started by allowing there to be a wall between the customer and me. I think I considered myself as this great resource — so great, in fact, that people would come to me and request my help. I didn’t have to go out of my to offer assistance; customers would be lucky enough to hear my advice when they asked. While I couldn’t salvage that shoe shopper’s experience, the incident stayed with me for a long time as an example of how not to behave behind the counter.

A few days ago, I returned to the same Home Depot, looking at an appliance. The guy, a member of the pack from the previous Friday, offered to print the sell sheet for me. When I asked, "Should I buy this from you or online?" he replied, "I’d appreciate it if you’d buy from me so I could keep my job." After this experience, I’m looking anywhere but Home Depot.

If you don’t want your customers to scatter to your competitors, don’t allow your employees to cluster like somebody had racked them up. It builds a wall. And if you have a counter, it creates a moat around your castle of employee-only space. Back there, employees find it easy to feel superior to customers.

Train your crew to see every customer who works through the day as the cue ball — and the cue to the crew to scatter so you can pocket some sales.

Bob PhibbsWriter's Bio: Bob Phibbs is the Retail Doctor®, a best-selling author and speaker who has helped thousands of independent businesses compete. His new book, The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business has received praise from both Inc. magazine and USA Today and can be found at your local bookstore or ordered at He and his work have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur magazine. Questions? Contact Bob at This article was reprinted with permission of the author, Bob Phibbs, aka The Retail Doctor®. Read more articles by this author


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