COMMON SENSE APPROACHES FOR EXCELLENT
Remove six major
roadblocks to providing great customer service that exist in the vast
majority of retail furniture stores.
Is there any other term in our industry that rings more hollow than
“customer service?” Think back to any time that you’ve had to call a
company’s customer service department. Were you excited? Hopeful? If
you’re like me, you probably rehearsed your conversation a dozen times,
carefully picking out all the sticking points and counter-arguments they
might come up with, making it airtight. Bulletproof.
Brick by Brick
Most furniture customers approach customer service in the same way. With
trembling hand, they dial the numbers. This is going to work, they
convince themselves. I’m in the right and did nothing wrong! Then, just
like Pink Floyd’s watershed album, the wall begins to build. Brick by
brick customers encounter a wall of e-directs, callbacks, management
involvement and promises of return calls.
They commiserate with anyone who will listen. “This is ridiculous,” they
argue. “I sat on the sofa you delivered and I heard a crack. Should sofa
frames just crack?” As each day passes, they get more angry, more dug in,
ready to fight the good fight. “Social media! That’ll make them listen,”
they fantasize. When all else fails, they pen an angry complaint to the
Better Business Bureau, the final repository for all poorly handled
customer service issues.
And then maybe they will get a reply from the store saying, “We give in.
We’ll replace your sofa.” There! Was that so hard?
Brick by brick customers encounter a wall of e-directs, callbacks,
management involvement and promises of return calls.
Too many furniture store owners and operations managers assume that if
they don’t hear from angry customers directly, they don’t have customer
service problems. They are under the impression that it’s going OK because
customers who are truly angry are able to go right to the top!
I guarantee that they are wrong. My experience has shown that the vast
majority of managers who are responsible for customer service haven’t set
aside enough time to sit down and dissect the problems and roadblocks that
almost certainly exist in their customer service departments.
Let’s cast a little light on the most likely roadblocks to great customer
No matter what program you end up using to help handle customer
service, take the time to pay close attention to how it can enhance
the customer service your stores provide.
Poor Software. The retail furniture industry does not have a lot to
choose from if they’re looking for robust, integrated, intuitive
customer service operating system software. In fact, programmers seem
to be somewhat in denial, because furniture is inherently in need of
No direction. One of the reasons people don’t want to work in customer
service is because it is a lot like being the target on a firing
range, and these front line employees can’t duck. The complaints they
hear are part truth, part lies. Often, CSRs have to figure it out for
No clear rules. CSRs are given lots of rules, only to watch them
rolled back when complaints are escalated. Some of these are
absolutely insane, putting CSRs in unenviable and illogical positions.
No options. Many CSRs are told, for example, that if a customer
reports a small rub on the back of a delivered sofa, the only remedies
are a service call or to bring it back for repair.
Lack of technicians. It’s often impossible for CSRs to get service
backlogs resolved due to a lack of service techs who can actually do
Lack of training. I’ve been in furniture operations on the service,
repair and delivery side for almost 30 years and am willing to bet
that your CSRs probably can’t explain what lacquer or a barrel nut is.
If that’s the case in your stores, it’s a problem.
CSRs are given lots of rules only to watch them rolled back when
complaints are escalated. Some of these are absolutely insane, putting
CSRs in unenviable and illogical positions.
Operating systems that handle customer service are usually written by
people who are good with numbers, data and code, but not necessarily with
people. Until recently, I had only once seen a truly great customer
service program, used by Boyles Furniture in Hickory, in the 1990s. It was
a powerful program written by John McCloskey and Dave Hess, who took the
time to say, “what if?” It wasn’t a typical pre-packaged lackluster
subroutine. Instead it was integrated with sales and delivery in real
time. Tickets were easy to open, track and close, with triggers helping
CSRs stay on top of commitments. Managers were able to easily keep up to
date. Involving others in the decision-making process was simple.
Recently, I met with Amitesh Sinha, the CIO of iConnect Group. His
customer service module is easily as intuitive and robust as Boyles’. And
it comes with the option to integrate essential third-party programs like
door counters and dispatching. There may be others that are similarly
good, but no matter what program you end up using to help handle customer
service, take the time to pay close attention to how it can enhance the
customer service your stores provide.
Importance of Clear Rules
CSRs are natural problem solvers. So, when there is a leadership void,
they can become incredibly frustrated. It’s a combination of them not
being high up the organizational chart, but at the same time being tasked
with making difficult decisions (interpreting store policy and
manufacturer’s warranties, for example).
In many retail operations the most frustrating part of a CSR’s job is
having to cobble solutions together on the fly in the absence of clear
rules to follow. This is magnified when management is purposefully vague
about how to handle service issues. When I was a QC manager I recall how
difficult it was to reconcile customer complaints regarding goods from
many different manufacturers—each with their own rules and warranties—with
Think Outside the Box
Thinking outside the box is important. For example, a lot of furniture
retailers simply say that “The company reserves the right to repair or
replace at their discretion.” But, they haven’t considered simple
solutions like giving a little money off. I understand why retailers don’t
want to consider this option. Giving money back erodes margins, but so do
the less tangible but very real costs of providing service. A service call
can cost $200 or more depending on the time involved, the distance
traveled, and materials needed. Bringing damaged goods back for repair
eliminates two revenue-producing stops plus the added costs of shop time
and materials. Replacing an item, in my opinion is even worse, wasting a
revenue-producing stop and bringing back a product that still has to be
repaired. If you don’t have the replacement item in stock, then by the
time the damaged item is picked up, it may smell like smoke, have pet hair
on it, or be worn. That’s why offering some money off or giving a gift
card can be an efficient solution and is often what the customer wanted
An alternative to the money-off solution is to develop the capability to
send out technicians on 911 calls.
That means freeing up a tech to literally jump into a Sprinter, make a
quick house call, and take care of the problem.
An alternative to the money-off solution is to develop the capability to
send out technicians on 911 calls. That means freeing up a tech to
literally jump into a Sprinter, make a quick house call, then take care of
the problem. Or, as in the case of Ashley, a replacement part (if
applicable) can be sent directly to the customer’s home. Ashley has made
that exceedingly easy to do.
The Right Repair Techs
Naturally, if you are short on repair, technicians, your whole service
operation will grind to a halt. I maintain that it is much cheaper, and
sometimes preferable, to train people to be technicians in-house rather
than hiring someone who is already trained. Training your own techs means
that you can standardize training, teach them what they really need to
know and keep them on task. From a financial standpoint, a fully-trained
technician can make several hundred dollars a day on their own versus $15
an hour working a job, so they’ll demand more money. If there’s no need
for their skills, you’re better off training someone who will simply be
removing damaged parts and installing new parts. Sort of like someone who
is qualified to tune-up a Lamborghini but works in a garage that only
fixes Hondas. A newbie might only cost you $12 an hour, but depending on
your operational needs you won’t be paying for a lot of skill you’ll
probably never need.
Upgrade CSR Training
Finally, train your CSRs to understand what they need to know to do their
jobs well. If they don’t understand how a sofa is put together or how a
finish is built, how can they intelligently help customers with their
complaints, or adequately process their tickets? Your shop and customer
service department should work in harmony, integrating their efforts to
supply customers with quick, efficient resolutions. The same relationship
should exist between your warehouse staff and salespeople. Arbitrary
divisions found at retail between departments that should be working
closely together is often counterproductive.
When starting to think about how your company handles post-delivery
customer service, put yourself in your customer’s shoes and remember the
last time you had to call a company for service. I guarantee that those
same thoughts and strategies play out in the minds of your customers every
Your goal should be to make their experiences as easy and fast as
possible, while still protecting your bottom line with common-sense
approaches that deal with the issues that arise within our industry.
Peter Schlosser is a backend furniture consultant based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His focus is repair, quality control, exceptional customer service, and all things operational. He is a contributing editor to Furniture World. To see all his articles
. Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at