It's Time to Cut the Slack from Customer Service

Opinion: Retailers need to move past the "Gen X" mentality when it comes to their customers.

Having been born in 1970, I cannot escape the fact that I squarely land in the demographic known as "Generation X." As much disdain as I held in the early 1990s for the then-new buzzwords like "Gen X" and "slacker," I have to confess that I did exhibit a number of stereotypical slacker behaviors.

I held a series of dead-end jobs at second-rate companies, explaining away my seeming lack of career path by saying I wanted to "be a writer." I whiled away countless hours that could have been otherwise spent productively arguing the relative merits of Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam. I hung out in "colorful" dive bars. I reserved the bulk of my closet space for plaid flannel shirts. I crashed on friends' couches from coast to coast. I even engaged in a regrettable two-week flirtation with growing a goatee (though, thankfully, I was smart enough not to pose for any photos during the latter half of March 1995).

Then something happened. I turned 25 and realized it was time to finally grow up. I took my first career-type job, as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, and poured my heart and soul into it. I moved out of my mom's house and into my own apartment. I started my weekends on Fridays (okay, sometimes I held a sneak preview on Thursday nights) and ended them on Sundays. I started shaving regularly.

Although grunge has been out of style long enough to be poised for its second comeback, many retailers are still in the slacker phase when it comes to their support of customer service.

Most egregiously, they don't bother investing in heavy-duty security systems to protect customer data, relying strictly on third-party standards or pure luck to protect their customers from fraud and identity theft. They don't look into advanced merchandising and supply chain systems, settling for stock-outs and delivery errors that prevent shoppers from getting the products they need. They let in-store customer service levels descend to all-time lows, despite the availability of self-service devices and automated training tools that can vastly improve the entire customer shopping experience.

Like a post-college wanderer who sullies his friends' mismatched living room sets while gaining the "life experience" needed to be a writer (all without hardly putting a pen to paper), all too many retailers are satisfied with maintaining the status quo while "investigating" new systems and processes that could improve their customer service levels. This generalization does not apply to all, or even most retailers, but it applies to more than a few, and a few is too many.

To all you slacking retailers, I say the time has come to step out of the early '90s and into the early '00s. Move the old flannel shirts off your shelves and give your customers the products they want and need. Weekends and holidays are not one big party, but when your customers are most apt to frequent your stores, so make sure you are providing the technical and staff support necessary to keep things flowing smoothly during peak shopping periods.

Reality doesn't bite anywhere nearly as bad as advertised. The time to be dazed and confused is over, so unleash your natural-born killer instinct and build a reservoir of customer service-enhancing systems that will keep your business from going to the dogs (all lame references to early '90s movies are fully intentional, and no, I won't apologize for them).

Dan Berthiaume covers the retail space for eWEEK. For more industry news, check out's Retail Site.