One of the risks in creating comprehensive brand experience frameworks, replete with scripted behaviors that employees must follow dutifully down to the letter, is that it can make a mockery of conventional human activities.
Take my shopping visit over lunch to Borders, which is a few blocks closer than Barnes & Noble—a critical decision factor when the rain is pelting down in its characteristic Seattle fashion. Walking through the front door, I paused to peruse the new Eoin Colfer entry into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy canon. Scanning through the preface, I was interrupted by a headset-wearing young woman.
"Need any assistance?"
"No, thank you," I demurred, glancing briefly through the tome before wandering deeper into the wilds of Fiction & Literature. As I strolled along the stacks, the book spines flicking past in reverse alphabetical order, I was stopped by another Borders employee.
"Looking for something?"
"No, just browsing, thanks," I said. I didn't want to let her know the title of the book I was seeking—Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness—so I wouldn't be sucked into dialogue regarding cross-listing of books within various departments, opportunities for special orders that may be delivered to the shop, and an infinitude of other actions that could emerge from that simple request for help. She can tell that I am hedging my true intent, as most customers do, and swiftly moves along to Westerns.
I arrived at the B's. They only had copies of de Botton's On Love and How Proust Can Change Your Life. I took the former book from the top shelf and began to read the first chapter.
"Finding what you're looking for?" I turned to see another Borders employee, kindly smiling up at me as my mind froze mid-sentence.
"You bet, no problem," I said. She continued about her business. I continued to read about transatlantic flights, the probabilities inherent in meeting your true love, and a host of other topics. After glancing at a few other volumes on the shelf, I started to walk out—only to be confronted by yet another staffer.
"Need any help?" he said.
What I wanted to say: "I do need help. I need you to seriously rethink what customer service looks like in a bookstore."
Instead what came out was a final, cavernous "No." This was the last word I emitted before leaving.
The level of tact and nuance expected from an employee being paid $8 an hour (plus potential benefits) in an industry that expects a high level of literacy and devotion to the printed word is staggering, considering the volume of information contained within the 10,000 square feet of a retail store. This defies the notion of the designed, logical user flow within the computer interface, an ever-open search box beckoning for controlled input. In bookstores, we have seen people dance and mime book titles, noting that they'd been on NPR or in the New York Times or highlighted on their favorite blog, and expecting staffers to pluck out of the ether the most likely result. The air is our interface, and the computer is our adjunct.
As a result, it's easier to reduce the set of possible actions to canned behaviors and rote interactions when not near a computer. Never engage with your customer, allowing them to dive deeply into books on the shelf, and you risk alienating them—or letting them treat the store like a library in both atmosphere and expectation of free book consumption. Aim for over-service, and your staff's behavior can smack of desperation. (In retail, the latter can also happen because the staff has identified you as a potential shoplifting risk, and feels that they can goad you to leave by piling on an excess of proffered help.) A hard-lined set of rules and regulations that must be followed to the letter. The computer is the fall-back position, the single hub that all the worker bees must return to in order to access the primary catalog.
Over time, a further decentralization will wash over the book-selling world, where staffers can fall back on WiFi-connected devices that provide the same data on the spot—speeding up the likelihood of placing the right book in the customer's hands. Add in book-reading devices like the Nook and augmented reality apps that are swiftly moving from proof of concept to mobile devices, and the scenario I experienced today will probably cease to happen. The onus for seeking what I need will have shifted from the customer service professional to the customer.
But in the process, we'll lose something important—the fruit of someone's physical and mental labor, placed gently into our hands, with the attention of another soul who had confirmed the value and importance of the contents contained wherein. A tweet is a far cry from the heft of a handshake. Commerce will always require at some point a physical component, applied with the right volume of attention, at the right moment in time.
Call this the weight of lived knowledge. Perhaps as we load more books onto our Kindles and Nooks, the device should grow heavier or glow more brightly, to imply that our shelves are becoming more and more laden with the meaningful intelligence borne out of a hyper-connected society.
If any of those staffers in the store had seen the Alain de Botton book in my hand and said, "Oh, you like that? Let's chat about a few other books that you'd probably like," then I think the situation would have played out much differently.
Adding improved context to our potential dialogue—maintaining the human element and the quality of information provided—should be the result of any in-person interaction, in a store or out in the world. Otherwise, we're just talking past each other, parroting the words of our masters, and otherwise denying the passions that we should always be seeking to share with the world.