What I Learned About Customer Service While Working at A Bookstore

Editor’s note: Today’s article is from Andrew van Gelderen, a 10th grade student in Darwin, Australia who spent a few days working with us as part of his school’s work experience program.

In the fading, distant days of my youth (a year and a half ago), I was misguided about customer service.

When my family went shopping, I hated asking for help, and not just because I was terrified of talking to strangers. I felt that by asking for help, I was acknowledging my incompetence at finding what I was looking for and wasting the valuable time of the store’s employees. What’s worse, I thought that by asking for something, then that person would know what I liked, and then they’d judge me. This thought was so mortifying I wouldn’t approach a service desk by myself.

Now that I serve customers in a bookstore, I know everyone asks for help, and it’s very rarely a waste of time. Besides, the employees don’t have time to judge everyone they serve.

My idea of how retail worked was different from reality. I hadn’t thought too hard about how the books got to the shop. I suppose I imagined an author with a Word document saying, “Make this a book, please!” to a publisher, who reads it and says “Yeah, OK,” adds all the title pages and the cover, and then goes to the bookshop saying, “Here, sell this.” And the shop replies “Cool, I’ll call you back for another one when it gets sold.”

Now I know about warehouses and stock levels and suppliers and yellow-sticker stock versus white-sticker stock and customer orders and just how many books are sold. I was amazed when I stepped into the back room for the first time, a long corridor stacked to the roof with books. Books on the table, on the floor, in the sink, books everywhere.

I was also astounded because I didn’t think it was possible for a room to be messier than mine.

Now I’m used to all the books, and I’ve learned a few things about customer service.

Be friendly and engaging

This is one I struggled with for a while. Talking to people was never my strong suit, so if the customer came for a book, I’d give them their book, change, bag, and say “Have a nice day.” I’ve started trying to engage with the customers more, talking to them about their day, about the book, about what they like to read, or just expressions of sympathy over their crying children. (This happens surprisingly frequently.)

It’s not always easy to maintain this attitude. If you’re sick or tired or the customer is rude, remaining friendly can be a challenge. But a positive attitude doesn’t just make the customers feel better:

When you’re friendly to a customer, chances are they’ll be friendly back, and that can improve your whole day.

Keep the customer informed

If a customer is looking for a certain book and you stare at the computer screen blankly for ten seconds and then realize you spelled the author’s name wrong and you try again, the customer won’t be nearly as pleased as if you were talking to them the whole time, asking them how to spell that, have you read any other books by that author, my sister read that book last year and liked it, sorry our computer’s a bit slow today, and so on. Even just reading out the words as you type them can give an impression of faster progress.

Related: How to Talk to Your Customers

Speed matters

When the customer’s fidgeting and checking their watch every three seconds, it isn’t the time to count out their change carefully in ten-cent coins. You’ll risk a death glare, and as we all know, too many death glares can be fatal to one’s quality of day.

Learn to prioritize

Sometimes, especially in retail, you have more than one job to do at a time. Learning to prioritize is vital. Go serve the customer at the counter; the stack of books won’t mind the wait. If there’s a huge line at the counter, the customer you’re serving won’t be too miffed if you don’t take the time to ask how their day is going. When there is too much to do, ask for help!

It’s OK to make mistakes

Once, I forgot to give the invoice to someone buying books for a school, and it took me months to find out I was meant to be scanning the fabric bags instead of just giving them out. On stocktake night, I accidentally scanned a book on top of another one, and I didn’t tell anyone about it right away. That was another mistake. I know I should have, but we were tired and running late and I didn’t want to bring down trouble.

Luckily, most of my mistakes had an easy fix. The important thing is to learn from mistakes and to not repeat them. Mistakes are a teaching opportunity as well as a learning one — by being open about them with your team, you can help prevent them from making the same mistakes.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes

Whenever I wonder what else the customers would like, I find it helpful to put myself in their shoes. What would I want if I was the customer? How would I like to be treated? Would I like to be talked to rather than ignored? Would I like to be served before the pile of inanimate books on the floor?

Real world experience

Of course, the lessons I’ve learned don’t just apply to work. Being able to talk to people is an essential life skill. I’ve also learned tenacity — I used to lament being dragged awake at 7:30 in the morning and moan about my Saturdays being wasted away, but I pushed on and got through it. Now, I don’t mind it so much.

I’ve learned more working in retail than I have in other other singular experience in my life (except maybe the day I realized that pancakes were so named because they’re cakes cooked in a pan). Customer service has prepared me for the real world more than learning the Pythagoreon theorem ever will. For that, I am grateful.

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