I have spent the last two days in the largest mall in North America. I am sure most of you reading this blog are familiar with it, because if you live in the prairie provinces you have almost undoubtedly been there, and more than once. I am speaking of the West Edmonton Mall, a mall that encompasses shopping, an amusement park, a water park, and much, much more. It is quite the experience, and after spending about 18 hours there over the last two days I have learned a couple of things. One is that the Intrepid Junior Blogger and her cousin are the energizer bunnies of mall activities, and even when I am tapped out and ready to leave they just keep going. The other thing I learned, though, is less personal and more relevant to Fort McMurray - and it's about service.
First I want to say that I understand the challenges in the service industry in Fort McMurray, whether retail or food related or anything else. I know it is hard to attract and retain good staff when wage competition is fierce, and there are so many jobs available for employees to select. I know that running a small business is not easy, as I have worked in small businesses for many years and I know the subtle dynamics that occur. I know something else, though. I know that service attitude is usually a top-down influence, and that in order to create an atmosphere where customer service is great you need to lead it as owners and managers.
Here in Edmonton these past two days I have done a lot of shopping, both for items for my home and personal items like clothing. And in those 18 hours I have not had a single bad customer experience. In fact some were beyond what I expected. At Bed Bath and Beyond I needed an item from an upper display, only accessible by ladder - and the first employee I approached did it. I have no idea if it was 'her department' as she didn't pass the buck. She went and got the ladder, got it down, and then because it was a bit heavy went and got me a cart to carry it. In fact every single employee I saw in that store greeted me and asked if I needed assistance. It was a pretty profound experience given that I have become accustomed to being ignored in large department stores, and seeing employees scatter when they see me approaching looking like I might ask for something.
In Chapters I had my arms loaded with books, and no less than seven employees asked me if I needed a bag to carry them in. In every clothing store I had sales associates assist me, or ask if they could. In fact it all felt a bit bizarre as I am not used to this. Why? Because let's be honest - customer service in our community has slipped over time.
There are stores in Fort McMurray I actively avoid because I feel like I am intruding when I enter. There are some I gave up on years ago, because they never seemed to be interested in helping me. And there are some I will only go into if I see a particular employee working, because I know that person will help me. I got tired of being ignored, and honestly in the past three years I have taken a lot of my retail dollars online - including ordering from stores that have outlets in Fort McMurray. Why? Because if my experience is going to be impersonal then it may as well be online where I can do it in the convenience of my own home and at a time that suits me. Maybe that sounds harsh, but it's true.
There are pockets of great service in Fort McMurray (many are small locally owned businesses), and there are stores that have improved, but I think there remains room for significant improvement. There are some new retail stores opening in our mall, and these stores have the opportunity to set the new standard for service. They are starting fresh and if they can infuse their employees with the desire to provide great service with a personal touch perhaps it will spread into all the other stores in the community. I have gone into two of them - David's Tea and Children's Place - and found the employees there friendly and helpful and attentive, so they are starting off well. The real challenge will be maintaining it, because it is very easy with employee turnover and business challenges to let the customer service standard slip - but I hope it won't. I hope this is the leading edge of the commercial world to come to Fort McMurray.
Just so you don't think I have been blinded by some retail utopia, though, I share another story. After ten hours in the mall yesterday I returned to my car, parked in a lot where I thought it was far enough way to be safe. I was angered to see that I had been the victim of sideswiping incidents by people parked beside me who apparently could not park their vehicles without hitting mine - on BOTH sides of my car. The ding on one side and the large scrape on the other, with no note of apology left for either, showed me that while customer service at the West Edmonton Mall is great parking ability is abysmal - and those who park there are seriously lacking in social skills, like simply leaving a note. As someone pointed out to me many of those who park there don't actually live in Edmonton, which is likely true, and I don't blame Edmonton for my new scrapes and dings - but I am not impressed, either (read that as "lots of bad words said in parking lot").
One last thought about improving service in Fort McMurray. When was the last time you had a great customer service experience here? And when it happened did you tell the store manager about it? You see I think we have a tendency to only ask to "speak to the manager" when we are angry and upset, but how often do we do it to say "your employee did a great job today - thank you"? Maybe, just maybe, that is what we need to start to do to encourage businesses to create that customer service oriented atmosphere. Maybe we need to tell managers, and the employees, when they got it right, not just when they got it wrong. And so I go home with a new resolve to do exactly that, because I want to reward those who are getting customer service right in the hopes it will spread - and because good customer service deserves to be acknowledged. Maybe we need to start a customer service revolution in Fort McMurray - one that in the end will benefit us all, including the businesses who need customers to exist. This isn't a challenge - it's an opportunity, for businesses, employees, and customers. And I think it's an opportunity to make our community shine. Wouldn't it be great if visitors left saying "wow, what an amazing place, and what incredible customer service"? I cannot think of a single reason why this cannot happen - so maybe now is the time to make it reality, and herald a new era of customer service right here in Fort McMurray.