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Customer Service Empowerment Techniques Opinion Tips

What happens when all those great products are out of stock?

Supply chain disruptions increasingly are leading to bare shelves. In turn, many of those great products are out of stock—leading to disgruntled, frustrated customers.

Many of those customers are now crying “bad customer service” as a result, and blaming those closest to the issue—retail front line workers. Business Insider freelance writer Elle Hardy interviewed one such employee, who notes: “I’ve worked at Ikea for 5 years, and customers have gotten so bad that I can’t look at them the same anymore…the relationship between customers and customer-service workers has been completely broken. I don’t see how it can go back.”

The article continues, “Maybe it’s just people desperate to get their products. When things aren’t in stock and people are mad, they’re taking it out on us because they see us as something lower than they are. Right now, the supply-chain blockage is a real struggle. Some customers are understanding, but the ones who aren’t stand out. I recently had someone come through who said the reason we didn’t have anything in stock was because our company is socialist.

“Another customer told me that we weren’t paying attention to our stock levels, so it’s our fault…I think that people get spoiled by the culture of instant gratification. To have to tell them that the item they want might not be there for two weeks — it’s something that, in modern times, was unheard of until recently, and customers keep taking it out on us. Mask mandates earlier in the pandemic didn’t help either. Most of the employees are still wearing masks and taking a step back from people who get right up in your face. For that, we get snide comments and rudeness from some customers.”

Attributing out-of-stock angst to poor customer service under these circumstances is indeed poor customer service—on the part of the customer. Companies can only provide great products and service if given the opportunity to do so. The supply chain crisis is beyond any individual company’s control. While there may be savvier ways for companies to ensure keeping items in stock (I’m still seeing mostly full shelves at Costco, for instance), customers need to recognize that this scarcity is a new reality. Entitled shoppers just need to grow up and realize that they can’t always get what they want when they want it. Ultimately, this will teach the marketplace good lessons about what is truly important, and what isn’t.

Not being able to buy essential food and supplies for the family is important. In most cases, buying a new lamp, kitchen accessory, or candle at Ikea isn’t.

So, here’s a short primer on “customer service” on the part of the customer as we all slog our way through the supply chain crisis:

1. Don’t blame the front-line retail people. Many are doing the best job they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. If anything, go out of your way to encourage, comfort, and compliment them for their positive efforts to help—instead of showering them with negative comments and rudeness. Sometimes a kind word, laugh-inducing joke, and complimenting a worker to his/her supervisor can make all the difference—now more than ever.

2. Become more “investigative” before you shop. If a particular retailer on your regular shopping circuit is showing up in the news/social media/reviews as either managing to stay fairly well stocked, or not, take note and regear where you shop as necessary. If one grocery chain is reported as being out of items you typically need to buy, research another.

3. Learn to substitute. This is true in a supply chain crisis. It’s also true with inflation, and when economic conditions in general become more challenging. I’ve grocery shopped this way for years, and am further honing my skills with the current supply chain issues. For example, I’m fairly flexible when it comes to meat. Poultry, beef, pork, and lamb are all viable options based on availability and price. As someone who loves to cook, I’ve found that there always are yummy recipes no matter what base meat is being used. If push comes to shove with this crisis, I’ll substitute other high-protein foods—including eggs, peanut butter, bone broth, yogurt, cheese, and the like—that I can find in stock at a reasonable price.

Let’s use this time to grow our customer service emotional intelligence whenever and wherever possible.

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Great products are part of a great customer experience. Costco has figured this out. In addition to favorable pricing and excellent treatment, Costco has earned a reputation for carrying reputable products. While it’s not a perfect system, more often than not customers can buy products with confidence—figuring that only the crème de la crème will make the Costco cut. Because Costco carries a relatively narrow range of products compared to such mega-retailers as Amazon, they can be highly selective. What happens to product reliability, however, as the range and sheer number of products increase?

Mark Lusky

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