A Girl And…CGCS

This is a story of a new type of Customer Service, active within at least one aisle of one retailer–I call it Community Generated Customer Service.  It was fun to stumble upon, and I’m curious to see if I can find more of it.  I hope I do.  I hope you do to.

I admit it. I am a serial hobbyist, from painting to knitting with some bead work thrown in for good measure. While I’ve created some decent stuff in every phase, it wasn’t until I found embroidery (go figure) that I actually found something I was consistently good at.

Now, this new found strength doesn’t mean you won’t find me, eyes glazed over, wandering the aisles of various hobby stores, lost and without hope. Partially this is because a lot of the “big” hobby stores are woefully unorganized, overstuffed, understaffed Byzantine mazes of product.  And, based upon the 15 discussions I had with various customers within these same stores, the other reason is because it’s about a 50/50 shot in terms of getting a staff member who knows what they are talking about.  Which, I thought as I was wandering around the embroidery/cross-stich/knitting/something-to-do-with-felt aisle, is a big miss for them because with this recession, shopping at the higher-end specialty art stores has tumbled—almost 35% according to an specialty-store owner I talked to last week.“I’ve kept my die-hard serious artists, but the “serious starters” and “happy hobbyists” I had been seeing a year ago are saving money by shopping at Hobby Lobby or Michaels,” she said. “They’ll still come here for the classes and their questions, but the product isn’t mine.” She goes on. “It’s hard sometimes, knowing that I’m losing sales, but I’ll never turn them away if they have questions or want a class—I mean, I want to keep them as customers and hope they come back as they can afford to. But part of it is that we are a community…like the sewing circles of the 18th and 19th century, only linked by the store and our website as opposed to family.”

Given my issues with shopping at the big stores I was somewhat surprised to see that Hobby Lobby saw same-store sales and profits rise in 2009/2010 (while the retail industry dropped 2.7%) as did Joanne’s, Michael’s and Hancock Fabrics.  So, it seems as if the ‘serious starters’ are shopping down, so to speak—shoulder to shoulder with the ‘happy hobbyists’ in the big chain hobby stores.  They have to get their product somewhere and the big chains are it for them—right now.

“I cannot wait until I can afford to go back to the specialty store,” said Anna. “This store has no range of product for me to choose from, no expertise for me to learn from and more importantly, no community for me to lean on.” We stand silently for a bit as she tries to find this one type of needle she needs in this one particular size.  Ultimately her search is unsuccessful…however, we find a like-minded compadre in the next aisle and she tells Anna that the store across the way has what she is looking for, what aisle she should look on and what brand to buy.

As Anna happily leaves to go to the other store, I pick up the conversation with Helen. We’ll call her Helen because she doesn’t want her real name used and here is why—she used to be one of us—the glazed eyes and the deflated soul of the “happy hobbyist”…ready to create, but stymied by the lack of help and the right product.  But as she learned over the years—some self-taught, some through mistakes and some through what she picked up from others in the aisle with her—she found herself coming back to the aisles of this store over and over again, not to shop, but to share.

“I love what I do and I think we’d all be happier if we all had a hobby or something that makes us happy. Also, I’m part of a bigger community of home-craftspeople and that is a wonderful feeling.  So, a couple, three-times a month, I’ll wander around these aisles thinking of ideas for myself, but really reaching out to those who look confused and offering some help.”  She steps away to do just that—a young woman who wants to take up cross-stich, but was on the verge of giving up because of the array of poorly communicated choices.  Helen gives her some suggestions and the girl leaves, relieved and reinvigorated.

“ See,” she says to me. “That is community. I might or might not see her again here or around Austin, but hopefully she’ll remember this and as her ability grows, she’ll share with someone else who needs help.”

Helen then helps me with some questions I have and I thank her and we part ways.  I’ll probably wander through and find her again next week when I’m stuck on a stich. Or I might tell my friends to look for her if they are there and stuck. Although, as Helen was keen to point out to me, she doesn’t want a ‘following’ and doesn’t want anything from the store in return.

“I’m not trying to start a crafts consulting business, or earn any type of  deal with this store…It’s not about that for me.   This is my community service, it’s how I give back and feel part of something bigger. And I’m happy with it.”

As I leave I wonder how many “Helen’s” are out there—people who feel part of a larger community happily helping individuals and companies alike with no desire for anything in return. It truly is Community Generated Customer Service.  And it is Customer Service–it’s not just a WOM store or brand blessing from someone you trust.  And here is the thing–the brand benefited greatly from Helen, not that they know it.   In some ways the feeling I got from this experience was stronger for the anonymity and I ascribed the positive feeling to the brand itself.  There is no way to know if the various attributes line up with their brand strategy, but does that really matter given it’s positive and leads to sales?

I also wonder about the pros and cons of tapping into the Helen’s in an organized way—would it ruin the organic, pay-it-forward nature of the service?  If so, would it become a bastardized, awkward and less effective sales tool?   Or, if nurtured, would it become a larger community of “selfless help”? And would this work across all retail? And what else can we learn from the Helen’s…probably a lot given how spot on and cool the ideas she shared in the 30 minutes we were together about store design and organization were.

I am very intrigued by this and would like to know if anyone else has run across this type of customer service. In the meantime, Anna, myself and the other people Helen helps every month are just happy that we have her—for as long as she’ll have us.

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