When Customer Service Results in Sales, for Another Store

Josie Leavitt -- August 10th, 2010

The other day, the store was busy and I answered the phone cheerily enough. The woman on the other end played to my ego: “You’re so good at recommending, I was wondering if you could make some suggestions for my five-year-old.” I was more than happy to help.

I asked a few questions about her child. Turns out she had just read him The Hobbit. I held back on commenting, save for a, “Wow. He must have a great attention span.” Sensing this could be a challenge, as we had a really well read kid on our hands, I suggested the customer come to the store, then we could really pick and choose books that might suit him. The customer said rather clumsily, “No, no, I just need a list. I will come in and get the books from you. I just need a list now.”
I sensed something amiss. Rather than spend twenty minutes on the phone as I did, perhaps I should have given her three great suggestions and turned my attention to the customers in the store, but I got caught up in the excitement of trying to find the right book for this young reader. I had a yummy stack in my hand and I asked the customer her name, so I could set the books aside for her to come look at when she came in. “Well, I’m not going to get the books with you. I’m taking the list to Crow Books (a wonderful used bookstore in Burlington).”
I was stunned. I understand that sometimes budget dictate where you can buy books, but to take a bookseller’s time knowing full well you have absolutely no intention of buying anything at that store seems kinda mean, especially after I really tried to find things this precocious reader would enjoy.
I know people get information about books from a variety of sources and I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. I guess I’ve gotten used to folks coming in the store and choosing one or two books from the towering stacks we show them. I think it was the sheer duplicitness of this call that really got to me. Of course we help everyone, but to lie about your plan to shop at my store and then tell me, after you’ve gotten fifteen titles from me, that you’re going somewhere else, seemed unnecessary. The only thing that consoled was if this mom got even one of the books for her son, they’d have a wonderful time reading, and that had to be enough.

24 thoughts on “When Customer Service Results in Sales, for Another Store

  1. Laura

    In my indie bookshop we had a couple who would come in shopping together.
    The wife would browse and then bring up a few books to purchase. Her husband, pen and paper in hand would write down titles and isbns. We all suspected what he had been doing, but then he wife squealed on him. He wrote down titles to bring home and order online.

    The thing about this was that he wrote a book and wanted us to carry it!!! We did, but more for his wife’s benefit than for his. We wouildn’t have had a signing for him even if he had asked, but he didn’t and we didn’t sell even one book.

  2. Peggy

    We have an outstanding collection of books on atomic history and the Manhattan Project, and we’re always delighted to ship books to our out-of-town visitors. However, we sometimes get the customer who thinks she’s inconveniencing us when we offer to ship books. “Oh, that’s okay! I’ll just get them at Big Box or TheGreatSatan.com.”

    And some customers take pictures of the stock with their cell phones so they’ll have a handy reference when they order from Big Box (!!!!!!!).

    On bad days, only my nobility of mind and fear of arrest prevent me from grabbing a two-by-four and commencin’ to beatin’. Fortunately, I have a song in my heart to chase them naughty blues away!

  3. stacy

    As an editor, I find it necessary sometimes to go to local bookstores (chain and indie) to get a regular sense of what’s out there, what covers are working, what books are appealing to kids/teens, etc. At first I tried to do this incognito, but I found that I often had very helpful sales staff who loved to help make recommendations–it’s hard not to get into good book conversations when you’ve got someone camped out in your aisle making pages of notes, not to mention booksellers are founts of knowledge when it comes to knowing what’s selling in their store–who I didn’t want to disappoint when I left only buying one book, if anything (depending on my budget and whether I needed an example book to take back to the office).

    I find it’s easier nowadays to just quickly say when booksellers approach me that I’m an editor and I’m making a book list focusing on X Subject. I don’t need to get terribly in depth. (“Adventurous middle grade fantasy for boys,” that kind of thing.) That way, the bookseller knows that I might not be a good sale, but if they’ve got the time to help me, they know it’s more of a collegial situation. I enjoy the conversations that come out of these trips to the bookstore, because I know my local bookstore and its staff better, and haven’t set up false expectations either. If I do end up wanting to buy one of the books I’ve put on the list, I try to make it back to the bookstore to do so.

    I try to pass it on by sharing those booklists on my website. Even if I don’t end up buying the book after reading it at the library (and librarians are also great for this kind of knowledge, but it’s a different segment of audience), then perhaps someone will down the road due to the recommendation.

  4. Jonathan Kamens

    I was always taught by my parents that it’s rude to take a merchant’s time if you know you won’t be buying anything, unless you are up-front about this fact and can justify it (as some commenters have noted above).

    It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that Jewish law expressly prohibits this. As another commenter noted, it’s theft, plain and simple, and Jewish law regards it as such.

  5. Maureen

    Since I am on a budget, I do go to our large chain bookstore, and write down all the new titles I am interested in. Then I come home and put them on hold with my library. I never bother the employees, I do my browsing by myself.

    I do support all my favorite authors by buying their newest titles in hardcover, in the bookstores. I feel like it the least I can do for all the entertainment they give me.

  6. Steve Masover

    This is a sad story, but an instance of a phenomenon that infects and corrupts modern culture in a very general way, I think. Ellen Ruppel Shell, in “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” illuminates the non-obvious costs of culture that seeks shallow and immediate economic advantage at the expense of sustainability. In the world of publishing, a woman who steals from her local bookseller (and let’s be clear: that’s what she’s up to) is driving a resource she values (in the long term) out of business, in order to save a few bucks (today). Damage done by leaking deep water oil wells is a more obviously ugly instance of consequences that derive from shortsighted economic decisions to profit now and worry about the ‘hidden costs’ later (or not at all).

  7. Dave

    This is pretty common behavior in two businesses that I am quite close to – photography and bicycling. People have absolutely no qualms about coming into an indie store and taking a sales persons time asking very detailed technical questions and handling the merchandise (most bike shops let potential buyers test ride a bike around the parking lot). Then, after the person has exhausted their questions and the sales person asks the critical question, the “customer” announces “oh, I’ll buy this on-line but I wanted to see what it looked like, how it felt, test ride it etc. because I can get it cheaper there at……”.

    1. Jerri Patton

      I work at Borders and I hear this all day long. I’m just shopping for my e-reader or I’ll buy it when I get the next coupon, or I’ll get it online. I say that you may save a couple of dollars but you’ll lose a bookstore.

      1. stacy

        That’s exactly how I use my Amazon recommendation list–to build up a list of books I mean to buy but forget about in favor of whatever’s on my mind at the very moment I’m in the story (a debut book vs. one I meant to get six months ago or a classic, etc.).

        1. stacy

          I’m brain-dead today. I meant that I use Amazon just to make the list, and then buy locally. I don’t think Amazon’s losing money from me doing that, and it *is* a good tool.

  8. Lois Ruby

    Okay, as the song goes, I’ve looked at life from both sides now. I’m an author who wants my books to fly off shelves at every indie bookstore in the country. I’m also a former librarian who turns my books face out on library shelves, then laments that they haven’t been checked out. And that’s the point: if someone wants recommendations either to borrow or buy books, and doesn’t intend to buy them from a live, human bookseller, the best place to go for lists is the public library. Those wonderful librarians have nothing to “sell” and nothing to “lose” and everything to gain by making the best recommendations.

  9. Rachel

    I am the children’s buyer with a national wholesaler in Canada, and I’ve had a similar experience. The customer asked me for a specialized list of recommendations, (and stroked my ego) which I happily supplied, and then proceeded to tell me in his reply e-mail that he planned to buy the books at Chapters. Unfortunately in this business, we never have any guarantee that our efforts will result in a sale for us (though we hope and expect they will). As you say- at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that a child will experience a great book.

  10. Meg Shea

    We had a similar caller: “I’m heading out of town & need a few good reads to take with me. What do you recommend?” We would rattle off a diverse list of titles, ask if she’d like them set aside, but always received an “No, no. I’ll just stop in & browse myself. I’ve written them down.” To our knowledge, she never came into the store but the calls began to happen two or three times a week. During one call she said, “Well, I get those 40% off coupons from Big Box all the time, so I do my buying there but thanks for the recommendation.” We then memorized her phone number and when she would call, we would reply with, “We’d be more than happy to recommend titles if you’d like to stop into the store. We would love to talk books with you.” Needless to say, she’s stopped calling.

  11. Kathleen H.

    Sometimes I go into a bookstore knowing that I can’t buy anything but wanting to find a book. I just flat out tell the clerk, “I’ve blown my book buying budget for the month but I might be interested in x. Can you tell me if you have it. I want to see if I should add it to my list.” I think this lets the clerk know that I’m not buying today so don’t waste a lot of time fussing with me but don’t blow me off. I’ve actually had a lot of good suggestions come from that because a good bookseller will ask me what I blew my budget on and sometimes make other suggestions.

    It was very rude of the person to take up your time knowing that they were not coming in.

  12. Matthew Dicks

    As an author, I experience something similar when a person attends an appearance hosted by an indie bookstore (or even a big box store) and then informs me that he or she will go home and “buy the book online tonight.”

    While I’m not averse to my readers purchasing books online (I want my books to be available everywhere), I am mystified as to why someone would take advantage of a bookstore by attending their free event but then take their business elsewhere, just to save a few dollars. In these cases, I always try to convince the reader to support the store, and in turn, I tell them that I will be happy to sign their book as well. And when a reader arrives to an event with a book already in hand, I will encourage that reader to purchase something else from the store and will make a recommendation.

    And while I’m on the subject, I am also shocked at the number of close friends and family members who will ask me for a free book on pub day rather than purchasing a book and supporting my fledgling career. A free book? Really?

    Even a friend’s assurance that he or she will check out the book as soon as it arrives in their local library baffles me a little. Do we all know so many published authors that we can’t afford purchasing the book of a friend who is lucky enough to have a book in stores? And an inexpensive trade paperback to boot. While the friends who purchase books by the bushel and give them out as gifts more than make up for these occasional library-bound friends, I am still surprised by their unwillingness to spend the money on a friend’s book. I adore the library and found my love for books when I was a child amid the library stacks, and I still make frequent use of the library today. But if a friend has published a book or released an album or opened a restaurant, I am always certain to support their venture by making an investment in their work.

    Am I wrong to wish for otherwise from all of my friends and family?

    1. Mary Quattlebaum

      Or how about the wannabe authors at conferences who stand in book-signing lines and ask speaker-authors for critiques of their mss. (on the spot) and advice and names of editors and agents (I kid you not) — and then don’t even buy a book. Ai-yi-yi.

      1. Carol Newman Cronin

        Seems like every signing I do there’s always that one person who shows up for the “wrong” reasons – usually help with her writing. At our launch party in early July, a woman showed up to ask about speaking at another (free) event she was running. (If she’d bought a book, I might have considered it.) While I support those that show up, look, and choose not to buy based on the book, I get very annoyed by those who come to a signing with another agenda.

        And I saw a quote recently in (I think) Publisher’s Weekly: “If I can’t ask my friends and family to pay full retail for my books, who can I ask?”

  13. Shannon LC Cate

    I used to SEND customers to other stores when we didn’t have something.

    Back when I worked at my father’s independent, we did it all the time–call a friendly, fellow independent and have them hold a book for someone.

    When I worked at one of the big chains, I’d do the same–for the local independent. If the indie didn’t have it, THEN I’d place a special order. But I had no loyalty to the chain (quite the opposite) and was happy when I sent a chain customer off to discover an independent.

    1. Josie Leavitt Post author

      Oh, please understand one thing: I always send folks to other indies, after it’s been established I don’t have a book. But, to spend that kind of time with a customer and then find out I’ve lost the sale to another store, without even being given a chance to sell some books, is a bit galling.

      I, too, love libraries, and often send folks there.

      I just find the delicate balance of wanting my expertise and then not returning the favor more than a bit exhausting.

  14. Peni Griffin

    Doesn’t this woman have a library? This is exactly what a children’s librarian is for; and she can let you take the whole list home on a trial basis – much cheaper than the used bookstore, which lets you get more value for the money you spend at your local indy.

    You must just let knowledge of virtue be your reward and remember not to tie yourself up in phone sales next time. If you can stay in business long enough for this kid to get discretionary income, he may become your best customer.

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