MARTHA THOMASES: Gotta Serve Somebody
This past month has been a very busy one for me. I’ve been out of town three times, twice on business, and I’ve attended two trade shows and three comics conventions. It’s a lot of time to be thrust into crowds of people, whether waiting at an airport, a synagogue, a taxi line or a display booth.
This past month has exposed me to a variety of interpretations to the phrase, “customer service.”
I first started to think about this nearly 20 years ago, when I saw a presentation by Peter Glen, the author of It’s Not My Department: How to Get the Service You Want, Exactly the Way You Want It. At the time, I was working in the special events department for a large retailer, and we were just starting to feel the first effects of Wal-Mart and other discount stores. According to Glen, the way to compete was not by cutting prices, but by offering more service.
He doesn’t just mean stores need to hire more sales assistants. He means the customer must be treated with respect, as if her time has value, and her needs are important. Customer service includes displays that feature all available sizes, quality merchandise that doesn’t break, and efficient check-out. This shows the customer that the merchant understands her, and provides the best value.
“Value?” you say. “How can you say value is important when you first said stores shouldn’t compete on price alone?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Would you rather shop at Wal-Mart, where costs are kept so low that they won’t hire a security guard to patrol their notoriously dangerous parking lots, or at another store where the management demonstrates a concern for your safety? Would you rather by a cheap coffee-maker (or other small appliance) that you need to replace every year, or a good one that lasts a decade or more?
As a comics reader, would you rather buy a comic that has a cover that’s teasing or unclear, or would prefer one that clearly represents the story inside?
When I worked at DC Comics, I was astounded at how obscure some of the covers for the trade paperback collections could be. “Where’s the title?” I’d ask. “How can I tell who wrote and drew the story?” Often, this information would be on the back of the books, invisible to the customer looking at the display. “It doesn’t matter,” I was told. “By the time the book is racked, we’ve already been paid for it.”
I think this is poor customer service. I think it not only tells the readers we don’t care about them, but it also tells the retailers we don’t care about their financial success. If the publisher won’t help a direct-market retailer make a sale, that’s poor customer service.
Would you rather buy a product that entertains you or insults you? When comic book companies publish covers that women (or other groups) find offensive, these publishers do not encourage those customers to buy their products. Discussions of censorship or so-called political correctness aside, it’s bad marketing.
Would you rather buy your books from a store with no organization, dingy walls, and grimy windows, or a store where the books you want are easy to find? I occasionally work in a small knitting store in New York because otherwise, I never talk to a human being to whom I’m not married. It’s a good lesson for me in customer service, because I put the needs of the shopper ahead of my own. The customer may like to do different kinds of projects than I like, with different kinds of fibers in different kinds of colors. As a service provider, it’s my job to meet the needs of my customer. Good comic book stores should do the same.
As I write this, I’m in Florida, visiting my father. It’s Wednesday, and we needed to find a place with comics. My son and I, being New Yorkers and therefore elitist, impatient and disdainful of the rest of the country, were pessimistic about our chances of finding everything we wanted. Luckily, we were wrong. X-Treme Comics (483 North Federal Highway, Boca Raton, FL) is a small store, but bright and clean, laid out so that it’s easy to find the new books, back issues and collections. There are statues, but none of the gross ones. Best of all, as you walk in, you see a display of art by local kids of their favorite super-heroes. This store demonstrates how much it values its customers and community from the first impression.
That’s service, and that’s how to compete.
Writer and creator of Marvel Comics’ Dakota North and contributor to their Epic Illustrated, Martha Thomases also has toiled for such publishers as DC Comics and NBM before becoming Media Queen of ComicMix.com.