An Unscientific Approach to Customer Service, Part II

Yesterday, I shared some of my country living experiences and introduced Gilbert’s Drive-In Grocery, the home of ATROCIOUS customer service that somehow works. Without the trappings of scientific customer segmentation and no discernible effort to create a positive customer experience, the people at Gilbert’s have come to uniquely understand their customers. And it doesn’t look anything like a text book definition of the customer service experience.

Follow this link to read An Unscientific Approach to Customer Service, Part I:  A Year in the Country, Pedestrian Geometry, and Convenience Matters

Customer Service #FAIL

From a strategic standpoint, Gilbert’s holds the power of monopoly over its customers. For the locals, it’s the only convenient place to stock up for Sunday football, movie night at the house, or emergency mac-n-cheese dinner. As the final waypoint for visitors of the nearby lake, Gilbert’s is not only the last stop for beer, bait, and gas on the way in; it’s also the first stop on the way out.

With those things working in their favor, Gilbert’s has very little incentive to focus on the customer experience. Pretty much, they don’t.

In a world filled with scientific customer segmentation, personalized e-mail targeting, richly staged in-store experiences, and the ever-focused, customer-centric approach to satisfying customer needs; there is only one way to describe Gilbert’s Drive-In Grocery: #FAIL.

First of all, the person-to-person customer service is ATROCIOUS. On any given day, at least one member of the on-duty crew will be loudly and openly complaining about one of the following things: the boss, the job, a co-worker, a recently departed customer, their kids, their spouse, or the celebrity du jour. On certain special days, they’ll even criticize you directly to your face.

Basically, if they worked anywhere else, they would have all been fired months ago. But here’s the weird thing about Gilbert’s, they’ve had exactly zero turnover in the 13 months I’ve been a customer.

The Customer Contempt Experience

As a convenience shopper, my neighborhood offers no alternative to Gilbert’s. As I mentioned yesterday, you must be prepared to drive into town, or brace yourself for the Gilbert’s experience. But it’s not all bad. You can typically find what you’re after, get in, and get out.

It’s not always so easy. As I mentioned, some of the clerks have “challenging” personalities.

For instance, Georgia, a particularly surly, yet keenly aware clerk, is often a mean sourpuss, but she’s usually also curious about what you’re doing. She asks questions, and she listens. For the first few months I frequented Gilbert’s, I paid her no mind. I thought she was just some annoying busy body, like an oddball modern homage to Harriet Oleson from Little House on the Prairie.

It’s common for Georgia to absolutely trash the person you waited behind in line, only moments after they’ve cleared the door. I sometimes wonder if she’s disparaging me as I slip the key into the ignition. For a long time, I never even considered that the information I put in with Georgia, might one day come back at me. In any case, I was unhappily single at the time of the following incident, a piece of information Georgia innocently extracted one morning when I was buying Pop Tarts.

So one day, I stopped in at Gilbert’s to pick up cookies, soda, and cigarettes for my father. He’s also been a customer of Gilbert’s for nearly 10 years. Apparently, he hadn’t come in for a while, so Georgia asked me how the old man was doing.

“With this diet I don’t think he’ll be doing anything for much longer,” I said, making sarcastic reference to the items she’d just rung up.

Georgia’s eyes shot up, piercing my soul with certitude.

“Well, he’s the one with a pretty one young wife, so he must know something you don’t,” she said bluntly. With absolutely no sense of irony.

On that particular day, I walked away feeling slightly abused. After brushing off my wounded pride, I realized Georgia is something of a rarity, someone who merely lives without pretense. She “calls ‘em like she sees ‘em”, and sees absolutely no reason not to let you know what she’s thinking.

In the country, that’s just the same as “keepin’ it real.” People seem to appreciate her candor. I do not, however, expect to see Nordstrom or Old Navy or Walgreen’s soon look to replicate the Gilbert’s experience. Maybe I’m wrong, but it just seems sooooooo unlikely.

It sounds awful, right? It can’t possibly be that convenient, right? What’s the point, right? Come back tomorrow for Part III, including The Tao of Gilbert’s Drive-In Grocery and The Morning Exchange.


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