An Unscientific Approach to Customer Service, Part III

Over the past two days, I’ve 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

Follow this link to read An Unscientific Approach to Customer Service, Part II: Customer Service #FAIL and The Customer Contempt Experience

The Tao of Gilbert’s

Nowadays when I walk into Gilbert’s Drive-In Grocery, I’m excited to see Georgia behind the counter. I can’t help but wonder what her Caper of the Day might be. Who will be on the acidic end of her venomous admonitions? Will it be the unsuspecting hot-check writer denied service until the debt is paid? Some guy with a fistful of quick picks who can’t operate the lottery machine on his own? A witless vendor who stacked the cases of Dr. Pepper in the wrong spot?

None will be spared Georgia’s wrath. She hates them all!

Over the past several months, when not busy imagining my favorite clerk as some weird and vengeful comic book character, I’ve spent some time simply observing the day-to-day interactions at Gilbert’s. Customer-to-clerk, customer-to-customer, clerk-to-clerk, owner-to-vendor, customer-to-vendor, and so on.

And as much as Georgia and her colleagues violate every tenet of decent customer service on a daily basis, something about it just works. In many cases, the employees aren’t just familiar with their customers, they actually know them.

They talk about their kids, their families, their jobs. They gossip. Mercilessly. Any way you shape it; there is an actual sense of community at Gilbert’s. Everybody’s business is everybody’s business. Deal with it.

It’s something like the country cousin to an urban barber shop. People come in whether they need something or not. They shop. They talk. They talk shop. They talk high school football. They speculate. They tell you what they know. Need a mechanic or lawn service or a window installer? Ask around at Gilbert’s. You’ll not only find out whose good, you’ll also find out who you shouldn’t trust.

It’s entirely possible Gilbert’s Drive-In Grocery evolved around its customers and the community where they do business. In an oddly organic way, perhaps the customers and employees imposed their will on the store. Perhaps isolation, combined with a very small labor pool, and low wages simply puts Gilbert’s at the mercy of its locale.

How does any of this apply to your business? Well, Gilbert’s demonstrates the need to know your customers and meet their expectations. It’s also an example of diversity in the customer service realm. Some customers are just different, and they come to you with a different set of expectations. A text book definition of customer service or great customer service experience, even from a really good text book, might not be the answer for your business.

That’s why it’s so important to really know your customers. How well do you know them today? Does your customer service strategy apply directly to them and their needs? Or is it more of a marketing template? A disparate set of tactics commonly used by other companies?

As much as I was initially put off by the Gilbert’s experience, I’ve really came to love it. A lot of times it’s like walking into someone’s living room to buy snack cakes. Everybody’s bickering, whining about chores, and taking it out on whoever’s closest. It’s a whole different sort of family-oriented business.

But it works.

The Morning Exchange

Just this week, on Monday morning, a trip to Gilbert’s inspired me to write An Unscientific Approach to Customer Service. On the way to work, I stopped at Gilbert’s to get gas. The credit card terminals on their gas pumps rarely work. In fact, I’ve given up on using them, opting instead to go inside.

On Monday, Georgia was behind the counter, looking indifferent.

“How are you this morning?” I asked.

“I was fine until I got to work. I’ve been here seven years and I’m sick of it,” she answered. Clearly, something awful happened upon arrival, at the boss’s hand no doubt, and she was venting.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll make it through,” I added.

“How’s your new job?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Yeah, it’s going well. I really like it so far,” I said, all matter-of-fact. I wasn’t convinced she actually cared at that moment.

“Well, you just keep smiling and have a great day,” she said in the flattest tone imaginable.

“You know, you could try the same thing,” I offered sarcastically.

She glared, casually let loose a loud obscenity, and went back to taking inventory of the cigarettes. I laughed, and walked out smiling.

Another day. The Gilbert’s Way.

Thanks for sticking with me on this one. For the record, I love Gilbert’s. For all its flaws and idiosyncracies, they always have my favorite snacks and an endless assortment of human curiosities. Do you frequent any stores with a loveably abrasive environment? A customer service strategy or lack thereof, that works in spite of itself? We’d love to hear about it.


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