Where the Customer is Definitely Not God

Ok. So this will not turn into a tirade...I think....

When we think of customer service, most of us imagine someone treating us nicely, understanding our needs and helping cater to them. But imagine if you were expected to walk into a grocery store and getting told that everything was unavailable even as you saw the shelves fully stocked, given rude stares or being ignored completely. Then in walks a guy wearing an Armani suit and a Rolex and suddenly everything is available for him and you're being given pointed stares to take your sorry ass elsewhere. Would you go there again? Well, welcome to the average customer's Luxury boutique experience. I'm not saying you will get the same treatment everywhere or with every brand but let's talk about some of the really bad ones.

The three brands pretty notorious for treating customers badly are Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermes (LV a bit less than the other two). Of course, there are exceptions and if you happen to come across a salesperson who is just innately a nice person you can actually have a great experience but generally the philosophy is off in these places. The idea behind it is to maintain that sense of exclusivity and keep out the "riff-raff" looking to buy just that one bag or some other item which will be the highlight of their life for the next few years. The 'real' luxury client, as per these brands, is the person coming in and spending thousands of dollars frequently through the year. That's who they want to cater to and you who have spent the last couple of years saving up your salary to buy that one piece or just walked in to check out what's new aren't really "worthy" of their attention. 

Why do they do it? It's actually not an obsession with being mean but a careful choice of 'luxury' strategy which means doing pretty much the opposite of what normal sales and marketing would do. The idea is to create a sense of exclusivity and an aura of unachievability. They rely on the human desire to strive harder for what we are told we can't have to make us want the brand more. Their products are not driven by consumer demand and designed to fill any functional needs. They are designed to pander to more social needs of recognition, status and self-promotion. For instance, Hermes doesn't even have a marketing or R&D department. The idea is to dictate what customers buy rather than the other way around. A bag sells simply because it's Hermes and not because it can double up as a great diaper bag. Some would say the sheer price point would be enough to take care of all this but these brands feel the need to go a step further.

But is this strategy sustainable in a digitized world where the new cohort of buyers are Millennials with a quick inflow of Gen Z? If you work in the business world, especially in areas like HR or Marketing, you will have already understood that the needs of these new generations are very different from the ones before them. Would a Digital Native, used to instant gratification and being bombarded with customer-centric advertising and customized solutions, prefer sitting in a Chanel boutique and being ignored on purpose for an hour? Maybe...but after the first few rounds of this they would probably start taking the brand as a joke rather than something oh-so-classy. And if it keeps happening, they'll just switch to ordering online (which Chanel old lady still don't allow) or get bored and take their business elsewhere. For instance, a friend of mine once requested for a bag in a Chanel store which an older wealthy-looking woman two feet away was examining only to be told they had run out. Attempts to discuss further were simply ignored. She eventually bought the bag second-hand from a consignment store online vowing never to step foot in a Chanel boutique again. It was also the last Chanel she ever bought. 

So can these brands really survive losing customers this way? Can the uber-rich sustain them solely? Maybe but it will come at a cost. By some estimates, as high as 60% of the new luxury consumers are in the age range of 25-44 years, mostly upward-mobile salaried professionals. These also happen to be really busy people with not a lot of time to spare for being categorically insulted by people who, in truther, earn just a fraction of what they do. 

For me personally, one of the worst customer experiences I had was, sadly enough, at a Miu Miu boutique of all places. I was traveling light and had on a cotton dress and a sling bag of no real branded presence. I didn't look disheveled and, wearing the same outfit I had been to the Gucci store just a minute before and the staff had been quite friendly in showing the Disney collection which I wasn't really interested in but couldn't say no to seeing because of the exuberance they were showing (why Gucci? Why Disney?). But just because of this, I did end up purchasing from that store something small I'd been meaning to buy which I otherwise probably wouldn't have.

Now Miu Miu is not something I would really want to buy any more of because they seem all over the place. It's Prada's little sister who is in the inner circle because of Big Sis's name but who's yet to figure out who she is and what she stands for. I like their matelasse designs and have a piece in the crystal line but I don't see it becoming iconic anytime soon. Anyway, they have introduced a new line of woven material and I just stepped in casually to see it. I would've been pretty ok with the SA ignoring me honestly since Prada folks can be unpredictable in my experience. But no. She looked me up and down three times as I walked in, much to my discomfort, and then pretty much screamed "What do you want?" as if I was standing at the door with a begging bowl oozing dirt all over the floor. In my experience, what works with rude SAs is being rude right back to them. If you try being nice or get uncertain they'll get more aggressive and make you feel worse. If you take a sense of authority and give them back what they are giving you they tend to mellow down. So I ignored her. Simply turned to the display with my back to her as if she hadn't even spoken. I could sense her confusion and wondered if she will call security but, after a minute, she walked over and asked if I wanted to see something. But the initial response had done it for me. Even if I had walked in with the intention to buy something I'm pretty sure I would've changed my mind after this. 

The one designer brand which really stands out in its customer service, however, is Dior. I've never met anyone who had a bad experience at a Dior boutique. It just doesn't happen. They treat you how you should be treated. Doesn't matter if you are walking in to just browse or to buy something shit expensive-what you get is consistent. The salespeople are trained to build a relationship with you, make you feel good about being there and honestly, if I am buying something so expensive, I would want to know that the people I am buying it from will actually help me out if something were to go wrong with it, not send me back like a child who's been misbehaving, citing the whole thing as my fault.

Also, when it comes to customer service I've noticed a big difference between Indian and non-Indian brands. I'm not saying it's a country thing but generally with Indian designers and boutiques I've never really walked out (with the exception of the occasional bitchy-for-no-reason, stick-up-my-ass SAs) feeling like I should rethink my rights to this planet. People are usually fairly polite and helpful and actually make you feel like buying something. For that matter, I've experienced that SAs of even foreign brands are more polite and helpful in India (at-least in Mumbai). Maybe it's a general culture thing. 

If there is one thing I've learned working with Millennials and Gen Z cohorts, designing branding strategies to attract these groups, it is that they've changed the marketing game completely for most mainstream brands, forcing authenticity, humility and conscientiousness. They enjoy experiences but generally don't want to have them at the cost of the planet and the happiness of other people. They play the game for healthy competition, not to beat the loser hollow into the ground. Whether this spills over to the luxury space remains yet to be seen.  


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