Learning from alcoholics

At one level retailing is a very simple business, and in other ways it is complex. Either way, retailing is a tough business: it is a science and it is art. Sometimes the number of things to do can be overwhelming. By this I mean the operational workload, as well as the range of strategic variables that I business owner/manager can tweak to make the business better. (Perversely of course, that also means there are so many things that can go wrong too!)

Poor customer service is one of those challenges that most retailers attempt to address – usually a few times because everyone knows intuitively it is important. Just to validate that intuition, consider this extract from an article by Tom Ryan based on 2007 research by the Verde Group in the US.


Customers receiving an especially positive experience are likely to tell seven other people on average about the experience while those receiving a negative experience told 1.5 people.

But it also showed that such experiences are fairly rare - only 51 percent of women admitted to having a "WOW" experience in their entire shopping history, and only 39 percent of men did.

In summary: Good customer service (a WOW Experience) is so rare, and has such exponential impact on the business, it remains the holy grail of retailing.


You may also deduce from these observations that few retailers are succeeding at delivering WOW service.


Where to start?


If its longevity is any indication of its efficacy, one successful behaviour change program in the world is the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Learning from alcoholics seems contrarian but it makes a lot of sense. The first step in the program is an ADMISSION. Alcoholics must admit their addiction before progressing to the next step.


Business people generally and retailers specifically may want to consider this approach because:




  • Admitting inadequacy precedes innovation

  • Admitting failure precedes remediation

  • You can only find solutions to problems you have recognised and identified.


Accepting that things are not as good as they could be is a prerequisite to improving things. Unless you admit and accept the diagnosis and actually emotionally embrace its consequences, your response will lack authenticity.




  • It isn’t fun to admit you are wrong.

  • Mistakes have many parents (and success only one)

  • It sucks to think that your business stinks at customer service.


It is easier to blame customers, the environment, the government, the staff or the socio-economic climate. It is easy to assign blame or look for excuses. It is also easy to proclaim a few rules and announce that to the staff. It is easy to proclaim the importance of good customer service at a staff meeting. But implementing WOW customer service is not easy and all this comes to naught, unless you as owner/manager/ responsible person accept that the service is poor and that you are responsible, nothing will change.


“My name is Joe/John/Julie/Jane – and I am responsible for the poor customer service in my store.”


After the admission, the action steps to remedy it can be tackled. The difference this time will be an emotional engagement wit h the problem and a willingness to DO WHATEVER IT TAKES to get rid of that problem.




  • It is clever psychology and it works.

  • Because it works it is a good idea.

  • If it is a good idea, it is worth trying.


So altogether now:


“ My name is …”