Being The Nordstrom

“We want to be The Nordstrom of our industry!”

We have heard this claim made dozens of times over the years, from managers in many lines of business. Companies set out to raise the bar on their service quality, and then decide that incremental improvement isn’t enough – they want to be “The Nordstrom”.

It’s a fine ambition. But what does it mean?

In a general sense, what these managers probably mean is that they would like a reputation like Nordstrom’s. They want their company to be synonymous with service excellence –  to deliver service that is not just great, but iconic, where customers tell starry-eyed stories about their experiences.

It’s certainly good to aim high, but from a practical standpoint being The Nordstrom is a bit problematic. Nordstrom does not approach service quality as a corporate program or initiative. There isn’t a formula to follow, just four generations of building a nearly ideal service culture.

There are, however, some useful observations to be made about how Nordstrom supports its culture. Three points in particular stand out:

A relentless and unabashed focus on selling. Yes, selling. Go behind the scenes at a Nordstrom store and you will find the hallways plastered with sales statistics, showing goals and performance figures down to the level of the individual employee. And not just monthly or weekly figures, but daily results as well. Many employees can even tell you what their hourly sales goals are.

But the difference between Nordstrom and many other organizations is that the Nordstrom sales ethic is inextricably linked with the desire to delight customers. Nordstrom employees reason that customers want nothing more than to buy Nordstrom’s merchandise.  Why else would they come into the store? It is every employee’s job to make sure that customers are thrilled with their purchase choices and their shopping experience. That’s the reason the company’s return policy is so liberal, and why employees will go the extra mile – or 10 miles if necessary – to make sure that nothing stands in the way of the customers’ desire to come back and buy more.

Compare that approach with the dreary, gratuitous up-selling and cross-selling that consumers encounter so often at stores, restaurants, banks and car rental agencies.  Does that waiter really care if you’re delighted with the supersized soda? Does the salesperson truly think you’ll be thrilled with the extended warranty? Does the car rental agent agonize over whether it’s in your best interest to purchase the full tank of gas? Probably not. But until they do, they will never be The Nordstrom.

A willingness to trust employees. Nordstrom’s golden rule for employees is well-known: “Use good judgment in all situations”.  (Actually, we were informed by a senior Nordstrom executive that that there are two other rules: “Don’t chew gum on the floor” and “Don’t steal the merchandise”. We’re not quite sure if he was pulling our leg.) Companies are forever talking about employee empowerment and debating how far to take it, but Nordstrom is one of the few large companies that truly trusts its employees to do the right thing for the customer. This creates a culture in which workers feel free to take the initiative and be creative when interacting with customers and solving problems. Those tales of heroic service that Nordstrom is so justly famous for (see below) are only possible in an environment where employees are trusted to use their best judgment.

A culture of story-telling. In daily pre-shift meetings at Nordstrom stores, employees share detailed stories about their recent interactions with customers. In the hallways of Nordstrom’s executive offices, letters from customers are mounted on the walls, enlarged and framed so they can’t possibly be ignored by the people who run the company. On the desk of Pete Nordstrom, the company’s President of Merchandising, sit books full of letters from customers and employees, each telling a story about a memorable experience they had with Nordstrom.

Nordstrom employees do not just repeat customer stories, they constantly look for opportunities to create their own. They know that most customer interactions will be fairly routine, but that from time to time exceptional circumstances will arise. Those circumstances can lead to memorable tales, and those tales are more powerful than any advertising the company can buy.

Which brings us back to a relentless and unabashed focus on selling.

In a recent study of 140 large firms by The Tempkin Group, 11% of respondents said their firm is currently a customer experience leader – but 65% say they aspire to be a leader. Emulating Nordstrom’s practices may not be enough make these companies The Nordstrom, but it’s certainly worth looking into.

If you’d like to learn more about Nordstrom’s history and service practices, we recommend you check out the website of Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way:

by Peter Gurney and Christine Frishholz

The Tire Story

Among all the many stories about Nordstrom’s service, there is one that is particularly iconic among the company’s employees: A customer came in to a newly opened Nordstrom store in Alaska and demanded to return two truck tires. It seems the store location was previously occupied by an auto parts supplier. Even though Nordstrom does not sell tires, the manager gave the man a refund, no questions asked.

This is known in within Nordstrom as “The Tire Story”, and employees are always looking for opportunities to create a comparably memorable tale.

Here’s a recent one: A security worker at a Nordstrom store noticed a customer on her hands and knees. When he asked what was wrong, the customer informed him that she may have lost a diamond from her ring when she was shopping the day before. The employee helped the customer look, but they could not find the diamond. He then when into the maintenance area and proceeded to empty out the bags from all the vacuum cleaners that had been used to clean the store the previous evening. He found the diamond, and created his own “tire story”.

Here’s another, also recent: A customer called a Nordstrom store and said she had lost a hubcap while driving away. Would someone see if it was near the store? An employee immediately ran out to the road and found the hubcap. But she didn’t simply call the customer to return it. First she washed and polished the hubcap so it would look presentable for the customer.

Do you have a Tire Story from your company? Let us know. We’d love to hear it.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 10:43 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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