Best Practices in Client Experience Strategy: Nordstrom

A man walks into a Nordstrom department store, carrying a set of snow tires, and demands a refund.  Nordstrom is an upscale department store that began by selling shoes back in 1901, and although they now sell clothing, accessories, jewelry, cosmetics and home furnishings, they have never sold tires. In spite of this, the clerk refunds the amount marked on the side of the tires, without complaint.  The clerk makes the questionable refund because that is what the customer wanted. 

Perhaps Nordstrom should sell tires, because there is yet another famous “tire chains” story where a man walks into a store with a set of used tire chains and insisted that he had purchased them there.  The clerk refunds the man’s money, even though his receipt shows they did not come from Nordstrom. She paid him out of her own money, and on her lunch hour, went to the store where the chains had been purchased and got her money back.

Nordstrom has become synonymous with excellence in customer service.  These stories—whether true or not—have helped form this iconic image that many companies aspire to attain.

People love heroic stories of employees going the extra mile to delight a customer.  These narratives encourage us to improve and put the customer first in ways that differentiate us from our competitors.  We can picture ourselves in those anecdotes as the provider or recipient of excellent customer service—but can you train your team to be this brand of hero?  What if your business cannot empower front line employees with the tools, or freedom, to delight a customer?  What can we learn from Nordstrom?

Commit to Customer Service: Set the expectation within your organization that customer service is core to your business.  Customer service cannot be a corporate program, campaign, or “this week’s focus.”  All levels of the organization must commit to delivering excellent service with every transaction.  Your organization must have the resolve to stay focused—remember that Nordstrom has spent four generations developing its culture of service.  It is necessary to clearly define the expected behaviors that should appear in each transaction and then inspect that this is happening.  Like most improvements, each level of success becomes incrementally harder to achieve.  Continuous focus on the basics and an expectation that they happen with every transaction will result in improvement over time.

Focus on Client Needs: Your business model may not allow an employee a great deal of latitude in how to deal with an issue.  They many not even have the control over how much time they spend on a given situation.  In all cases the front-line employees can focus on that client and provide the absolute best experience within their control.

Celebrate Success:  At Nordstrom stores, each register has pen and paper for customers to share their stories. Nordstrom employees gather before the store opens each day and share some of the best stories from the previous day.  The employees in those stories are recognized by the store manager in front of their peers. You can imagine how this encourages people to approach their jobs in ways that result in new stories.  Be sure to recognize performers and you will have more great stories of your own.

Hire the smile, train the skill: The hiring philosophy at Nordstrom is to hire the smile, train the skill. Look for people who understand customer service and the business skills can be developed.  As you hold front-line employees accountable for specific behaviors you will find that these behaviors are innate with a group of employees.  Others will need coaching to develop the skills and habits.  Yet another group will not “get it” and must go.  Commitment to customer service means demanding behaviors for every transaction from every team member. 

Nordstrom now has over 52,000 employees and 187 stores located in 28 states.

If you’d like to read more, The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s #1 Customer Service by Robert Spector spent 17 weeks on the Business Week Bestseller List and is now a business book classic.


Company Profile

Name: Nordstrom, Inc.

Industry: Apparel Stores (JWN)

Chairman: Enrique (Rick) Hernandez, Jr.

2010 Employees: 48,000

2010 Sales: $9.2 billion