The Nordstrom Way

March 1, 2000
How does the department store define customer service? Ask the author. He needed a new shirt for his tux.

How does the department store define customer service? Ask the author. He needed a new shirt for his tux.

Richard H. Madow, DDS

As I write this, it`s 1:32 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday. I`m sitting in the Nordstrom Café, drinking its excellent coffee (I know, I know ... it stains my teeth and makes me way too hyper). Four pages of an article I was working on for The Richards Report are sitting on top of a pile of papers, tapes, letters, and packages on my tornadoed desk back at the office. But I`ve decided to scrap that article (it was kind of lame anyway) to tell you about my afternoon. I think it`s a great illustration of customer service.

I have a very big and special occasion coming up in 10 days. My regular, ordinary tux shirt isn`t going to cut it. Nothing like waiting until the last minute.

If I buy clothes without my wife, there`s about an 80 percent chance of a return trip. So I called Anne and asked if she would meet me at noon in a formal wear store, which was known for being one of the largest and best in beautiful, blue-collar Baltimore.

She was there when I arrived (of course), looking rather cute in her tennis dress (obviously, I pulled her from an important meeting) with a man standing behind her, arms folded with an expression on his face like he was watching a rerun of Masterpiece Theatre. I assumed he was a salesman, but it was puzzling why they hadn`t yet made contact. I said hello to Anne and told the statue that I was looking for a nice tux shirt in a 16/34 size.

"I know," he said. "Your wife just told me that. Here are the shirts." Then he resumed his position.

It occurred to me that if we actually purchased a shirt this man would earn a commission. So I telegraphed Anne a look that said, "Let`s get the hell out of here before this guy turns to stone and falls on us."

Anne, of course, insisted on asking him a few questions about shirts. His most intelligent response was, "Huh?" (I swear I`m not making this up!) Pretty soon, even she realized that this was a major waste of time, so we just looked at each other and walked away. I doubt statue man even noticed.

Anne had somewhere else to go, so I went back to my car, and did what I should have done in the first place - called the men`s department at Nordstrom. The last few times I was there I was helped by a really nice guy named Don. So I asked for him by name. Now Nordstrom is a pretty big store with hundreds of employees. But from the time I pushed "send" to the time Don actually came to the phone, less than 45 seconds had elapsed.

"Hi, Don. This is Rich Madow."

"Oh, hi, Rich, how are you? Are you getting ready for your big event? It`s sometime next month, isn`t it? You must be really excited! And how is your wife doing? She is so nice!"

Wow! At this point, I would probably buy a petrified cow pie from the guy, and I hadn`t even set foot in the store yet. We exchanged a little more small talk (which is so important it should be called big talk!). Then Don asked what he could do to help me. I asked him if Nordstrom carried any tux shirts that were just a little bit different than plain pleated white.

"Oh sure! We`ve got some really nice ones! You`re a 16/34, right?"

After a little more small talk, I hung up and turned Dylan up again. ("I try so hard to be just who I am, but everybody wants me to be just like them...") Within 10 minutes, I was inside the men`s department. Within 11 minutes, Don had greeted me. He then led me right over to a stack of about six shirts.

"I pulled out a bunch in your size that I thought you would like. This one is my favorite."

(As an aside here, I went looking for tux shirts last week in a very fancy store. As I was about to purchase one, the salesman informed me that, in order to prevent people wearing a tux shirt to a special occasion and then returning it, this item was not returnable. OK, I was wearing a T-shirt and an old pair of totally beat-up jeans - but, hey, that`s my uniform! That`s all I`ve ever worn to Nordstrom as well!)

I narrowed it down to Don`s favorite and another one I liked, and then had a tough time deciding.

"Why don`t you take them both, try them on with your tux at home, and then bring back the one you don`t want? Take all the time you need."

Is this sale made, or what?

"So Rich, are you okay with your cuff links and studs, or do you want to try a new set?"

I have to admit that I`m not exactly sure where I got my current links and studs. I keep them on a thick plastic card that says, "To avoid extra charges, return the next day." So I have an inkling that I may have ripped them off after a friend`s wedding 15 years ago.

We went over to the accouterment section (I`ve been wanting to use that word for a long time now), and I picked out a very nice cuff links and studs set. Don then told me that they had just gotten in some very nice sport jackets if I wanted to take a look (I didn`t!) and then we went over to the register.

He punched in the charges and then came to the other side of the counter to review them with me.

"Let`s see here, Rich. The tux shirts are seventy five each; the stud and cuff link set is one hundred forty five..."

Whoa! A Franklin and a half for a pair of cuff links and four metal sticks? Geez, the last set I got was free! Well, they are really really nice, and they`ll last for many years ... and .... and ... and I think you know what I did.

"Great to see you again, Rich. Good luck next month. That`s really exciting! Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Actually, Don," I said in a hushed tone, "where is the panty hose department?"

I pass along this warning to all guys: Never call your wife or girlfriend and tell her you are on the way to Nordstrom or anywhere else your honey likes to shop! Panty hose! This was one step away from having to buy tampons at the grocery store!

"Panty hose would be in ladies furnishings. Let me walk you over there, Rich."

Aaah ... this was surely the coup d`état! But here`s the topper. On the way to the headgear for bankrobbers department, Don let me know how much pleasure he had helping me out. He said he would be honored to help out any of my friends or associates, so could I please pass his name along to anyone I know who wears clothes! Triple wow!

So what do you think? Am I telling you this story just because I don`t have anything else to write about? Well, maybe. But you know what? So-called practice management gurus are always telling us to give our patients "Nordstrom service." But what the hell does that mean? Many of you probably live in a town where the fanciest store is Wal-Mart, where they`re rolling back those prices. So let`s take a look back at this transaction, pick out just how many things were done right, and see how we can apply this to the dental office.

n Telephone courtesy and efficiency. Needless to say, the operators at Nordstrom were courteous. But the speed at which I got through to Don was incredible. Now we`ve sure done a lot on phone techniques over the years, but do you:

- Answer the phone on two rings?

- Have enough lines so no one ever gets a busy signal?

- Always answer the person`s question courteously, quickly, and accurately?

- Not put people on hold?

- Avoid menus and "voice mail jail?"

> Treat each person as a unique individual. At the tux store, I was a non-important nothing. At Nordstrom, I was ... me! Don knew about me personally, he made meaningful small talk (is that an oxymoron?), and he met my needs clothes-wise (translation: clinically) with humble perfection.

> Run on time! When I arrived, Don was there, ready to show me shirts. I didn`t have to sit around reading year-old magazines next to a kid with a runny nose.

> The power of suggestion. Was I upset that Don offered me cuffs and studs? Of course not! I was happy, and it worked! Remember, it is rare when a dental case is actually "finished." Don`t think you`re being pushy; the best time to suggest something (veneers, a bridge, etc.) is when a patient is thrilled with your office.

Dentists have told me that when a patient has just received major treatment (crown insert, etc.) they will wait until the six-month recall to suggest the next step, especially if it`s nonessential in nature. No way! Try this:

"Wow, Bob! Those crowns look fantastic, and the fit is perfect. You really made a good choice - they`ll last for years. You know, now that the decay is all taken care of, you might want to think about improving your smile. May I talk to you about...?"

> Don`t diagnose another`s financial condition. I happened to be wearing very old, faded jeans, and a pair of Docksides that look like they survived Hurricane Floyd (hey, they did!). The only new thing I was wearing was a 1999 The Richards Report Super Fall Seminar T-shirt.

But did Don tell me to go steal a new pair of cuff links? Did he steer me away from the $145 pair? Of course not. And, when he courteously told me how much they were, he didn`t say it apologetically, he was very "matter-of-fact." Giving a patient the fee in a matter-of-fact tone implies that it is perfectly normal, and whatever you are selling is well worth it.

> Countertop courtesy. When Don went to explain the prices, he came from behind the counter and stood next to me. We were no longer salesman and customer - we were friends.

It is a really nice, warm gesture for a staff member who is planted behind a counter or desk (doctor included) to make the unmistakable effort to come out from behind and stand next to the patient. It is an obvious physical and mental barrier breaker, and is especially powerful when greeting a new patient.

> Pass the baton. Those of you who subscribe to The Richards Report cassette tape series know what Dr. Sharon Tiger means by "passing the baton." [For those of you who don`t, what`s wrong with you? Call (800) 258-0060 to get in on the best continuing education on four wheels!]

Obviously, the entire technique is way too much to go into here, but a very important component of "passing the baton" is physically accompanying the patient wherever they have to go in the office. Never let patients wander around the office (or to the panty hose department) by themselves.

> Ask for the referral. Don`t beg, don`t grovel. It is true that, done improperly, asking for referrals can make you look desperate. But done properly, it makes you look extremely professional and it flatters the customer/patient. I felt honored that Don liked me so much he would like to serve my friends.

So what`s this Don dude like anyway? We`re all used to reading about multi-talented, super-skillful, incredibly motivating people like Bill Dickerson, Gordon Christensen, Howard Farran, Paddi Lund, Kit Weathers, Larry Rosenthal, etc., but Don has more the personality of, well ... a typical dentist.

He`s intelligent and witty, but in a shy reserved way. He`s somewhat self-effacing and has a pleasant personality, but not one that will knock you over. He may not immediately stand out in a crowd, but he seems like he`d be a hell of a good guy to hang out with.

Will I be going back to see him? Of course. Will I refer him to others? You bet!

If any of you happen to be in Towson, Md., (or better yet, if you actually live near the place) and you want great service at a great store, please look up Donald Feldman at Nordstrom Towsontown Center. You can reach him at (410) 296-2111, ext. 1220, or leave a voice mail message at (410) 821-4071.

And for the few of you who don`t wind up calling Don, please take this lesson of "Nordstrom service" very, very seriously. It taught me more than any dental Maharishi has recently. And the most amazing thing was that all of these great techniques were done in one hour`s time - professionally.

For more information about this article, contact the author at (800) 258-0060 or visit

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