Observations From The Road

Small Things Matter When It Comes To Customer Service

It’s amazing how small things can really shape a shopping experience. Recently, I witnessed how ‘details’ can make visiting a business something special…or ruin it. My first experience was to the LL Bean retail campus in Freeport, ME, a place I was eager to see since it was a highly successful company, anchoring a very unique retail environment and having been in business for almost 100 years.

LL Bean’s campus in Freeport is a cluster of stores, each designed to meet specific customer needs all located on a beautifully landscaped area with great displays. I visited the watersports and bike shop first, hoping to find a few items for my bike and then ventured over to the outdoor apparel store. Although the shops were interesting and were full of unique items, there were so many company “rules” and confusing ways of communicating basic information that I left very disappointed. First, price tickets in the bike store displayed a price that was much lower than the actual price – in a font so small that the clerk had trouble locating it. Although I had found the rechargeable rear light I wanted, when I went to pay for it, it rang up at three times the price stated on the ticket. Disappointed, I declined to buy the item. Next, the clerk demanded that my name and credit card information be entered into his computer before I could conclude my small transaction, taking nearly 10 minutes to answer all his questions. When the questions finally ended, my transaction was declined because the zip code on my Discover Card differed from what he recorded. His response was to delete what he recorded and ask me to start again. I quickly pulled out cash so I could leave.

The experience in the apparel store proved just as frustrating since I was still unable to use my card and had to repeat the same “quiz” before I could buy what I wanted. The clerks seemed oblivious to my desire to make a transaction and leave. They were focused on company policy much more than helping me with what I wanted my experience to be. Despite world-class displays and very cool products, I left totally frustrated, and I don’t think they even noticed.

I then stayed a few days in Bar Harbor, Maine and ate breakfast in a small family owned café named Jordon’s Restaurant. The experience here was amazing. Good food, great service and a team focused on delivering a product the way their customers wanted it. They didn’t even write down the orders- instead they would yell them out to a team of cooks who would handle dozens of orders simultaneously and each member of the staff knew their job and performed it, efficiently. I went back three mornings in a row and never once saw anything other than a team of people totally focused on making sure each customer received a great meal.

It’s amazing how a world famous company like LL Bean could deliver such a sub-par experience compared to this little diner. While one company was focused on what was best for them, the other was totally focused on what their customers wanted. I suppose there was a time when LL Bean knew this or they wouldn’t have lasted so many years, but it’s obvious they forgot it along the way. Great displays and unique merchandise are fantastic and important but they don’t mean much if customers don’t get what they really want. Good business means doing the simple things well and understanding that pleasing the customer is what really matters – a great lesson for all of us who want to be successful in business.

Photos ©Copyright LL Bean & Jordan’s Restaurant


  1. Excellent point. It’s the reason the word customer is primary in the term “Customer Service”. Also, very kind of you to sacrifice three mornings in a row to eat at that diner just for the sake of research.

  2. Ken Thanks for putting into words what I have experienced at many mass merchants. I thought it was another world that the youth live in; it was simply the ageing process. By the way the is a similar breakfast diner just outside West Point, NY

  3. Ken: What a great observation. I have noticed that when companies get larger they struggle to keep the corporate culture that got them there. Whether they become beholden to stock holders or just the rules of the job description, it creates a layer of distance between the store and the customer that was never there before. As we grow I become concerned with losing “touch” with our customer base and our culture. Even though we aren’t large, we are larger than we used to be and the customer interaction that used to be handled primarily by Stve and me is now handled by another layer.
    We strive to stick to our culture of personal attention and this is a great reminder of what a difference it can truly make.

    • Great comments Paul,
      I think the difference is that you and Steve are aware of what could happen. Not so sure that concern is shared by many business leaders even though it should be top priority.

    • Precisely what drove me from the corporate software biz to picture framing. I like seeing immediately how customers respond to an intentional and appealing culture. Bean excels at pulling it off on a large scale.

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