When Service Becomes A Disservice

Today is a tough time to be a bookseller. Whether you’re a local, independent bookstore or a chain mega-giant, the online market is putting the squeeze on your bread and butter. Personally, I want bookstores to succeed despite the new digital world. I always prefer brick-and-mortar to digital.

For that reason, I’m a longtime fan of Barnes & Noble. There’s one near my office that I visit frequently to check out new arrivals and figure out what to read next. But lately, something’s changed. In the past, it could be difficult to find someone to help me around the store. Today, it is difficult to avoid someone trying to help – whether I want them to or not.

Today’s Barnes & Noble stores usually have an employee waiting for you at the front of the store. They ask what you’re looking for, and if you’re like me, you reply, “Oh, nothing, just looking.” This spurs them to belt out a spiel about specials and book recommendations. It can be off-putting, to say the least, and it’s the perfect example of when service feels less like help and more like a hustle.

Successful businesses always guide and sell to their prospects, but customers don’t want to feel pressured and pushed. How can you tell when you’ve crossed the line? It’s a vital question for anyone who wants to provide exemplary customer service.

I believe there are four tiers of poor service:


  1. Avoidance. Employees aren’t visible or easily identified, and you have to hunt them down.
  2. Apathy. You can find employees, but they seem at worst annoyed by your questions and indifferent at best. They’re just going through the motions.
  3. Assertiveness. Employees initiate contact both by greeting customers and offering to help. “How may I help you?” is the classic phrase. If the customer responds with, “Just looking,” all that’s needed in response is, “Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.” No pressure.
  4. Aggressiveness. Employees engage with everyone who comes in, regardless of the customer’s receptivity or lack thereof. They assume you know what you want and ask what it is. When you try to get them off your back, they launch into a sales pitch.


We all like employees who are knowledgeable, friendly and eager to help. But too much enthusiasm turns service into a disservice. Skip the canned sales pitches and only guide customers who are looking for your help.


Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is the president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an “idea studio” that seeks to motivate and develop leaders in and outside of business. He’s the bestselling author of books like Fred Factor and The Potential Principle and a noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and company change. He holds the Certified Speaking Professional designation from the National Speakers Association and is a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame. Check out any of his excellent books, his video series, “Team Building: How to Motivate and Manage People,” or his website, marksanborn.com, to learn more.