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The power of a simple "thank you"

A cheerleader holds up a sign thanking the fans for their attendance after the game between the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena.

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Kai Ryssdal: We all know that expressing gratitude is important. The social virtues of a simple thank you were drummed into most of us at an early age. Once we caught on, we needed only occasional prompting from Mom or Dad. Economically, the recession might have been just the reminder the retail industry needed about the importance of a well-placed thanks.

Sally Herships has more.


Sally Herships: Sarah Siewert is 24, she lives in Chicago. A couple of months ago, she hit up a department store with her mom and her sister. They were shopping for purses.

Sarah Siewert: And as soon as we got there, into the purse section, one of the saleswomen immediately approached us and was really attentive, she pulled purses from the back, she went through different options, different colors.

Typical shopping experience, right? As long as you get an attentive sales person, like Sarah did. She and her mom ended up buying a purse apiece. Then, a couple weeks later they both got letters in the mail from the saleswoman who'd helped them. They were thank you notes.

Siewert: It was a fully hand written note, referencing the exact bag we purchased. And on my note, she even had a nice reference to our alma mater.

Turns out they'd gone to the same school. And, I'll admit the purse Sarah bought wasn't exactly cheap. It was Marc Jacobs, about $400. But it's not just pricey department stores that are beefing up their manners. When the recession hit, JCPenney started a customer service program called GREAT. It's an acronym for salespeople: Greet. Respect. Engage. Assist. And Thank. And other retailers are following suit.

Brett Brohl: I've written, at least 2,000 thank yous just in the last 12 months.

Brett Brohl owns Scrubadoo.com
. He sells medical scrubs. You know, those pastel-colored outfits, doctors and nurses wear. Brohl says he hand writes a thank you note for every single customer. Scrubadoo is a new company, and Brohl says there are a lot of websites out there selling the exact same products he does.

Brett Brohl: If you Google the word "scrubs," we're not on the front page, we're not on the second page. And just like every other industry right now, competition's tough and with less people buying, it's even tougher.

Brohl says, a new company like his can't afford major marketing like TV commercials. Instead, he says, he's counting on thank you notes to help Scrubadoo stand out. So is this the beginning of a new trend of exemplary customer service?

Nancy Koehn is a retail historian, at Harvard. She says for smart businesses it is.

Nancy Koehn: We're returning to civility, courtesy and a way of actually honoring customers that has seemed far too absent, I think, for the last 20 years.

Koehn says the role of the salesperson has changed a lot over the decades. Before the recession, a salesperson's job had morphed into managing transactions: Bagging groceries, dispensing coffee, ringing up a sale. She says the more we've absorbed technology, like self-service check-out at the grocery store, the more retail businesses have reduced service.

Now, the role of the salesperson is changing again. I'm at a perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue with James McLaughlin. He works for a fragrance company called Jo Malone. McLaughlin says its sales people have been sending thank you notes for years. They're scented. But now, he says the company spends 20 percent more time, on expressing gratitude -- everything from hand and arm massages to wine tastings for customers.

James McLaughlin: We oftentimes will liken the experience as dating. You have a really great first date, and then the person calls you three months later when there's a sale going on and says, "How about a second date?" Why would they bother? You didn't keep in touch.

But Chicago shopper Sarah Siewert's salesperson did -- remember the one who sent her the thank you note after she and her mom bought purses? It worked. Siewert says she just bought another bag. So, thank you for listening.

I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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