When Fashion is More Than Just a Pretty Face....
Have you found yourself bristling when calling a customer care hot line and hearing an accent that tipped you off that you were speaking to someone far away – removed from the issues or emotions of an everyday American? A snippy tone of voice from an overgrown teenager working minimum wage might have set you off, making you judge an entire company by that person’s responses and phone manner.
Perhaps that is why online customer care is becoming more popular than phone service these days. Whether it’s the online chat, email exchange or a customer “conversation” eventually posted on a product’s description page (like a Yelp! review for each article sold), there is often a person whose voice will remain silent except for the cyber-print he or she taps out in response to your inquiries. No accents. No attitudes or voice inflections to make you think they are bored or not really listening to you before forming a response -- just a person who was hired (hopefully) because he or she is trained to not only care about the customer, but also to answer questions as professionally but understandably as possible -- answers that will remain online 24/7 and become the face of the company itself.
For about a year, I performed one of those jobs from home. No. I didn't spam anyone about how lucrative it was to work from home. Because it wasn't. But it was fun. This was not a job I ever saw myself doing, or even thought I’d do well. But when the opportunity presented itself, I found I was good at it. Performing these duties made me feel as if I had won a small lottery just waking up each morning knowing I could help some young woman make a decision about a piece of clothing that she might be wearing while on her dream date, interviewing for an important job, or just realizing when she looked in the mirror how beautiful she was.
It sounds fairly simple, answering questions about clothing, shoes and accessories for a fashion retailer. After all, it’s not rocket science when you’re talking small/medium/large. I did get training for a day, learning how to use the software and programs that permitted me to respond to the customer as well as how to use the proprietary communications to contact various departments to research answers I needed. After that I was on my own to become more and more adept at informing, empathizing with, and advising customers who often had the answers right in front of them on our product pages if they had only looked.
At first I thought I had to speak millennial, since that was the demographic focus of the site. “XOXO” at the end of my response ; five exclamation points to show enthusiasm; words like “rad” and “rock that dress with a pair of platforms.” I tried. But it felt phony. You see, I am the age the company's customers’ grandmothers would be. That unalterable fact offered me two advantages: (1) the wisdom of years of having been told that I had a good fashion sense, some of which transcends generations from my mother to me to the next generation, and (2) the ability to phrase things in a way that empowers, informs, aids in decision-making, but does not insult. When you think about how this millennial generation got trophies for just showing up, I consider this an important skill. So when a young woman asks a question about a 1-piece skimpy swimsuit fitting her when I knew in my bones that some of the proportions on her body simply would not work, I would never say something like “We don’t think this is right for your body type.” My answer would sound more like, “This suit offers a minimalist cut and each person fills it out differently. Keep in mind that with this style, bust size can affect torso length.” Full disclosure without referring to a dromedary in Egypt. It was all in the presentation, but the decision was theirs.
When I began being this online entity, I often gave short answers and breezed through my assigned duties. Once I was at it for a while, however, I found I simply couldn't let a gal who was 6 months pregnant think that a size large would accommodate her mid-section in perpetuity. I shuddered to let someone imagine that a garment containing 2% spandex meant gals could buy a size smaller just because the correct size was sold out. And I cringed when I let a gal with admittedly muscular or larger legs assume an over-the-knee boot with a 12-inch calf circumference and 15-inch thigh openings would fit without making her legs feel like woven bamboo finger torture devices. My sympathies for the online shopper were simply too strong to lead her on knowing she would be unable to try the garment or shoes or boots on in person.
So I simply told the truth in the most tactful way possible. I used lines like, “We recommend sizing your largest proportion first using our size guide for reference, and then considering alterations for other areas that are a tad loose as a result. Buying a size that fits only your smaller dimensions robs you of that opportunity.” A bit wordy? Perhaps. But I figured these souls relied on me to give them all the information they needed to feel confident enough to add that shoe, boot, pair of sunglasses or body-con dress to their shopping bag. Or not. Returns, after all, cost both the purchaser as well as the seller real money for the mere privilege of sampling something. And if it happens too often, it can make customers click away and never return to the site again.
Do other companies get this detailed? I don’t know. I never looked. I simply put my blinders on and had a ball with this. At one point it dawned on me that many of these young women did not get much training from their mothers in the art of dressing to hide their detriments and accentuate their assets without overexposing them. So I felt a responsibility to impart that wisdom (even if it’s not taken) through the subtleties of the responses I offered. When I got that opinionated, however, I usually ended my answer with “your call…”
So next time you ask a retailer a question, you may be dealing with someone like me. Between answering questions and approving product reviews I happily fed the pup, accepted a delivery from a guy in a brown truck or surfed Facebook. But that didn't mean I never cared.