Home Depot’s profits are on the rise, after the company fired up its low-wage turnover meat to come out of hiding and help those intent on spending money. On the surface, it’s a new day and a new fiscal quarter for the home improvement giant. But the company’s government-like “Customers First Initiative,” the sensitivity training at the center of a renewed interest in customer satisfaction, is a both a clever exploitation of all things superhighway and a shotgun wedding for employees and customers.
Having coddled the big spenders and contractors of a bygone building boom, Home Depot has now begun to capitalize on the socioeconomic similarities between its employees and its more typical patrons. Its new Customers First Initiative is a product of regime change at the company and includes action items like “Power Hours,” where employees drop what they’re doing and seek out wanderers who may need help.
What it’s ok to drop in favor of customer service isn’t clear – nor is it clear what HD is doing to better prepare its employees to help – but the point of Customers First seems to be less, “Clean up on Aisle 9” and more, “What can I help you find?”
Employees have been newly trained to eyeball the contents of shopping carts, looking for missing items or something they might suggest to complete a project. Sounds good, eh? More listening, less vanishing; more trooper, less stupor. Many people, myself included, enter a big box store like Home Depot only to discover the limits of their engineering or design skills. For a company seeking to improve customer satisfaction and retention against competitors like Ace Hardware – already known for its attentive employees – any improvement is a good one.
But therein lies the rub. What’s been presented as a way to provide better service to customers masks the reality that the customers themselves are providing a service to Home Depot – and for free.
Customers by the millions practically rush the doors of Home Depot each morning with do-it-yourself ideas, some more realized than others. Each has an explanation to convey in pursuit of nuts, bolts, and fiberglass, and the communication of those needs can provide free on-the-job training for HD employees. So it turns out the Customers First Initiative’s big hook is a funny twist on Home Depot’s DIY roots: patrons’ projects and ideas have become the corporate payoff, and newly “helpful” employees a well-positioned army of company spies.
It used to be you’d go to Home Depot and maybe catch a carpentry lesson; now you’re giving the lessons. And should you falter in your explanation of why you need self-closing baffle hinges, the newly installed free Home Depot WiFi will fill in the details for your orange-aproned mentee. By the time he or she passes your civil engineering lecture, you’ll not only have created a friendly rapport, you’ll have become more valuable than the products you came in to buy. Home Depot corporate has just data-mined you.
And who decided to let them do that? I’m just saying it wasn’t you, the customer.