Home Depot adds staff in aisles

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- Home Depot has rolled out a steady stream of attempts to juice up customer service in its cavernous stores - self-checkouts, huge cash awards, even orange rubber bracelets designed to inspire its orange-aproned crew.

In its latest move, the home improvement retailer is going back to the basics: putting more help in the aisles.

Home Depot said in its recent quarterly earnings announcement that it is adding 5.5 million hours to store schedules for the fall and winter, a period in which it typically scales back - though what that means for the average store is hard to tell.

The increase in staffing comes during a seasonal slowdown that's expected to be even slower than usual this year because of the iffy housing market.

Instead of backing off, though, Home Depot chief executive Robert L. Nardelli says he decided to beef up staff and continue spending on store remodeling as an aggressive strategic move to hold market share.

Home Depot will spend $350 million over the next six months on its latest retail rejuvenation, including $85 million in extra payroll and the remainder on store improvements.

These include self-checkouts and new radio-equipped call boxes that shoppers can use to summon someone for help.

Although there was no mention of customer complaints in Home Depot's announcement, the retailer seems to be addressing one of the biggest gripes against it: not enough salespeople on the floor.

Home Depot took a dive in this year's annual customer satisfaction survey by the University of Michigan. And although Home Depot disputes those findings (the company says its own research shows that service continues to improve), the retailer acknowledges it gets an earful from its own customer surveys.

"Customers have told us ... that the availability and the engagement of our associates is critical," said Jose Lopez, senior vice president and chief customer officer for Home Depot. "Customers are telling us less about the physical aspect of the store and telling us more about the behavioral aspect."

Home Depot launched its do-it-yourself concept with a promise that even the least handy homeowner could wander into its warehouse stores and ask an employee for the answer to just about any household fix. Twenty-five years and 2,000-plus stores later, customers still expect that one-on-one connection.

"I'm a computer guy, but Home Depot empowered me to do things around my house that I never knew how to do myself. That's how they made their name," said Jay Hillebrand, a retired software executive who shops at Home Depot stores near his homes in Marietta, Ga., and outside of Hilton Head, S.C.

"But, it seems like Home Depot has lost that in the last couple of years. ... You have to find someone to help you, and once you find someone, they might not know how to help you."

That brings up another sore spot that has dogged Home Depot: Customers expect a lot more than more work boots on the ground.

"Putting more people on the floor is good, but they've got to be quality people. Putting in call boxes can be very helpful but only if the employee who comes to help knows the answer," said Sheila Kessler, of San Clemente, Calif., a consultant and author of Measuring and Managing Customer Satisfaction: Going for the Gold .

"Retail is in the detail, and it's the details of the customer experience that Home Depot sometimes lacks," Kessler said.

"Still, these are steps in the right direction. At least Home Depot is showing it's conscious of the customer issues."

Home Depot launched a major customer service initiative in the spring, which involved, in part, increasing training requirements for store employees.

Full-time and part-time employees alike are supposed to take six hours of "product knowledge" and other store training a month, up from four hours.

Some of the recent moves came after the University of Michigan released its annual American Customer Satisfaction Index in February.

In that survey, Home Depot's marks fell to their lowest level in five years, while the marks for rival Lowe's continued to climb.

Home Depot heavily relies on feedback from customers who purchase items and then go to a Web site listed on the sales receipt to rate the experience. Home Depot's Lopez says the retailer receives about 150,000 of these surveys each week.

"We get a report card every week, whether we like it or not," Lopez said during a recent tour of a new store in Atlanta, where the chain has its headquarters.

Home Depot asks customers to rate each shopping experience on a scale of 1 to 10 in a variety of categories, including the cleanliness of the store and the friendliness of the cashier.

There's also a section of check boxes that lists common complaints about associates, with rude employees and employees too busy socializing at the top of the list.

"Are we perfect? Of course not, but customers are telling us that we have significantly improved over the past six months," Lopez said.

Lopez also said Home Depot is seeing improvements with its call-box pilot program. The retailer is testing radio-equipped call boxes at more than 100 stores across the country.

"The customer presses a button, and that signals an associate who should come to assist them within 45 seconds to a minute," Lopez said.

"We're already seeing that stores with call boxes get better results on our online surveys," Lopez said.

Home Depot is also revamping its toll-free customer service number, rebranding it as 1-800- HomeDepot to make it easier for customers to remember, Lopez said.

And by the end of this month, the company will no longer route customer service calls abroad. Like many U.S. companies, Home Depot has outsourced some of its call center operations to India.

Home Depot will also continue to expand self-checkout stations this year. The company considers the stations a step up in service, Lopez said. "We're investing more in the store ... and it's all driven by what customers are telling us," he said.

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