business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman’s impassioned plea to a multi-billion dollar corporation for mercy has been answered: CVS has agreed to change the cloying piano melody that constitutes its hold music.

Schlozman wrote a humorous appeal to the pharmacy chain last year, estimating that in his work he had spent approximately “25 days of my life on this planet” listening to the tune while calling in prescriptions for his patients. The fuzzy refrain he wrote, “haunts me, day and night. It’s not healthy. I know. I’m a doctor.”

His witty request went viral and sparked a national debate across the internet, the morning talk shows and even a headline of the front page of the Wall Street Journal that read:  "CVS Hold Music Divides a Nation." The online headline continued with question: “Enraging or Hypnotizing?” A petitions soon followed.

CVS confirmed last week it is in the process of updating the interactive voice response phone system in its 10,000 stores, including the on-hold music which has remained unchanged for 20 years.

Schlozman said he was delighted for whatever small role he may have played in this development, even though a CVS spokesperson told WBUR in Boston that plans “were already underway” to update the system.

The psychiatrist acknowledged CVS’ decision was a “small thing” but still heartening that a huge company listened to a customer.

As frequently noted at MNB, it is often the “small” things and first impressions that can radically alter a consumer’s shopping experience – and differentiate a savvy retailer from its competitors. And that small thing can be as simple as hold music, realistic hold times or the ability to navigate a website and contact customer service – by phone, email or chat.

Zappos has long been lauded for its customer service and a corporate culture that encourages team members to create a “personal emotional connection” with each customer. My telephone interactions with “Zapponians” have confirmed just that, and draw me back to the site even though I pay an annual fee for Amazon Prime.

And then there is the foot-traffic first impression. I’ve always been greeted immediately and cordially in every sleek Apple store I’ve frequented and found the employees willing to do more than they bargained for once I’m at the Genius Bar.

The same goes for REI - the moment one walks into one of its stores, there is a sense of instant immersion in its world of hikes and bike rides and other outside activities. Its business model as a co-op certainly encourages friendly employee interactions with shoppers.

Enter a Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, and one immediately knows that it is a foodie nirvana … the fresh food presentations, the aromas, and the engaged associates make for a transformative experience, time after time after time.

I find it interesting that two online companies new to the world of brick-and-mortar - Away luggage and Everlane clothing - have done an admirable job designing their stores to immediately reflect their corporate ethos.

Which brings us to the last impression – the checkout. Even in this era of Amazon Go or self-checkout kiosks, I believe that final personal experience stays with the customer. (And that is not just because I am consistently frustrated when fumbling with fresh produce in self-checkout lanes.) At Trader Joe’s, the cash register crew members are not only efficient but also ask if you were able to find everything; they seem honestly concerned to hear your response and then wish you a good day. Checkout should be a fitting coda to a shopping experience.

Soothing hold music. Wait times that don’t leave you seething. A well-packed double bag for heavy groceries. The scent of Killer Brownies at Dorothy Lane Market. Small things, yes … but all make lasting impressions.

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