Why do 80% of people need help, but only 20% ask for it (at Home Depot)?

It all starts with laundry

Black Friday got the best of me this year: I went out and bought a new washing machine and dryer. Buying shiny new appliances is an exciting moment! So, I went to my local big box hardware store, Home Depot in East Asheville, ready to shop, compare, and schedule my free delivery and installation.

I’m a first-time washer and dryer buyer. Starting out, I used whatever machines were at my local laundromat. As I made my way up in the world, I used whatever machines were in my rental unit. But my new place did not have a set, so it was time to learn all I could about washers and dryers.

At the store I met Will, the sales rep for the home appliances department. He talked me through every single pro and con of every single machine, and helped me find the right one by volume, size, and price. Once I made my choice, Will called in a manager, Lisa, to help with my order, which was complicated by Black Friday deals, competitor coupons, and the additional items I needed to buy.

For reasons that don’t really matter to this post, it took a long time to check out. While I waited, Lisa and I chatted. I told her that Will was an exceptional Home Depot employee, and that I honestly could not have navigated this complicated process without his help, energy, and patience. This led me to ask, “How many people who come into Home Depot need help?”

“80% of people who come in here need help. But only about 20% of people ask for it,” Lisa told me, adding, “But that’s what we’re here for and why we wear these orange aprons; come ask us for help!”

You know how Spiderman has a Spidey-sense? At Anthroware, we have an Anthro-sense.

When I hear someone say something like, “80% of people need help, but only 20% ask for it,” my Anthro-sense goes off like firecrackers: “Pop! Pow! Pain point detected!” My brain fires up and I can’t turn it off.

I started thinking about how Anthroware could solve this problem in the most Anthroware way possible.

Critical Assumptions

So why don’t people ask for help? First, let’s lay out a span of critical assumptions – our best hypotheses about this 80/20 mystery.

Critical Assumption #1: People don’t actually want help.
People may actually prefer to meander through the dozens of aisles and bays in this enormous store. Perhaps people crave a mix of adventure and discovery, heightened by the exhilarating smell of lumber.

Critical Assumption #2: People don’t want to ask for help.
Maybe they don’t ask because they are embarrassed about needing help. Maybe they’re introverts who don’t like talking to people they don’t know. Maybe it’s pride or stubbornness; they don’t want to have to ask for help, preferring to figure it out on their own. Humans are complex; there are any number of reasons people might avoid asking.

Critical Assumption #3: People can’t ask for help.
They wander the store, looking for someone to ask, but can’t seem to find anyone who clearly works there. Or they can find store associates, but aren’t sure what questions to ask.

So what’s the most obvious solution? Put greeters at the store’s entrance, who find out what customers need, walk them directly to the product, and then escort them to checkout. That’s a fine solution; it works at the Apple Store.

However, there are at least two problems with that greet > escort > checkout model:

  1. People might want that chance to find things for themselves. Those who do may be put off by staff hovering over them like it’s a used car lot.
  2. Home Depot would lose out on “extra” purchases. Maybe you went in for some lightbulbs, but you’re walking out with lightbulbs, batteries, a new tape measure, deck screws, and bungee cords. Successful stores such as Publix, Target, Costco, and so on, intentionally organize their store's layout to encourage people to wander, browse, and buy things they forgot they needed (or didn’t even know they wanted).

Applying the Anthroware Process (The Anthroware Learning Engine)

Now that we’ve defined a few significant objectives and constraints, we can begin to apply Anthroware’s product development process to tackle the issue of 80% needing help, and only 20% asking for it.

I started by asking our resident people expert/WNC Woman Magazine Feature Focus – Kendra Sarvadi, Anthroware’s Lead UX Designer – what her first step would be? She said we should start by talking to customers to learn more about their behavior, so we brainstormed some questions to get us started:

  • In the past year, how many times have you shopped at Home Depot, or at a similar store?
  • In those times, which did you buy more often: Standalone products, such as light bulbs, gardening equipment, or individual appliances; or supplies for DIY home improvement projects?
  • In the past year, how many times have you done some kind of DIY home improvement project, large or small?
  • When shopping for project supplies, appliances, or similar home goods, what factors are most important in your decision? Cost, range of products, availability of expert advice, convenience, something else?
  • Are you working on or prepping for a home improvement project today?
    • If not, what did you come in for today?
    • If so, have you done this kind of project before, or is it new to you
  • Could you use some expert advice? Or are you the expert?
  • Did you come for something specific: A sale, a new grill, a part?
    • If so, did you know where to find what you came for?
    • If you didn’t, how long did it take you to find it?
  • When you arrived, did you plan to ask someone for help?
    • If so, did you? Why or why not?
  • If you asked for help even though you did not plan to, why did you finally decide to do so?
  • What kind of interaction would you prefer today?
    • Do you just want to know your product’s aisle number, and you can take it to the finish line? Or do you want a more guided experience?

If we had the budget, we might tag carts to track user movement through stores, to collect some aggregate data about how many aisles people visit or how many times they circle around before asking for help.

We also have some questions about Home Depot’s brand, and how it informs their approach to customer service. If DIY is the guiding principle of Home Depot, maybe that’s why people don’t want to ask for help? To find out more, we might interview and shadow employees.

For example, we might want to know whether Home Depot is similar to Publix, which has a policy that requires every employee to proactively seek opportunities to help customers. Whether they stock shelves or filet fish, at Publix, every single employee is trained on the whole store, and it’s part of their job to ask if they can be of service.

Or do Home Depot employees play a zone defense? I know that Will, our buddy at washers and dryers, works exclusively in appliances. His commission is even based on it. By shadowing employees, we can see how long it takes them off-task when asked for help, and learn how this affects staff availability.

Of course, we might learn that our solution involves something else entirely. For example, maybe Home Depot needs dedicated floaters, to guide people to the right department or project advisor? That might be a very effective solution… but implementing it requires time, training, hiring, onboarding, and cost.

What other solutions are there?

Creative Solutions

In the words of my mentor, Dr. Michael Morris, “The two magic words of entrepreneurship are: What if…” Here are 10 “What if’s...”

  1. What if Home Depot used technology similar to that of one of their competitors, which displays at the entrance a hard-to-miss directory of product locations?
  2. What if Home Depot catalogued each store, and they built a web-app putting the whole store in your pocket?
  3. What if Home Depot used robotic assistants to take you to the product? Have you seen those tablets on Segways AKA a Telepresence Robot?
  4. What if Home Depot had a mobile help button? Anywhere you are in the store, you hit the button from your phone and someone comes to you. You don’t have to seek anyone out.
  5. What if Home Depot had a display on every aisle, not just 4-5 categories on the end caps?
  6. What if Home Depot built an Artificial Intelligence assistant that you could message with questions or images and it could tell you what you need and where to find it?
  7. What if Home Depot could video conference with you at your home? Let’s say you’re building a fence: an employee would be able to evaluate your situation, help you identify which materials and tools you need, and even place the order for you, so you can just swing by your local Home Depot and pick it up.
  8. What if Home Depot had interactive tablets on each end cap that would show you not only what, but where a product was, with guided lighting straight to the location?
  9. What if Home Depot pulled an Amazon-Whole Foods model and you never went to the store at all? You just place an order online and a skilled employee pulls it from their warehouse, drops it in a locker or bay, and you can pick it up the same day.
  10. What if Home Depot created an augmented reality app? You could pan your smartphone’s camera around the store and get information on products, comparable and compatible products, location, pricing, and much more.

The difficulty with finding a product in Home Depot is due to a combination of two things: a customer’s lack of knowledge about non-routine manual work (incredibly hard to automate and replicate), plus a huge resource library. If you want to build a fence, there are thousands of methods and materials you could use. If you don’t even know which questions to ask to get started – if you don’t know what you don’t know – you’ll likely be much better off getting expert advice to help you figure it out. As a side-note, that makes these jobs very safe in a rapidly changing and automating world.

Where’s the juice?

If you’ve read other posts by us, you may be familiar with one of our fundamental questions: “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Is it worth it, for Home Depot to explore any of these creative solutions to the problem of 80% of customers needing help, but only 20% asking for it? How do we determine the potential benefit?

At Anthroware, we measure everything by Time, Quality, and Cost. Would a technology implementation improve on the current state of how long something takes, how much something costs, or the quality of the experience?

  • How long do customers stay in Home Depot?
    • Do we want this to go up or down? Depends on if you think it’ll add revenue or if it improves the customer experience? If the experience becomes a faster one, parking lots can be smaller, and more Home Depot locations can open. More locations = more revenue.
  • How often are employees interrupted?
    • How long should a restock take? How long do they actually take? Would it make sense to have stockers and helpers? Will we see a specialization of roles evolve?
  • Are only 20% asking for help because of fear, or they simply don’t want to?
    • Then giving them a simple, easy, and fast way to get the information they need is an early-win, a clear experience improvement.

Brand Matters

Anthroware is fortunate to employ incredible engineers who can make anything, brilliant designers that turn user interfaces into art, and people like me who help companies make smart business decisions. I need to be sure a technology implementation aligns or furthers the mission of Home Depot. We say colloquially: will this move the needle for the business?

Home Depot’s slogan used to be “You can do it, we can help.” I’d argue that the driving mission behind a Do-It-Yourself mentality is support. You get the idea that Home Depot not only has the tools and materials you need, but the experts there to guide you – if you need it. But that was then…this is now.

In 2009, Home Depot didn’t go as far as a rebrand, but they did change their slogan to “More saving. More doing.” From a back-patting go-get-em encouraging “You can do it”, to a Wal-Mart-ish cost-centric benefit of “More saving”. Maybe it was a sign of the times? 2009 sucked for the economy, the housing market bottomed-out, nobody was buying or selling houses. Instead, we stayed in our houses and fixed them up. We went from buying new to reclaiming and repurposing. Savings became the differentiating factor for all Americans, and Home Depot went along for the ride.

Savings are still important. But since 2009, the “customer experience” shifted to the forefront of deciding factors for American shoppers. Competition has driven prices down, stores accept competitor coupons, and you “can always find it online cheaper.” So where do you spend your money? For most of us, it’s about where we feel good about spending our money. How does a company treat its employees? How do they give back to the community? What is the culture?

How can Home Depot’s brand and customer experience evolve intentionally and collaboratively? With input from people like Will. Does it come as a surprise that a tech company, would put people first? That’s the guiding principle for us at Anthroware, and our partners (i.e. clients) agree. So put people like Will out there. I would bet a round of beers at your favorite Asheville brewery that Will can tell when someone needs help within their first 2 minutes of being in the store. I would also wager that Will knows 90% of the questions people ask about appliances before they ask them. Although, I did try to stump him asking questions like, “Ever get complaints about cats hanging out in this dryer?” People with cats will get that joke.

Brand shapes the culture, culture shapes the experience. A brand focused on cost-savings doesn’t produce a culture of people who love what they do, who care about quality, and who get as excited about your home improvement projects as you do. But a brand focused on helping people solve problems to get the job done will.

Asking for help

Is there a mismatched corporate-customer fit? Have Home Depot customers learned to expect a lower-quality experience focused on cost-savings (like Wal-Mart), even as employees are trained to help them (like Publix)? Has this created a feedback loop where people don't bother asking for help?

Technology can give Home Depot and their shoppers the best of both worlds. Maybe Home Depot can increase the quality of the user experience while maintaining a cost-saving advantage. Any of the 10 “What if’s” would move the needle, some more than others, of course. The way to make a real impact would be to do user testing as descried earlier, with employees and customers. Then rapidly prototype a solution and test again. With that data we can quantify the return for Home Depot. Is it happier and more loyal customers? Is it more locations? Is it higher-retention rates on employees? We’d find where the biggest return is and build the solution. Every time focusing on the time, quailty, and cost benefits in an improved state.

A technology implementation based in real user needs that also delivers delight, can certainly achieve the organizational goals of Home Depot and empower customers to get the help they need. Importantly, it lets the customers get the help they need exactly how they want it.

At Anthroware, we build software people need and love to use. Using our Anthroware Learning Engine and proven Product Development methodology, Home Depot can give its customers the tools and materials they need in a way they love to shop.