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Posted: June 17, 2013

The Nordstrom secret revealed

You're never going to guess what it is

David Sneed

I had a friend who once worked at Nordstrom, and she taught me this little secret.

Now we all know Nordstrom as a place which, although slightly pricey, has excellent customer service. People (by which I mostly mean women) seem to love the return policy and the fact that getting help is easy as pie.*

I already knew about the loyalty some customers had for this particular chain, but I always wondered why?  And how?

How can a retail store have a culture in which employees and management are so good at making customers happy?  Do they have marathon training sessions? Are the rules super strict? Do the managers have magical powers?

It turns out that it isn’t any of these things.

Nordstrom’s has great customer service because the training for this part of the job is just one sentence long: Use your best judgment.


That’s right. Nordstrom lets their employees decide the best way to handle each customer. I’m thinking they don’t have carte blanche to just do whatever they want, but apparently if it’s reasonable and appropriate—it’s allowed. Employees don’t HAVE to call a manager over to sort it all out—they can say “yes ma’am” themselves.

Wow, right?  How’s that for a company culture?  Most businesses micromanage to make sure they aren’t being swindled. Most don’t actually trust their employees to make good decisions.

Nordstrom probably loses money once and a while because of this unwavering belief in their people. But they seem to think, and company’s success bears it out, that having happy customers makes up for the occasional loss of profit.

So what exactly is it about this policy that makes the Nordstrom customer happy (and the chain successful?) Here it is … are you ready?

It ‘s easy to shop at Nordstrom!

That makes people happy. I’m a big fan of easy and I’ll take it over difficult every time. I bet you will too—even if it costs a little bit more.

So that’s worth thinking about for business owners and managers. Raise your price to cover the cost if you have to, but whatever you do: Make it easy to buy from you.

Whether that means accepting PayPal, changing business hours or granting employees authority to make on-the-spot decisions, the goal of management should be to make it easy to be a customer.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You can start plagiarizing imitating right here, at the Nordstrom “culture” page.

*I’ve never actually made a pie, and it may not be that easy to do. Brings to mind Carl Sagan: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Consult a cookbook.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

Norstrom's employees are exceptional. Unlike this conversation I had earlier today - Chiropractor: Hi! I saw a message that you wanted to make a physical therapist appointment on our receptionist's desk. Can we schedule a time for you to come in? Me: That was week before last. I'm glad you phoned. I'm thinking of finding a new chiropractor... it takes 2-3 calls and 2-3 weeks to have my calls returned if at all. Chriopractor: We can't guarantee we're getting our calls (laughter), that's why I'm calling. So do what you gotta do. Aren't receptionists hired to take messages? This is a guaranteed recipe for failure. No wonder she has to call patients for business. By Marsh on 2013 06 24
David, I couldn't agree more. It was a wonderful place to work. Their policies were pro-employee which allowed us to take ownership of our own "business within a business." Your extraordinary friend, Chef Laura By Chef Laura on 2013 06 19
I think average people become extraordinary when they are put into a culture that rewards quality and allows freedom to excel. And once you become part of a culture like that, you don't want to leave, right? So you step up your game. By David Sneed on 2013 06 19
Do you think Nords has tougher hiring process because they expect the best employees or does it have the best employees because Nords allows their employees to make good judgments? I guess this could be similar to the parenting techniques: strict vs. lax rules create more obedient children. By Tom Jones on 2013 06 19
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