National Customer Service Week, proclaimed by Congress in 1992, is celebrated each year during the first full week of October. In today’s volatile retail environment, a retailer with a culture of delivering truly great customer service has a distinct edge over their competition. It’s not a guarantee of continued success, but it’s a very strong advantage over retailers who “don’t get it.”
Most in retail have heard of or experienced Nordstrom’s renowned customer service. Another well-known urban legend involves a customer returning four tires to Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta (now Macy’s). Rich’s didn’t sell tires, but they took them back anyway. While I can’t confirm whether it was a true story, the legend certainly boosted Rich’s reputation for great customer service.
Why is great customer service more important than ever before? A 2013 study found that when shoppers engaged with cashiers in a friendly, personal manner, their mood was lifted and their sense of belonging increased. According to Forbes, 89 percent of companies today compete primarily on the basis of customer service—a significant jump from just 36 percent in 2010. To the customer, great customer service usually means personal service.
However, with today’s advancing retail technology, “personal” service is getting harder and harder to come by. For example, customers may be enthralled with Amazon’s GO stores or Kroger’s Scan, Bag, Go program. Efficient and quick? Yes. Personal? Not so much.
Blockbuster is a prime example of how poor customer service can accelerate a retailer’s demise. Based on its business model, Blockbuster had tons of demographic data regarding their customers’ movie preferences, addresses, purchasing habits and even birthdays. But, according to numerous ex-Blockbuster sources, “they never used it” to improve the customer experience. On top of that, Blockbuster was late fee crazy. In fact, late fees accounted for up to 15 percent of their total revenue at one point. Blockbuster: 1, customers: 0. Obviously, the world of movie rental changed, and Blockbuster didn’t change with it. But their poor customer service reputation did nothing but add one big negative that hastened their demise.
So, we know great customer service in retail is critically important. But what does it look like? Bob Phibbs, the “retail doctor,” describes what he calls “The Essentials of Exceptional Retail Customer Service.” Here is a summary of his analysis.
- Have a message of hope. Salespeople should inspire, educate, and instill confidence in their customers so they can complete projects, find the perfect gift, or just treat themselves.
- Call people to take risks. When a customer purchases an expensive piece of jewelry, a fashion forward outfit, or premium merchandise, it pushes their comfort level. Great salespeople who understand this know how to help shoppers move past their comfort zone and let them see how a premium product better suits their lifestyle.
- Focus on relationships. Retailers promoting great customer service must have enough floor coverage so sales associates can spend a little extra time with each customer. They also have to provide specific sales training so associates truly understand how to approach and effectively engage a stranger.
- Celebrate newbies. It’s easy to love returning customers, but first-time customers need just as much love, if not more. If a newbie has an exceptional experience, they’ll be back. And they’ll tell their friends.
- Plan for the major holidays. Great customer service retailers plan for all the various ways they can touch a customer during the holiday season. Carefully thought-out decorations, emails, schedules and social media posts can make customers feel special and better informed.
- Have a leader that can rally the troops. So many times managers are not given specific training on how to manage other people or inspire great customer service. Some of it may come naturally, but usually it has to be taught. Exceptional customer service flourishes when everyone feels included and special.
- Make the customer feel like each encounter is unique and just for them. A professional sales team, who is continually concerned with making everyone else’s day special, before their own, creates exceptional experiences as the norm, not a rarity.
You might say, “I’m in a non-sales position, so none of this applies to me.” But it does. A lot of the information listed above lends itself to creating strong leaders and creating positive work environments for everyone. Just substitute the word co-worker for customer. It all makes for a stronger company in today’s competitive retail world.
So, let’s celebrate National Customer Service Week and take time to understand what it really means. Even in today’s retail world of cost cutting, automation and speed, exceptional customer service is still a crucial element of a retailer’s continued success.