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Summer 2003 Are They Being Served?

Who needs customer service? You do. Good customer service makes the sale today and brings customers back tomorrow. Too often, though, many retailers whine about costs and narrow profit margins, or a bad economy, or a rude or frazzled “public,” or a variety of business-management struggles—all excuses for not serving the customer. And some retailers act as if shoppers are the opposition. But if shoppers seem to be getting testy, it could well be because they aren’t being served. In fact, it’s one of the top three consumer complaints today.

“Most customers get indifferent service,” says Lisa A. Ford, an Atlanta speaker who conducts seminars on customer service. “Even shoppers who obtain the merchandise they want are ‘processed’ rather than serviced,” she says. “Nothing in the transaction leaves them with positive impressions,” and sales staffers “often act as if they couldn’t care less whether customers are waited on or find what they’re looking for.”

What are customers looking for? “That sense of ‘wow’ when they visit your cart or store,” Ford says. “They want to be reminded that they are the reason [you're] in business.” In other words, they want exceptional service. How do you know if you’re falling short? And how do you give them the service they deserve? Here’s how:

You first

“Good service starts with you,” says Ron Zemke, president of Performance Research Associates (Minneapolis, MN) and co-author of Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service. Start by putting on a happy face when you greet and work with a customer. (After all, you should be happy to see them!)

The fact is, a passion for customer service should be ingrained in you (if it’s not, why are you in retail sales?). If it isn’t the most important force in your retail operation, it’s time to examine and revise your attitude. Is it surly, tired, too busy? If so, move towards pleasant, communicative, helpful. The effect is farther-reaching than you might realize. Why? Because your attitude toward customers and customer service is catching. “You’re the role model. You set the tone. You lead the way,” says Zemke. Your sales staffers will start to act as you do. And your customers will be happier for it.

Sales staff, too

When you coach your staffers on customer service, be specific. “If you want people to do something, you need to make sure they know what it is,” says Zemke. And then you have to keep reminding them, he says. “Come up with a dozen points that define what you mean by ‘good service,’ and then review one [point] every day with every employee.”

For example, start by describing the environment you want; he says it’s something no one really talks about. “What do you want it to feel like to be [your] customer?… smothered with attention? [or] elegant?… [or] a homey, friendly environment? You have to describe it to your staff.”

This approach is more comprehensive than just complimenting individuals for good work. “Explain what their actions look like to your customers.” Zemke suggests starting each day (or shift) with a recap of what went well or not so well the day before, and why. Then discuss one of your service principles again. “Find a new way to talk about it every time you bring it up,” he says.

Set standards

Be particularly enthusiastic about giving customers more than what they usually get from other retailers, says Shep Hyken, a St. Louis expert on customer service. Suppose a shopper asks for something you don’t carry. Instead of turning the customer away, you could get on the phone, track it down, and offer to send or deliver it. “If I’m a salesperson, I want my customers to call me for all kinds of stuff, because that means they are thinking of me and not someone else,” says Hyken. “Good salespeople develop loyal customers, not just satisfied ones. ‘Satisfied’ means mediocre.”

Ford suggests being as specific as possible about service standards, so your staff has some benchmarks to measure their actions against. “Without standards, everything is left to chance,” she says. One such standard is that staffers must greet every customer within a minute of coming up to the cart or five minutes after entering the store. Another: Say “Thank you” at the end of the visit, even (or especially!) if a sale wasn’t made this time.

Coaching can iron out your staff’s service wrinkles. “As an employee, the sooner I see an opportunity for improvement, the better off I will be,” says Ford. “The worst thing is to let poor behavior go on too long. Challenge people to better themselves.” Let the staffer know what you’ve seen, ask for specific changes in behavior, and provide a time line. Then recognize progress and reward the person for those improvements.

By the way, pay special attention to young workers just entering the job market, says Zemke. Many of them know next to nothing about real-world work, let alone customer service. They’re often willing to learn, “but you have to be patient,” he says.

But no matter whether your employees are workplace newbies, sales veterans or somewhere in between, be aware that standards taken to extremes equals rigidity. You don’t want to be so rigid that you straight-jacket your staff. You still want them to be able to express their natural personalities. Maybe your own approach is to smile broadly right away. That may work well for you, but not someone else. That staffer may be more effective by approaching the customer in a more businesslike way, then warming up gradually. Being true to self is going to be much more effective than insisting everyone adopt one particular style. It just doesn’t work that way, and it usually comes off phony. And customers hate anything fake or insincere.

Problem solvers

Too many sales people in too many retail settings seem lost in their own worlds. And when that happens, customers feel abandoned—which indeed they are. But in a retail setting that’s service-driven, sales staffers and shoppers are playing a harmonious duet.

Why do customers come to you? “For one reason only: They have problems to solve,” says Bob Janet, a marketing consultant based in Matthews, NC. And providing solutions is the name of the retail game, the heart of the sale, and Janet’s number-one selling task. The right questions elicit information from the customer that will help you do that. What about customers who just want to buy something, anything, because they’re in the mood? They still have a problem to solve: buying the “right” item, the one that makes them happy, from a pleasant sales person in a pleasant environment, with minimal delays, snafus or other obstacles they often encounter—price, time, poor product knowledge, no staff, poor product selection, out-of-stock items. It’s your job to eliminate those barriers. Janet’s number-one rule for selling: the sales person who solves the customer’s problem “fastest-simplest-easiest” is the one who gets the sale.

“Engage each customer in conversation,” says Janet. Rather than asking closed-end, yes/no questions, encourage customers to open up by asking open-ended questions. So the classic “May I help you?” usually gets a quick “No,” says Janet. Instead, “ask something like, ‘Are you here to see this or that?’ while selecting a couple of high-profile items.” Doing this gets either a “yes” or a “no,” like “No, I’m looking for… ” Either way, you’re on your way to what Janet refers to as “good conversation,” which involves listening as well as talking and asking. And good conversation is much more likely to result in a sale.

Complaints Dept.

In retail situations, most people avoid complaining (or even asking questions sometimes) because they feel it’s more trouble than it’s worth and they won’t get any satisfaction anyway. Why? Because years of poor customer service nationwide have conditioned customers to believe retailers don’t care. That’s more than just “serious”: it’s your survival as a retailer at stake. Your job as a retailer, then, is to head off or resolve bad feelings before customers get unhappy and you lose them. “Encourage customers to complain” so that you get the opportunity to correct or solve a problem your retail business created, says Janet. In fact, Janet suggests really going the distance: two hours after the sale, call the customer to ask if everything is OK, if your staff did all they should have, and if you could have done more for the customer. If you can’t or prefer not to call (it may not be realistic to do so, especially for very small purchases), try to get every customer’s mailing or email address before they leave (great for building your house mailing list), and send a quick thank-you note. A hand-written note really scores points.

In any case, set up a system for customer feedback. For example, try placing an attractive, highly visible suggestion box with slips or index cards and pen or pencil in a visible, easy-to-reach spot. Customers can jot their comments on the cards and drop them in before they leave. As Janet says, “Stay in touch with your customers, and they will stay in touch with you.”

More is more

Help your staff serve and please customers so that those customers think well of you, speak well of you (don’t forget the power of word of mouth!), and come back to you. And coming back is the point: more visits, more sales. The best salespeople use service to get customers to come back one more time, time after time, and score those important repeat sales.

“In many people’s minds, a loyal customer is a lifetime customer,” says Hyken. “But cultivating a customer in such a long-term way can be a scary challenge for any salesperson,” he says. “Sure, we’d all like our customers to think of us forever.” But you’ll be more effective if you focus on the next time, not a lifetime. “While making the sale today is important, it’s more important to insure that the customer wants to visit [your business] again.” And that’s your payoff for giving great customer service.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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