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How Can You Drive A Customer Crazy?

By Rebecca Keenan   Published in Canadian Retailer | September/October 2008

“(Hint: It’s A Lot Easier Than You Think.) ”

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Ray Miller, Managing Director of The Training Bank and author of That's Customer Focus, says these stories circulate among customers and loss of consumer loyalty is one result.

"The levels of service that are being provided by most retailers are so low that why bother trying to be loyal? I'm going to be ignored wherever I go. I'm going to be treated badly," he said, echoing the sentiments he hears from consumers in the course of his research. "Or the experience is going to be a non-experience; it will just be a transaction. So why bother?"

 The types of complaints that come from dissatisfied customers can vary, but as a slightly unscientific poll of consumers in several urban areas suggests, they can fall into one of several categories:

"They don't try hard enough to get my business."

An overwhelming source of annoyance for many consumers is the perception that retail staff just don't go that extra mile to offer quality service that they are uninterested, uninformed, or just plain absent when help is needed. "I'm sick of hearing, 'I don't know,' says one young man. "Call you at least tell me who does know?"

"They don't acknowledge my presence."

An expectant mother relates her recent customer service story: "just the other day, I went to purchase accessories and was waiting at the counter while two sales associates went about their business I had to ask to pay for my stuff, which always bothers me."

"They only care about pushing product."

While store employees are there to serve customers, they are also charged with ensuring that featured merchandise or brands are highlighted, a delicate balance that can sometimes come across as pushing one brand over another to increase sales. As a young father leaving a large electronics outlet complains: "It's no use to ask for help. All they ever do is point out the most expensive thing in the store."

"They're too aggressive."

This is a common complaint found in commission-driven environments, that the staff goes overboard with sales tactics in their zeal to make a sale. One woman in her mid-40s says she stays away from those stores where she says she feels attacked: "You go two metres and someone else approaches you. It's not their fault; it's the store policy... they are getting paid very little and the rest is on commission. But it can be embarrassing."

"They don't work around my schedule."

Often, store policies that don't acknowledge a customer's particular circumstances can result in unfortunate examples of customer service. A woman in her 50s recalls the time she wanted to arrange for a service call for a washing machine her son and daughter-in-law had purchased at a large national retailer. "When I called [the store], they told me that they only make service calls between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. I said that's no good, they both work. The guy said, if they want it fixed, they'll be home... and then he hung up." The result: The woman made arrangements through a private contractor and said she will likely never call the retailer again for help.

"They're just plain rude."

Sometimes store staff members, in an effort to maintain decorum or enforce store policies, come across as pushy or rude when they confront customers about something, a particularly dicey proposition when customers feel they are being unfairly singled out. Said one man: "My son and I were in a music store with a stack of CDs we were about to purchase. There was no one else around and we were sitting in two chairs discussing music when the manager came over and asked us to keep it down. We weren't shouting or using foul language and we were talking about music."

This is just a sampling of comments taken at random; a 2007 poll commissioned by the National Retail Federation in the U.S. found similar responses south of the border. On the face of it, retailers may be tempted to think of customer service as a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't exercise: Customers say they want to be left alone to browse, but they also want knowledgeable sales staff at their fingertips at a moment's notice. They want your staff's opinions about different options or brands, but scoff when a pricier alternative is suggested. They want long store hours and short checkout lines and more people on staff in every department, but they also want lower prices.

As the number of online message boards with customer complaints can attest, it's clear that more attention needs to be paid to customer service. But while some stores are doing a pretty good job, others are floundering. The biggest tell tale sign that your store could be in trouble, says Kevin Graff, President of Graff Retail Inc. in Oakville, Ont., is the most obvious one — that your sales numbers are going down. After all, he notes, "Customers vote with their wallets."

And while hearing a lot of complaints about your store's service may not be everyone's idea of fun, Miller warns that you should also be worried if you are not getting any complaints.

"The reality is that when it comes to service, most customers won't bother to complain," he said. "They don't think it'll do any good. Ninety to 96 per cent of customers don't complain about service. Of them, 90 per cent don't come back, and those people tell eight to 10 other people about their bad experience. So, one complaint means 25 people have similar concerns, and 22 don't come back, and there are 150 negative stories about your stores." Retailers that are doing things right, however, will hear more of those complaints. They have established channels for customer complaints, employees that actively seek out avenues for improved customer service, and management that is eager to act on that feedback. If you're not hearing any complaints, it likely means that no one is listening.

So, where to start? Graff says there is no such thing as too much service: "Too much attention would be a nice problem to have. Even in a lot of commission environments that are out there, the amount of attention that you get is still not quite what you want."

There is a way, however, to improve the quality of that service and give customers what they want.

First off, if you recognize a problem with customer service in your store, then it's time to stop making excuses. It's not an issue of paying your staff better, it's not about doing the best you can in a market with a shortage of labour, and it's certainly not about younger employees lacking basic customer-service skills — it's about fostering a business culture in which the customer comes first. As Miller notes: "It's not always pay. People do basically whatever job you pay them to do. They'll just do it better, the better you treat them. In some cases, the top employers don't pay as well as the competition. But people will want to work for a company that actually values them and takes care of them."

Meanwhile, Graff offers the opinion that there is no such thing as a shortage of experienced retail staff, and lie advises store owners against using that as an excuse for not addressing their customer service goals. "Let's say a regional shopping centre has 2,000 employees," he says by way of an example. "At, let's say 40 per cent turnover, 800 employees will leave their job this year and most of them will stay working in retail when they leave their job. Don't tell me there's a labour shortage." As for younger workers not having the skills to provide good customer service, he says it's up to the management to set standards and hold employees to them.

Once the retailer has decided to focus on customer service, it's time to adjust the attitude toward the customer from the top down. The senior-most people in a company need to believe the reason they are there is for the customer.

Miller identifies a "mirror image" effect in which employees reflect the attitudes of their managers. The way people interact within the organization needs to actually reflect their stated customer service philosophy. "Store managers are being measured by the amount of volume that they move out the door," he says. "The message the manager is getting from head office is serving the customer is not as important as moving the product." If retailers take the time to ensure that all their policies and procedures are customer-centric, this will certainly make for a much-improved shopping experience.

Next, identify what you are looking for in employees and hire the right people. Graff tells managers to ask themselves, "Does the employee actually fit the value and the culture of the organization?" It is important that employees understand and believe in the greater purpose that their jobs afford them. As Graff puts it, "It's not about selling a can of paint. You're helping somebody fulfill their dream of having a better house." If your people don't fully believe they are doing something worthwhile, they won't be passionate about their jobs and they won't really care about their customers' concerns.

Third, spend time and energy on proper training. It's not enough that you hire nice people; they have to know what they are talking about. Graff adds, "As soon as you hire them, train the daylights out of these people, don't ever stop training them and don't ever stop coaching them every day.

Don't ever stop raising the bar on expectations. They'll sell more and your turnover rates will go down. "Management training is also an essential, but often overlooked, part of a successful retail operation. Every step of the way, people need to be taught how to do their jobs properly. And Miller cautions retailers looking for savings against trimming training budgets: "When times get tough, everyone goes into short-sighted mode. But the good ones don't for-et about their customers. They are constantly asking their customers for input. They get the information and then they act on it."

Finally, keep your employees engaged. Make sure they keep caring. Graff says it's not enough for employees to want to do well: "If you don't feel like you're making progress, you're going to stop trying after the short term. Give little bite-size wins, interim measures. Let them know where they're at relative to goals. There are lots of things you can do to let your staff know that they are one, important, and two, being successful. "Employees who are passionate about their jobs keep customers coming back for more.

Even if poor service doesn't seem to be hurting your bottom line now, it will hurt when the economy shifts. Ironically, training has traditionally been one of the first things cut in times of economic downturn, as retailers focus on driving traffic into the store and attracting new clients. But consumers are careful about where they spend their money and will not support a store that doesn't treat them well. The good news is that, in any service-depleted age, the simplest steps are often all that is needed to exceed your customers' expectations.


Retail ranks No. 1 among Canadians seeking service

And now, the good news: according to a recent survey (2008), the retail industry is tops among Canadian consumers when it comes to providing good customer service.

In fact, when asked where they found the best customer service, 29 per cent of Canadians in the survey said retail was No. 1, narrowly edging out the financial services sector and coming out well ahead of fast food operations and utility companies. However, a note of caution is advised, as "None of the above" took third place at 27 per cent.

The poll, conducted in May by Angus Reid Strategies for TD Canada Trust, found that while Canadians may appreciate such perks as loyalty program discounts or gifts, the bottom line is that most want to be treated well by the businesses they deal with. In fact, when asked which form of business appreciation they are most interested in, 49 per cent said "just good customer service."

"I'm not surprised that good service is the most important decider of loyalty for Canadians," said Tim Hockey, Group Head, Canadian Banking and President and CEO, TD Canada Trust. "All of our research and all of the conversations we have with our own customers support this. Service is the No. 1 deciding factor for people when they are choosing a company to deal with, and it's the hardest thing to get right."

Other findings from the survey of 1,021 Canadian customers include:

95% of Canadians agreed their experiences with customer service can make or break a relationship with a particular brand or company.

Canadians say they generally receive good customer service, with nearly three-quarters (73%) reporting that they have received good customer service in the past month, an in­crease of 11 % over last year's poll.

When asked what makes customer service great, the No. 1 answer was friendly staff (24%), followed by quick service (15%) and being helpful (14%).

While the assumption is that bad news travels faster than good news, the poll found 89% of people will share their positive customer service stories with friends and family. Atlantic Canadians, at 91 %, are most likely to purchase a service or product if it is recommended by a friend or family member.

81 % of people in British Columbia reported they received great customer service in the past month, making them the country's most satisfied customers.


Long wait times have big impact on sales

Canadian consumers are abandoning their shopping carts, delaying purchases and leaving stores in significant numbers, according to a recent Maritz Research survey on customer wait times, with a whopping 86% admitting to walking out of a store frustrated with having waited too long for service.

The research, which involved 1,300 Canadians coast to coast, showed that customer expectations and opinions on wait times were strongly influenced by the retailer's attitude towards client care. The poll also revealed the ripple effect of unsatisfied consumers, impacting their future spending and potentially additional loss of sales through negative word-of-mouth messages.

"With 53 per cent saying that leaving a store had an impact on their decision to return, retailers could stand to lose over half of these customers permanently," said Rob Daniel, President — Managing Director, Maritz Research Canada. "What's clear from our results is that businesses can do more to keep customers in the stores and enhance their in-store experience."

Other survey highlights:

Department stores were deemed the most likely businesses to lose customers because of long wait times, with 78% of those polled admitting they had walked out of department stores after waiting too long for service.

Grocery stores fared better, with only 40% of customer admitting to leaving without making a purchase. Most participants agreed eight minutes was a reasonable time to wait in a checkout line.

Close to 70% of customers surveyed told others about their negative experience and half of those polled noted that they had at some point posted stories about their negative experience online.

82% of those polled said they would increase their wait time if they felt compassion or apologies were offered for the wait, and 67% would wait longer if they were updated on their status.

Sometimes, a smile makes all the difference: 74% said they would increase their wait time if greeted with a smile.

"Competition for most retailers is plentiful; customers who are leaving stores due to long wait time have other options," said Daniel. "Enhancing the customer experience is the best way for most retailers to set themselves apart and retain customers."