Retail Warriors: A Customer Loyalty Pep Talk & Reality Check

The holiday decorations and music have been out since retailers cleared out the pumpkins and skeletons from Halloween. Shopping hit a feverish frenzy as Black Friday descended upon the masses last week. And now as the masses make beelines for the malls, outlets, and local independent stores, it is time for a retail reality check and wake-up call.

A poll released this week declared seven-in-ten Canadians say they won’t be reducing their holiday spending this year despite the economic climate. According to the TD Canada Trust Holiday Poll, Canadians are planning to spend an average of $1,100 on food, gifts and entertainment this holiday season. South of the border, consumers are spending although with some caution– on average, Americans will spend approximately 17 percent more money than last year. Americans will spend an average of $831 on gifts this holiday season, $121 more than last year, according to the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker report.

Regardless of which side of the 49th parallel a retailer falls on, most retailers I can think of would like a big chunk of that holiday spend. Their hunger for customer loyalty and to own a piece of real estate in our wallet share should drive all their efforts during the holiday season. So can anyone explain, why on two separate trips to ten different stores in four different locations, including two independent, smaller businesses NOT ONE staff person greeted, approached, or offered to help me and my shopping companion find anything in their store?

It was an eye-opening experiment. In the case of the independent smaller businesses: one was a jeweler in a mall, and the other a stand-alone restaurant. In the case of the jewelry store, my shopping companion was prepared to spend upwards of $1,000 on a wedding band. My shopping companion browsed the store and display cases for a full 10 minutes with NO acknowledgement. We were stunned. We left with our more than $1,000 intact.

In the case of the restaurant, we went in to purchase gift cards to give as gifts for the holiday season. We went in, stood at the hostess stand for a full 7 minutes, again with NO acknowledgement. It was not a busy time in the restaurant (not lunch rush) and there were staff in the lounge and restaurant parts. Not one person came over to ask how they could help us. We were again surprised that we could not part with our $200.

As we “tested” the retail stores in the malls, we made a point of coming at least to the mid-point of the store to make our presence known. Each time, we were ignored. We realized that we were likely not the only people experiencing this lack of customer service. Despite the fact that retailers need their customers more than ever now, it would appear that customer service is greatly lacking in many businesses that could be bustling with customers eager to spend their hard-earned money this season and throughout the year.

When I worked in the restaurant industry, we often referred to the ‘7 Steps of Service’ to ensure customer service minimum standards. As you can likely guess, I am all about going ABOVE and BEYOND any minimums and impressing upon customers that your establishment appreciates their continued patronage and values their loyalty. In honour of the Great Customer Ignore of 2011, I am offering those who manage and work in retail—those Retail Warriors—a five step, much-needed wake-up call and reality check to help them survive and thrive this holiday season. These tips can easily be adapted for any product/service vertical.

  1. Greet customers within 30 seconds. Humans are social creatures. We like to be noticed and acknowledged. And by acknowledged, I don’t mean fawned all over or watched like a hawk upon entering a store. I mean a simple “Hello. Welcome to. Please let me know if I may help you with anything.” Yes, the store may be busy and packed with customers, but sales staff should be greeting customers within one minute or less. NO exceptions. If it takes any longer, your store is understaffed or staff are under-utilized. Find out which it is, and fix it. Quickly.
  2. Invest in ongoing customer service training. Most sales personnel are trained when they start their new job, but how many times are they trained and re-evaluated (outside of performance reviews, which are a whole other post) and given the opportunity to excel and contribute to your brand’s story? Build a business culture where customer service training (I’m also a HUGE fan of cross-training) is year-round, ongoing and, part of the brand fabric. Make it as typical a part of what you do as any other core business function. Better trained personnel means buy-in from sales personnel, better employee engagement, decreased employee turnover, improved customer retention and loyalty, fewer customer complaints, increased customer spend, bigger and better up-selling, revenues and profits. An investment in customer service is a direct investment in brand success.
  3. Use technology to your advantage. Many shoppers are using apps like Foursquare to check-in to locations upon their arrivals. Utilize technology to “greet” your customers when they check-in via social media and offer them an exclusive promotion or tip about your products or services. While it doesn’t replace the human interaction needed on-site, it adds another layer of depth to the customer experience. Use technology and social media to reach out to your customers before they even set foot in your store. Set the tone for your customer experience through customer interactions with your brand on social media.
  4. Map out your sales floor. Spread your sales team around and map them on a grid to maximize customer interaction and assistance. Put your Aces In Their Places. Make it easy for a customer to find help, ask for help, and get help at any point in the store. If it is a larger store, install call buttons where customers can ring for help, and staff come TO THEM, instead of making customers fend for themselves and wander the store aimlessly in search of personnel. Make it easy for customers to find employees at all times. Doing otherwise makes shoppers feel insignificant and they are more likely to leave without having made a purchase.
  5. Your customers are why you’re in business. Correct me if I’m wrong, but most businesses start because they have products and services they wanted to provide to others in exchange for money. And yet, we all have a story of *that* time we walked into a store and were treated like The Biggest Inconvenience EVER. This type of behaviour on the part of any retail establishment or personnel is completely unacceptable in this day and age. Competition for customers is stiff, and customer experience must be top-of-mind for any business looking to survive and thrive today. This does not mean the customer is always right or can mistreat or threaten personnel. What it means is: your customer experience must reflect your brand promise at all times and strive to accomplish an exemplary retail experience for your target customer.Your customers keep you in business. Show your appreciation every way you can. Period.Bonus Point: Don’t become the next social media customer service debacle. All of us know the power of social media. Any poor customer service experience can become instant fodder for a disgruntled customer’s Facebook status or Twitter feed and become front page news. This is not what any brand has in mind when it comes to free publicity. Sites like measuredup.com are dedicated to helping customers vent publicly about which customer experience went horribly awry. Impress your customers with sincerity, helpfulness and consistency to protect brand integrity and reputation, and ultimately drive revenues.

Do you remember the last time you were ignored in a store? What other tips can you offer to improve customer service and drive customer loyalty?

3 thoughts on “Retail Warriors: A Customer Loyalty Pep Talk & Reality Check

  1. Quora says:

    What Customer Service Tips Can You Offer As The Holiday Shopping Season Gets Underway?…

    See my latest blog post http://sparkerstrategy.ca/2011/11/30/retail-warriors-a-customer-loyalty-pep-talk-reality-check/ and share your tips for improving customer service and creating a great customer experience….

  2. Susie – a phenomenal piece! I love you how point out that the consumers are willing to spend, yet businesses won’t do the small things to convert them. Tying it back to the seven service principles was a great point, too. How often do businesses say one thing and behave contrary?

    • Susie Parker says:

      Thank you for your support, Jim! It never ceases to amaze me how some retailers are missing the little things that really enhance the customer experience.