Friday, 23 October 2009

Customer Service

It has been a while since my last posting, mainly because, like everyone else at this time, I've been out there chasing ever less business opportunities. Which is why I was surprised to read in an article in the Retail Bulletin this morning about the number of businessses who have indicated in a survey that they intend to cut customer service training and also customer facing staff.

If there was ever evidence that the accountants rule, then this is it! It is easy to trim away at non-revenue bearing costs with an entirely clear conscience. But then it is also easy to claim to be a retail expert when things are good and it is a customer boom time. Then things start to go wrong; things begin to get harder and then... Well, in short the real experts come to the fore; they are the retailers who know how to get the best from their staff and who in turn are able to coax the best from their customers - money and goodwill! Retailing is a people activity, on both sides of the counter, notwithstanding the e-tail phenomenon which, incidentally, relies on many of the on-line customers being aware of products seen and demonstrated in-store.

How does customer service affect my sales and bottom line - well let me give you two examples of my own experience in the past week (I have written to the CEOs of both organisations!)
In one store of a large group I was approached by staff but then offered so much unnecessary advice that I felt harangued; the staff member concerned had even continued to pile benefit upon benefit and providing personal anecdotal examples of the benefits even when I had expressly told him that a buying decision had been made. To make matters infinitely worse, he was actually with other customers for the last onslaught of advice and cut across their enquiry in doing so. But the service of this store ought not to be judged by the one over-eager member of staff; so we'll get to the point where my wife and I had reached the check-out and were making purchases. My wife offered her debit card and it was not accepted; the cashier quietly explained that it had been declined but then, to judge by the gormless expression, apparently it was over to the customer. Not, as my staff would have done, ask if we had an alternative means of payment, so as not to lose the sale. It got worse!

Having made the purchase, we moved, as one does, out of the checkout area by moving towards the door on the windowside. The congestion of dump-bins and offers piled high was such that the route to the door was seriously restricted; but to cap it all the most obvious route was blocked by a 'supervisor'. When I commented that the exit was not clear she retorted that customers normally 'go the other way', which would entail re-entering into the main body of the store complete with carrier bags past a range of gondola ends and lots of easy targets for shop-lifters - completely ignoring the fact that it was also considerably further for the customer to travel. I challenged her by asking what would have happened had I been in a wheel-chair; her reply was terse, they too would need to go back. To achieve this the wheelchair user would literally have had to reverse (presumably past a waiting queue) and then change direction to make an exit. It got worse!

Two identical products that I purchased were faulty - something that would have made me, as a retailer, concerned immediately. When I returned the items on a following day the staff member who dealt with the query assured herself that they were faulty and then, she assured herself that I had in fact actually paid for the items. All of which is good practice and the staff member to be applauded. However, to be regarded as good customer service the staff member needed to engage with the customer, to smile occasionally, deal with the customer with good humour (especially when refusing something). Instead, in this case, I might not have existed, she was head down and was very soon completing the process for a refund. No offer of an alternative, no apology for the inconvenience, no engagement whatsoever. Then, as I was trying to engage her with a question and statement about the product, another member of staff, who had apparently been dealing with the cashier's previous customer with a specialist product, strode into view and immediately began talking about the previous customer and her query to the cashier who was supposed to be concentrating on me. This was bad enough, but the cashier, without any reference to my presence; without acknowledgement of the fact that I had been mid-sentence speaking to her; completely without thought, she responded to her colleague and turned her attention entirely over to a problem that had occured with their EPOS data and ticketing during the previous transaction. Eventually she turned to me and off-handedly asked me to sign a couple of slips and the transaction was over. It was a thoroughly bad experience and one which will influence my spend in that store in the future. I will add that whilst I have never rated the service in this chaain as great, the other local stores have never produced such a consistently poor showing over two successive visits.

By contrast I visited a 'local' branch of a major food chain and was really surprised by the attention to customers, which is in itself unusual in these convenience stores. I entered the store and began to look for inspiration for dinner along the aisle that was furthest from the checkout. I quickly made a decision and set about gathering the products that I wanted and started to make my way towards the checkout. I had been aware that staff were busily milling about, filling shelves and productively talking with each other. As I went along my aisle I was conscious of a member of their team quietly singing as she pushed a trolley with goods along the neighbouring parallel aisle to mine and in the same direction. As we were travelling at a similar speed it was not a surprise to find that we exited at the same time, but as I was turning towards her direction she immediately stopped, smiled, said "you go first sir" and let me through without a moments thought. This, I have to tell you, is one of my main criticisms of supermarkets trading through 24 hours - when the staff are filling they very seldom pay any real attention to the needs of the passing customer. Anyway, back to this 'local'; I went to the checkout and there was already a gentleman waiting with a newspaper to pay. I heard a comment of "oh sorry!" behind us and a member of staff rushed to the checkout, apologising as she went that she had not noticed us before - she had been shelf-filling. She immediately started serving the other man and simultaneously pushed the help button to summon another member of the team. This new team member appeared immediately also apologising for any delay as she went, even though the 'wait' was far less than I experience in the convenience stores that are slightly more local to me than this one.

She chatted amiably but was clearly focussed on her work, she was clear in her language and extremely friendly. I left that store feeling that if I have to use a 'local' then I would happily go there again. Strangely, there is a branch of the same 'local' about the same distance from me in another direction and there I have never felt any sense of pride in the work of the staff, nor much friendliness. I think one of the morals to be drawn from the experiences that I have outlined here, is that the mission statements and intentions of head offices and chief executives are not consistently met on the shop floor. This says clearly to me that now is the time to improve the customer relationship, to improve staff training and to stop looking at cost cutting based upon theoretical notions of good accountancy practice - cash flow is king and happy customers provide that cash!