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Customer Service in Retail: The New Beginning is Now

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Customer service and customer experiences in general are more important than ever. To help businesses of all sizes seize this moment, I offer quick and useful insights on customer service in retail. These tips can be game changers if approached thoughtfully and executed well.

Now that we are seeing a resurgence of shopping in person, going to restaurants, and traveling, we all have a chance to press the reset button on how we approach business. We are all exhausted from the many “unprecedented” things that have happened in the past year plus – and even from that word. It is time for everyone, especially those running customer-facing businesses, to look forward and imagine how it can be different, and better.

The time is now to celebrate customers returning and the fact that you’re still in business.

The Urgency of Staffing and Schedules

Staffing issues in many sectors remain a very real problem. Short staffing creates an additional strain on the existing team and ultimately impacts customers. It is a time to think creatively about staffing, splitting shifts, incentivizing former employees to return even if it is temporary, and recruiting beyond your traditional scope. If hiring for a customer facing role, look in places where you may find people who have great personalities and an energy your customers will appreciate. They don’t have to be from your industry. You can teach people the products, services, and processes, but you can’t teach them personality, common sense, and work ethic.

In my many years of leading service and sales teams, I have always taught managers that there is math behind who you have on your team, their schedules, and how it all connects to service. Businesses staff their stores, restaurants, and service centers according to a historical flow of traffic and customer demand. If schedules are not made with the customer, expected traffic, and customer needs in mind, things can deteriorate quickly. So many times I have had to challenge a manager on their schedules. The reason: they were trying to appease the employees and not considering the customers who may walk in. I could calculate exactly how much an associate could miss in sales. I could also give scenarios on how customer service would suffer if even one employee did not adhere to their schedule, or if the schedules were not made strategically to maximize manpower and customer demand.

Scheduling and staffing are that sensitive, and they are an opportunity to differentiate a business.

What The Customer Sees

A question to ask at this time is whether or not we are ready to return to normal hours or expand current shifts. If the workforce is not adequate we will not be doing the customers any favors. Sure, they can come an hour earlier or stay an hour later. But if service is broken due to a shortage of personnel, it is best to wait until the business can truly handle the demand at the desired service level. So many things to think about. Before making any decisions, try to consider how it will play out for your customers.

Have you ever arrived at a restaurant and there is no one at the host stand? Have our ever been in a grocery store and had a question but could not find anybody to ask? We have all experienced these scenarios, I have no doubt. What happens in that moment? I will tell you what happens to me. I begin to question my decision to visit this business. What happens next defines the experience and possibly my future relationship with that business. We have all embraced or written off a business based on what happens in those crucial moments. The truth is, we all have a tremendous number of options today. Almost everything is available online and can be delivered. For smaller businesses, this is problematic because the companies able to deliver quickly and almost anywhere are generally the larger corporations.

How do we make those defining moments ones where a customer is delighted by the outcome? How do we ensure that the customer not only returns often but becomes a spokesperson for that business? It happens all the time, and with the power of social media, it means more than ever.

What Constitutes a Luxury Experience?

There is a lot of talk of luxury retail and elevated experiences for customers these days. In my opinion, a luxury experience can happen at any store, whether you are selling expensive products or not. A luxurious experience should be one where the customer is at the center of the equation and their needs and desires are considered every step of the way. The product or service is part of it, but how it all happens sets the stage for a future relationship with that customer. Or not. One expects a luxury experience with high-end goods because they are expensive. I offer that a luxury experience is possible in almost any situation. 

Recently, I visited a very well-known grocery store in California to order a sandwich platter for a group work lunch. I do not normally do this, so I did not think to call ahead or place the order online.

When I arrived at the very busy deli counter midday on a Saturday, all the associates were busy. From quite a distance, an employee saw me looking around and came over to see what I needed. He explained that someone could take my order shortly and proceeded to connect me with a person rather quickly. I discussed the order with her, and she very politely explained how much time it would take. Seeing my anxiety, she told me why, and in the nicest way possible, suggested that this was normally a preorder process. She started working on the order, and it took quite some time, during which the gentleman stopped by to make sure I was OK.

When the order was done, both associates asked me questions to gauge my satisfaction, and I was on my way. The experience stood out to me, as so much care was demonstrated from both employees and the very friendly cashier. I walked away thinking that they probably have solid store management and a good training program.

Service Recovery 

In the many restaurants I visit, I am always hyper aware of service. I find that most often it is quite good and see that people are really trying to please the guests. When service is poor, I can usually quickly diagnose the issue, whether it is a staff shortage, no management presence, or an obvious lack of training. There are of course many ways that a store or a restaurant can create a service recovery – AKA damage control. These solutions and accommodations can be costly. The customer may accept “the fix,” but they still have in their mind that there is a problem with this particular business.

There is an incredible power in having a reputation as that place where customers know the team members and there is rarely an issue. We have all heard a family member, friend, or colleague describe a business they like. In those descriptions, they will almost always cite service before they talk about what they ordered or bought. It is also quite common in the positive stories from their life that they will mention a specific individual. Whey will say, “if you go there ask for ____” because the person impressed them so much.

Customer Satisfaction is Everything

It is indeed a complicated equation to open a store or restaurant every day and have everything go perfectly. There is a lot to consider in advance, but having the right people at the right times representing your business can make a significant difference in customer satisfaction. Training every person in every role, customer facing or not, that everything they do in their job points to the customer’s happiness is really the magic that can make every experience feel like a luxury one regardless of what you’re selling.

Let’s all do our part to make this reshaped, post-pandemic world better – one experience at a time.

About the Author

John Collins is a career retail executive with experience managing luxury department stores and boutiques. In his positions with multiple retailers in various markets in the US, he has trained and developed service strategies in roles from Department Manager to General Manager. His philosophy is that sales, profitability, and customer loyalty all stem from a strong customer-focused service culture.

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