Give us service with a smile, or we’ll go somewhere else

Survey: Shoppers detail how much good relations with retailers affect sales

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 26, 2011 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just when stores need to put on their best customer service show – to not only get sales now but get customers to come back next year – they may have the hardest time keeping their standards high or even acceptable. Overworked employees, some just seasonal or poorly trained, can blow the bottom line.

A study this year by American Express found that nearly 80 percent of Americans have ditched intended purchases because of poor customer service experiences. But on the flip side, consumers said they would spend an average of 13 percent more with companies that provided excellent service.

“The holidays might be the only time you get that customer in the store. You have to leverage that one-time encounter,” said Richard Shapiro, founder and president of the Center for Client Retention in New Jersey, which does research on customer satisfaction. “It’s important to engage them. You can’t lose those people. Business is too hard to get.”

Customer service checklists can include well-trained and pleasant workers, relaxed return policies, extended hours during the holidays, free gift wrapping and shipping, and perks such as valet parking — with some services more costly to implement than others.

But some customer service initiatives cost little more than making an effort. It can be a smile and eye contact when seeing a customer, a quick “Do you need help?” or “Thank you for coming in.”

But the American Express survey found that 6 in 10 Americans thought businesses had not increased their focus on providing good service, and that more than 50 percent said they had lost their tempers with customer service employees, usually by insisting on speaking to supervisors, hanging up the phone or threatening to switch to competitors.

Americans also are very vocal about their experiences, sharing good ones with an average of nine people, but sharing bad experiences with nearly twice as many people. And 3 in 5 Americans would try new brands or companies for better service experiences. A majority of the respondents also think smaller companies place a bigger emphasis on customer service.

Another study, this one by Oracle, found that customers want instant gratification when they walk in the door. They want the same or better pricing and promotions in the stores as they saw on the store’s website, and if an item they want is out of stock, they expect an employee to find one in their network and have it shipped. Online, they want more detailed product information, better searches and easier access to customer service representatives through live help options.

A recent survey of 9,374 shoppers by the National Retail Federation Foundation and American Express also named 10 finalists for the best in customer service.

The official ranking will be released in mid-January. Among the top 10 are Amazon.com, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Lands’ End, Nordstrom and QVC. Retail experts advise recruiting employees who have shown an interest in helping others, perhaps through coaching a Little League team or helping at a soup kitchen. Then they should be trained well in the customer service mind-set, even empowering them to make some decisions without first checking with supervisors. So if they are stocking shelves but a line is forming at checkout, they can wait on customers without flagging down a manager for approval to switch jobs.

Employers also can tap into a wealth of market research just by listening to their front-line employees who have the most direct contact with customers.

Other retailers are offering bilingual representatives, as well as websites, instructions and directions in Spanish and English, to be more welcoming to the growing Latino population.

The Oracle study found that 30 percent of consumers ages 18 to 24 say they are, or soon will be, using mobile phones as a payment device in stores (though 25 percent of consumers are worried about security breaches). So retailers wanting to be on the cutting edge of service need to lay out funds for new checkout devices.

“We are all choosing, very carefully in this economy, where we are going to spend our discretionary dollars,” said retail consultant Lori Scott. “Retailers have to go above and beyond in customer service and friendliness, 200 percent all day, every day. We want a lovely, memorable experience.”

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