While all the inanimate components – the store location; its ambience; merchandise mix etc have a limited influence on the customer experience; it is the human component – the store staff – that holds the ability to sway customer experience from the most insipid to the most delightful.
When I walk through a mall or down a high-street, I tend to stray into retail stores, as impulsively as dogs are drawn towards electric poles. But, unlike them, while I am there; I tend to sniff out product mixes; customer service standards; price points; visual merchandising etc. In short, I’m always mystery shopping. But what takes the mystery out of my shopping is that; I - due to my irreparable spending habit – return with a lighter wallet on most trips.
On one such stray missions, I found myself in an EBO of a premium brand of apparel on the busy Brigade Road in Bangalore. A male sales associate approached me tentatively with what seemed to be a weak smile. I threw a ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ at him only to see his smile turn sheepish from weak. “Hello Sir, can I help you?” is all that he could manage trying to gain his composure; wondering why I had snatched his prerogative of greeting first. “I’m just looking” I said and strayed into the depths of the store, snooping around. He could not counter my defensive shield as I waited for him to keep me engaged. I caressed some ties and belts en route as I casually enquired “What’s new here?”. “This is our new collection of Shirts, Sir” he said pointing to a wall full of shirts. “They look familiar..I’ve always seen these stripes and checks” I surprised him with an objection. “We keep getting new stocks all the time Sir” was the best he could manage after a long pause. The associate was very perfunctory in his approach and clearly didn’t demonstrate any intent to engage and sell to me. He obviously didn’t cut ice with me with his insipid customer service and did precious little to resurrect our moribund conversation.
On a different day I walked into a specialty store at a popular mall. “Oh, you have a Father’s Day promotion on?” I exclaimed reacting to a poster on the front counter. No sooner had I set foot into the store; an associate pounced on me with “We offer a free engraving on any key chain over Rs.500 you buy from our accessories section Sir” without once enquiring what I had in mind or what was it I was looking for? I humoured him for a while by browsing through some key chains and in the bargain, made him pull out a dozen different models, before I expressed my disinterest and weaned away. I then strolled into the wallets section and found the associate get busy with another customer who’d walked in. I settled in front of some immaculate leather beauties and got lost admiring them. When I was done romancing a few of them and looked up, I found a security guard in front of me with a broad smile plastered on his face. While I was in awe of his enthusiasm; I didn’t like the fact that he was taking his job too seriously – of watching over me by staring me in my face – his beaming smile notwithstanding! The store was not short-staffed – there were four associates in a 200 sq.ft store (definitely more than the number of customers in the store at that point) and there was absolutely no reason for the security guard to be on the floor. He was obviously annoying me by his watchful presence. “What is this wallet made of?” I asked trying to get him out of my shopping path. He kept blinking for a while but kept his plastic smile intact. I then asked the same question in the vernacular. He still didn’t get the message. Finally, after five minutes of my paraphrasing and adding animated body language; he realised that I needed help and offered to call a sales associate who was just two feet away! Retailers know too well that customers don’t like to be treated like potential shop-lifters with associates (or guards) shadowing them, breathing down their necks. Alas, such experiences are not uncommon.
CUSTOMER SERVICE; an extremely clichéd and abused term in retail, is also the most nebulous. In most formats of Indian retailing, it is conspicuous by its absence! And where it exists in traces, it expresses itself in various avatars – two of which I’ve just sampled.
“Customer Service”, to me, is the effective management by a retailer of all the animate and inanimate touch-points that interface with its customers. Customer Service as a whole is often larger than the sum of its various parts. Only when all the elements of service are managed effectively, will it translate into ‘customer experience’ that every retailer fancies offering to their customers.
In another unique experience, I was hoping to impress a friend with some customized stationery. As I was travelling and couldn’t be in Bangalore to personally get it done, I called an instant printing service retailer– half unsure of meeting my objective. The lady who answered my call was so astonishingly helpful. I explained to her that it was important to have the customized gifts ready by the next day to be gifted when I arrived in town. Firstly, she empathised with my rather unusual requirement and understood the detailed specifications. I gave her the dimensions of the journals I wished to have created – the number of pages I wanted; the thickness of the note books etc. I also explained that I had some pictures to be printed on the front and back covers and that I could email them to her. I insisted on a certain thickness as I wanted a good quality paper. She asked me whether I preferred plain or ruled pages. When I said I wasn’t able to decide without getting a sense of how the ruled pages looked; she solved that problem by sending me scanned copies of the sheets. She then advised me that in order to maintain the overall look and feel, I should go with fewer pages to prevent the middle from protruding out making it look awkward. I agreed with her judgement and confirmed my requirement. The conversation thus far had gone into all the minute details of my requirement and the associate had made me feel at home; that I didn’t realise I was on a long distance call many hundred miles away in a different city!
She then asked me whether she could proceed with my order – without hinting at any advance payment. She knew that I was not in town to make the payment and they didn’t have an online payment option. (Remember she was risking producing a customized product for me that would make it difficult for her to sell to others if I never showed up! Moreover, they were in the instant printing business that doesn’t carry any inventory.) Not only did I not pay any advance, but also specified where and at what time I wanted the customized note pads to be delivered the next day! She was cordial during the entire conversation and assured me that she would ensure the delivery at the specified time and place. I was immensely impressed by the unusual service that I couldn’t wait to see my order delivered. And it was delivered - cash on delivery - to the specified location the next day, quite ahead of time! I couldn’t but be floored.
How could a sales associate connect with her customer; understand his requirement accurately and offer a delightful customer service – all on a long distance call; while sales associates miserably failed to make any impact despite having the customer in flesh and blood in their stores?
Retailers realise that it is no longer their merchandise mix; price or promotions that gets customers into their stores. If anything, it is their customer service that sets them apart from the crowd. It is not without the right investment that “Nordstrom” and “Starbucks” have become synonymous with the best in customer experience; making it difficult for other retailers to replicate.
The quality of customer service that sales associates can offer is largely dependent on how well they know their products; their store policies and procedures and how well they can establish a person-to-person contact with their customers (as in the third example); as against a customer-to-salesperson relationship – typical of the first two examples.
Retailers regularly claim to be training their store staff. Unfortunately, it is often confined to product knowledge training conducted usually by in-house merchandise teams or by brand managers of an external brand – both of which don’t cost much, if at all! Mere product knowledge training imparts only one-third of the required skills to the sales person and like most retailers have confessed to me; it centres on imparting product features and technical specifications – neither of which can help in the selling process. Sales associates with many hundred hours of product knowledge training reel out technical specifications and product features to their customers hoping to impress them, not realising that they are only tiring the customer with ‘data’ that is of little significance to him/her.
Customers are not in your store to buy a product because of its features. You need training programs that can help associates go beyond features and communicate product benefits in a way that addresses the customer’s inherent need. Fortunately, there are well researched and tested training systems now accessible in India, that are known to impart the tips; tricks and techniques to integrate product knowledge training with the other essential elements.
Retailers will do well to make the right investment in training programs that take a scientific and holistic approach to selling - and help offer a uniquely differentiated customer service while reaping rich returns on investment.