Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I’m your CUSTOMER...where’s your SERVICE?

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 clich├ęd 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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Retail Store as Theatre

The retail store manager’s role is an unenviable one. It hasn’t changed much since I was one many years ago. If anything, it certainly has become more “complex”: empty shelves; stocks not received to fill them; messy shop-floor; chaotic back-office; broken promises to customers; disgruntled customers with threatening complaints; warehouse and vendor goof-ups and a million other operational hiccups keep store managers constant company. Add to that; dropping footfalls; dismal conversions; sickly ticket sizes and screaming bosses; and you have a ticking bomb under your seat. While managing all these variables and trying to do a good job of it all, store managers usually paint themselves into a corner.

Alas, is there a way out of the dead-end? Or Is it forever going to be a tight-rope walk? Will the sword forever hang on their heads? As a store manager, how do I know what to do and when? How do I prioritize my work? Do I have any recourse at all?

Yes, thankfully there is…

…In the understanding that store management is both, an art and a science – but definitely not a curse. Now, there can be as many opinions as there are retailers, on what portion of store management is art, and what; science. This article is not an effort to settle that debate. However, it is just an effort to inextricably establish that store management is indeed a combination of the two; and that store managers thankfully have help at hand to equip them for the roller-coaster ride they are perennially on.

It is important for store managers to acknowledge this fact; and more so to know when to be the ‘artist’ and play to the galleries; and when, in fact to be the ‘scientist’ and feel the pulse of the business.

It is an indisputable fact that store managers have two bosses – the customer; their first boss; and their functional boss; the other. And you will agree with me when I say, that unless they serve their primary bosses well; the very existence of themselves and their secondary bosses is in serious jeopardy.

The simple truth for store managers to understand is that, with their customers (the camera), they are expected to mostly play the ‘artist’ and with their functional bosses, mostly the ‘scientist’. As artists, they essentially play three roles – the sales person (the clap-boy); the sales manager (the hero) and the people manager (the heroine). The fourth and the only role they are required to play with their functional bosses is one of an operations manager (the director).

Store managers find themselves in the line-of-fire either when they step into the sets as directors or when they continue playing the hero; the heroine or the clap-boy behind the camera.

A store manager is primarily a ‘sales person’ (the clap-boy) or a CSA (customer service associate) and more often than not, that’s where they have come up from. A manager cannot discard or subordinate that role, no matter how senior or experienced or busy he/she is. There are some store managers who are conspicuous by their absence on the shop-floor. I’ve also seen store managers who run the shop floor by remote control - either from their back offices or from the food-courts or worse, from their homes! No Store manager is too big or too busy to be on the floor; SELLING. If anything, they ought to remember that their being on the shop-floor as a sales person is an opportunity to be a role-model for their store staff. They can teach by example the delicate nuances of striking a rapport with their customers; understanding their needs and offering solutions to them. Store-staff get to emulate their store managers in the art of selling.

Your shop floor is a crucial moment of truth for your store brand to make a mark in the minds of your customers. It is also a fertile ground for understanding customer behavior and their preferences. Learnings from the shop-floor is what gives store managers the edge to influence merchandise mix; pricing and promotion strategies of the company. Store managers also get to observe their team-mates interacting with customers and can therefore assess them better. Knowing your sales staff intimately – and knowing their strengths and weaknesses, helps you better utilize them on the selling floor. Besides, it is also an ideal ground for coaching and mentoring your staff – especially new hires.

In an expanded role, store managers assume the responsibility to manage the collective sales process of the members of their staff. Therefore, a store manager is also a ‘Sales Manager’ (the hero). A role that convincingly establishes the fact that store managers are essentially sales people; and anyone who can bring the required rigour and discipline to the shop floor, can also make it to the top role, like themselves. They take ownership of the sales goals – not just their own – but that of the store as a whole. They become accountable for converting shoppers into buyers; selling more to each buyer and doing so repeatedly and consistently. As a sales manager, they prove their ability to win customers’ loyalties that ensure customers stick to your store and patronize it over long periods of time – despite competition.

As sales managers, they are also the custodians of customer service – the first person a customer would like to speak to when she faces a problem or; rarely when she gets satisfactory service!

As a ‘people manager’ (the heroine); store managers are responsible for the most valuable assets of their stores – their people. A store manager should be able to choose the right people for his store; train them and keep them knit together as a team; be a catalyst that spurs productivity in a diverse team. A people manager is also a friend, philosopher and guide to each of his teammates – deploying the right skills in the appropriate departments and holding them accountable for their actions and behaviours. Spot and correct mistakes of the sales staff with a right balance of reward and retribution. Coach and encourage them to out-perform themselves. Identify star performers and groom them into becoming a second line of command in the stores. And more importantly, as people managers, they are responsible for keeping store staff together as one chain - a chain that is as strong as each of its links – whenever you have to replace a link because of attrition, your chain is weak. It is indeed an onerous task, but nonetheless a crucial role of a people manager to keep the chain strong and intact.

The bosses in the corporate office are mostly concerned with only the fourth role – ‘operations manager’(the director). Stores opening on time; getting footfalls; converting them into customers and increasing the number of units each customer buys; meeting sales targets and following the standard operating processes, while doing so.

Unfortunately, it is this role of an operations manager that consumes all the waking (and sleeping hours) of many a store manager. It engulfs them into becoming trouble-shooters. Not unless they realize that in a ‘model store’ – operations is ‘incidental’ and not ‘imperative’ to a sale. The various things – receiving stock; stacking shelves; keeping the store clean; having friendly and knowledgeable staff etc – are all incidental to making a ‘sale’ happen. And the ‘Sale’ itself is the imperative – or the raison d’etre for the store to remain in business. Store managers – as operations managers lend leadership and direction to the business. They have to be the thinking and guiding force behind the other three roles – thankfully played by oneself.

Standard Operating Processes or (SOPs) are a means to an end – the Sale. It is a documented form of mapping who does what, when, why, how and where; to achieve the end result – a sale made to a customer; who is willing to come back to your store. The operations manager is indeed the custodian of SOPs – and not a victim of it, as is unfortunately the case in most stores.

While it is true that the ‘artist store manager’ has to be seamless in the three different roles he/she plays on the theatre called shop-floor. It is also important that he keeps the costumes of the operations manager for use only in the back office or while with his corporate bosses. Remember, your customer is not interested in what your procedure manual says or the seven reasons why you don’t have the product he wants, on your shelves.

Unfortunately, there is no theory to suggest an ideal ratio in which a store manager should spilt his time among playing these four roles – only a good training program can help him/her make the enactment so seamless, that they slip in and out of these roles, as if by magic.

Whatever you do, remember that when you are in front of the camera (your customer); you are in one of the three roles of an ‘artist’ – the ‘sales person’(the clap-boy); the ‘sales manager’ (the hero) or the ‘people manager’ (the heroine). And the next time your boss is screaming his head off at you, it could be because you were playing his favourite role – of an operations manager - in front of a different audience; your customer!