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Blog : Systems versus service - the real deal breakers in retail success


Systems versus service - the real deal breakers in retail success

I am thrilled at the success of retailer turned celebrity Mary Portas, who has taken it upon herself to challenge the High Street. Like Joan of Arc storming through the streets, Mary has managed to get the whole country talking about that great big elephant in the room - poor customer service in the retail sector.

My American friend living here in London says we have “diminished expectations” and how right he is. When do we ever give feedback to the retailers that disappoint? We moan and grumble to ourselves and fail to mention to the culprits what the issue is and what it is we actually want.

From my experience of working in this sector, it appears our issue with UK retailers is threefold; stock availability, the use of language/listening by store assistants and the all important customer relationship.

The boom in online retail sales could be one of the reasons our grievances with the High Street have increased in recent years. In a report carried out by the Office for National Statistics the percentage of retail sales derived from the internet grew EVERY month consistently by 1%, leading to 10% of all sales coming from the internet (in 2008 it was 5%). 

We now expect the slick, streamlined sales process we receive online to be matched to that we experience when actually stepping into the store. Yet what we tend to be faced with is a sales assistant who grudgingly searches for the shoes you want, only to find they are out of stock, or informs you the item you are looking for ‘definitely doesn’t exist’ and ‘you must have imagined it’ – real life examples. And the answer– why not check the website?! Putting this into a similar scenario; how would you feel upon entering a restaurant and your waiter informs you "today’s specials are unavailable, I suggest you go home and order a pizza?" In reality this simply wouldn’t happen; perhaps the retail sector could learn a thing or two from its hospitality neighbours...

Whilst the recession has played its part in numbers of high street stores lying empty, this lack of enthusiasm for face-to-face, above and beyond service is another of the many reasons the UK high street is ‘closing down’. Ms Portas is thankfully marching to the rescue, looking at how high street stores can improve the level of personalised customer service they offer, enticing people away from their laptops and back into the actual shop.  

In her quest, Mary will no doubt look at the product and the customer experience as the critical factors to improve. After all, should either of these disappoint, you run the risk of that individual customer not returning to your store and telling their friends, family, twitter followers, facebook friends about the poor service they received from you. It’s the experience part which customer service teams have influence over; the emotional rapport that makes an individual feel good about parting with their money. Nowadays sales teams are so engrossed in the product, design and uniqueness of the item that they often forget there’s a human being in front of them who has feelings, emotions, needs and a desire to feel good, particularly when buying in the luxury end of what we call 'discretionary purchases' and thus do not know how to interact with them, or lead them to purchase.

So how do we solve the problem? Well it’s down to behavioural change and if we are going to change our own behaviour, there’s only one way we really learn and that’s by feeling and experiencing the behaviour ourselves. So send the team out, have them experience poor service as well as good. It’s no use just developing the team in what they should be doing; help them actually feel the change needed. Also a major part is having the confidence to deliver excellent customer service, encourage your people to approach those entering your stores and engage with them. And when they have done a good job, congratulate them.

When was the last time you went shopping and didn’t enjoy the customer experience? What could have been done to improve things for you?

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