Business for traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers is becoming increasingly challenging as consumer shopping habits evolve and people spend more and more with online retailers. Many retailers are seeing fewer footsteps coming through their doors, making it difficult if not impossible to grow their business. If you are not getting more footsteps coming through your front door it stands to reason you would want to make the most of the customers who have taken the time and made the effort to come into your establishment.
One of the more underrated measures of how well a retailer is doing is measuring conversion. Conversion is about “converting” someone who walks into a business from a browser into someone who makes a purchase. E.g., if you have 500 potential customers walk through your doors in a given week and 200 of them make a purchase, your conversion rate would be 40%. Of course there are many factors that impact conversion, but one of the most important is customer service. If friendly, knowledgeable customer service is important in not only increasing conversion, but also selling more to each customer and building a loyal and dedicated customer base, why is most of the customer service we experience generally so bad?
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the oft-noted decline of common courtesy and public civility mirrors what most of us see as the generally deplorable state of customer service — be it retail, e-commerce, the cable company or your landscaper. If you ask anyone to relate a less than great customer service experience, most of us have a library of examples from which to choose. On the other hand, people are usually more challenged to come up with a shopping experience that was great specifically because of the customer service. While this blog will focus primarily on bricks-and-mortar retail, the basic principles of good customer service apply across a broad spectrum of retail and service industries.
Creating a customer-focused environment is challenging under any circumstances. Your focus and goals must be clearly articulated and managed. What makes it perhaps more complex, as I mentioned in a previous entry, is that a customer-focused environment must also be employee-centric. If we take care of our employees, the people on the front-line, and those who support them, they will care about and provide positive and rewarding experiences to our customers.
It should seem pretty obvious why good customer service would be a prerequisite for running a successful retail business, but with all the really bad or just indifferent customer service we all encounter on a regular basis it appears that it is worth examining. In the course of this blog I will distinguish between “external” customer service and “internal” customer service. External customer service is about taking care of the people who pay our salary – our actual customers. Internal customer service is about how we treat those we work with. It is a reflection of a business’ “culture.” Internal and external customer service are inextricably intertwined.
I hope to demonstrate in the course of writing this blog that internal customer service or what is known in corporate-speak as “employee engagement” is a critical component in delivering a customer-focused environment. Employee engagement is how employees feel about the company they work for, the person or people they work with, their pay and benefits and their opportunities to succeed and advance, et al. People want to feel good about where they work and the people they work with. Many people spend much of their day at work and when they come home they talk about work. If your employees are unhappy, trust me, your customers won’t be happy either.
Delivering good customer service consistently is not unlike driving many other metrics in business. It requires a multi-faceted strategy that includes enormous effort, focus, good communication skills and a plan that will encompass some very basic tactics and often some rather sophisticated ones. In the end, good customer service – internal and external — is smart business. It drives revenue, reduces costs by increasing employee retention and helps grow your business.
The other premise I want to touch upon just briefly for now has to do with the sub-title of this blog, “Civility in the 21st Century.” Having spent the past 30 years in New York City as a transplanted Midwesterner I can say it feels as if the closer you get to any urban center the general level of civility starts to drop. This is not universally the case perhaps, but it has a strong ring of truth to it. Manhattan, at least at times, feels like the epicenter for just plain rudeness. Sometimes it is someone talking too loudly on their phone in a restaurant or someone texting as they ever so slowly climb the stairs in a busy rush hour subway station, totally oblivious to the hundreds of harried commuters behind them trying to get work (or home.)
I will leave the specific reasons for such behavior to sociologists and psychiatrists. I do strongly believe that the pervasive lack of good or even adequate customer service and the rudeness and lack of civility that has become a part of our daily lives are all part and parcel of what some have called the “culture of me.” I am going to do my best to lay out a plan, a course of action, to create a positive, customer-focused environment as an essential component to any successful business, but society’s lack of common civility is unfortunately a bigger task than I can address. I believe though that having a good grasp of why so many people just do not care about those around them is an important and perhaps essential component in addressing customer service in any business.