Building a Customer-Focused Organization

We have laid the groundwork – it starts with envisioning and then articulating the kind of experience you want your customers to have when they walk into your business. Getting your thoughts on paper helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Then comes setting your expectations for how you want the customer experience to progress once a customer has crossed your threshold. What kind of dialog would you like to hear between your employees and customers? Do you want more of a self-service shopping environment with sales people there mostly to answer questions, or (more likely) do you want them to engage customers, determine their needs and then suggest complementary items? Being genuine and authentic are critical, from the first contact with a customer through (hopefully) thanking them for their purchase and inviting them to return. Once you have defined what kind of customer experience you want your employees to provide to your customers, hiring the right people to provide that experience is key. Friendly, genuine, self-motivated and customer-focused employees will make it happen – you can’t be there for every customer who walks into your store. Investing the time and effort in hiring the right people is definitely worth the trouble. Trust your instincts.

Once you have determined what you want the customer experience to look and sound like, then hired the best qualified individuals to provide that experience, you must train them. And then train them more. Training in a retail environment should be an ongoing endeavor. Investing time, money and effort in training demonstrates to your employees your commitment to their success by helping them gain the skills and tools they will need to be successful. I have mentioned “employee engagement” in another post, it’s about how employees feel about their work place and the people they work for, among other things that directly impact employee morale. There are many factors which influence employee engagement and I will dedicate more posts specifically to that topic. Certainly one of the most important factors is whether employees feel that they have been provided the training and tools they need to be confident with customers and do the best job possible. Poor training leads not only to poor service but it can have a significant impact on morale and employee engagement. As I have said before, if your employees are unhappy, trust me, your customers won’t be happy either.

Training an employee starts with articulating first your “vision” for the kind of experience you want your customers to have, then getting more specific on what that will actually look and sound like. Specificity is a must, your employees should never have to guess what is expected of them. Of course, telling your employees how you want them to interact with your customers is only the first step. Training should come in a variety of forms depending on the experience level of your employees and the size of your business. It is an often repeated adage that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and write and 90% of what they do. Those numbers may not be exact, but when considering a training plan, this is a good starting point. Training must incorporate not just talking, but demonstrating, role playing and checking for understanding. Just as I warn against not investing enough time in picking the right people to work in your store, the next cardinal rule is that you must invest enough time in training. Training is not just telling an employee that you want them to make a “genuine” and “authentic” connection with everyone who walks into your business. To get an employee started for example, especially one with little or no customer service experience, you have to help them find the words to make that genuine and authentic connection. That might start with actually creating a script for them to use until they are comfortable, but employees must be encouraged to find their own words, their own way of connecting with customers. Cookie cutter approaches are not a long-term solution – repeating the same words over and over will in short order become stale and will definitely not sound genuine or authentic. Modeling behavior and role playing are two of the most effective training techniques to help your employees learn the ropes.

Many retailers start their training of a new employee with POS (register) and other technical functions, e.g. using an inventory system to check stock. I think that is the wrong approach. In helping an employee feel like they have the tools they need to do their job well, technical training is indispensable. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer – OR – an employee than not being able to ring a sale quickly and error free or to competently and confidently check inventory to see if you have a specific item a customer is looking for. But if you want to communicate what your priorities are as a proprietor, I think mixing it up a bit and including the customer experience and your employees’ role in delivering that experience early on in the training process is paramount. I have had perfectly competent cashiers ring me up quite efficiently but never once make eye contact, greet me or even thank me for my purchase. It is critical to your store’s success that your employees clearly and unambiguously understand what their priorities are. They need to understand that there is nothing more important than the customer(s) standing in front of them – even say, if they are with another customer. A key lesson in the training process is developing the ability to acknowledge and welcome a customer even when they are already engaged with another customer – it literally takes seconds to look up, make eye contact, smile and say hello, I will be right with you. Done well – with training – it should not detract from the experience of the customer they are presently with. This is the kind of thing that is not necessarily intuitive for everyone, however obvious it may seem.

The best retailers I have worked with have at least one person designated to train new employees. This will depend obviously on the size of your business. This person will almost certainly have other responsibilities beyond training, but if we are trying to deliver a consistent experience to all customers, the training should be consistent for all employees. Smart and effective training should include training the person or people who conduct the training to ensure everyone is being trained to the same standard. A checklist and/or training guide is also indispensable to ensure all bases are covered with all employees. In the next post, I will get into more specifics about the training process and effective tools and methods I have employed to set my employees up for success to deliver the best possible service to customers.

Roman Schreiner

October 2017

Homework

I promised in my last post titled, “In the Beginning…,” that my next post would be about what needs to happen before your first customer walks in the door. You must hire the right people. I also spoke to the idea that the customer experience starts the minute a customer enters your business, and perhaps even a few seconds before.

Employees will not greet customers if the expectation that they do so has not been clearly articulated to them and they have been trained to do so. Often they will not even then – if they are working unsupervised. So when I write “It Starts at the Beginning…” I am not just talking about when a customer first steps foot into a store, I am also talking about ensuring the people who you hire to work in your store are the kind of people who will look up and offer a genuine, friendly smile and greeting regardless of whether their supervisor is in the vicinity.

But really, before you even start considering staffing your business or filling an opening in an existing business, you have to very seriously think through the kind of experience you want your customers to have when they walk into your store. This will of course inform what qualities and/or personality traits you are looking for in the people you hire to drive your business. Working with a client a few years ago, I helped them think through, then put into words and finally put together a power-point presentation for top leadership and ultimately to use as a training tool, articulating in fairly specific terms what kind of experience they wanted their customers to have when they walked into their shop. The experience you want your customers to have may vary greatly depending on any number of factors, from what you are selling, your location and your expectation and vision for how you want to grow your business. Although the client I mentioned above would be considered a luxury brand, most with whom I have worked in the past have been upscale, but not luxury. Regardless of what you are selling some vary common themes come through again and again.

I was directed by a friend to the website of Martin Shanker, www.shankerinc.com. Martin is a veteran of helping best in class retail brands grow their business through developing their people. He offers some great info on making the interaction between customers and your sales people as productive as possible, presented in a very knowledgeable, nuanced and sophisticated way. The key words I took away from the white paper available for download on the site were “genuine” “authentic” and the term “authentic communication.” I think this gives us a great place to start in building a vision for what we want our customer experience to look, sound and feel like – no matter what you are selling.

Questions to ask yourself:

Do I want immediate and attentive assistance the minute a customer walks through the door – or just a sincere greeting and allowing the customer to acclimate and browse? What does that look like?

If “genuine” and “authentic” are critical elements in the interaction between employee and customer, what does that sound like? I think you have to start with something as simple and basic as setting a standard that every customer must be greeted within a certain amount of time with a genuine greeting, eye contact and an authentic smile. First impressions do count.

What are your expectation for your employees “building the basket” or suggesting additional items that would complement what the customer has already picked out? Is clienteling a part of your expectation? That definitely requires a genuine rapport and a level of trust for the sales person to ask the customer if they would like to be added to their customer database, and for the customer to give out their private information.

Building a friendly, genuine rapport with customers is really the key. It’s not that customers are looking for any excuse to be turned off or put off by sales help, but most customers are in a hurry – they have also been conditioned to expect indifferent customer service as the norm, and consequently are extremely sensitive to any semblance of a sales person “just going through the motions” and not demonstrating a genuine interest in them and what their needs are.

Whatever you decide are your expectations for the experience you want your customers to have when they enter your business must be clearly articulated and then taught to your employees – and then of course managed. In the end, whatever your expectations, keep them as simple and basic as possible. When I was doing research on “mystery shopping” a tactic some retailers use to evaluate how well they are doing delivering “good” customer service, I found established retailers with 8 to 9 pages of instructions for the mystery shopper for what to look for and/or listen for when actually doing a shop. No kidding. By making our expectations too complicated and not just focusing on the basics – at least in the beginning – we are putting a stumbling block squarely in front of our sales people who we expect to establish a genuine, friendly and comfortable rapport with our customers.

So it seems that hiring the right people for your business is fairly complicated and starts with first doing some homework on what your expectations are for the kind of experience you want for your customers when they enter your business and then deciding what qualities you need to look for when interviewing candidates that will (hopefully) get you to your expectation. Hiring is complicated, but so, so many retailers give it so little attention. We will continue to explore this topic in upcoming posts.

Roman Schreiner

September 2017

Why Customer Service Can Make the Difference

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.

Roman Schreiner

August 2017

Customer Service and Civility

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.

Roman Schreiner

August 2017