Getting customer service right in the retail sector

'Customer service is all about mindset, and leaders have to empower staff to be aware of that.

As customer transactions become an increasingly faceless experience, the rare occasions that you directly interact are at a premium. Here are six mindsets for customer service in the retail sector.

The digital age has given us fingertip access to goods and services, along with an avalanche of content aimed at catching our eye and, hopefully, our business.

It’s a crowded and competitive marketplace and consumers are better informed than ever before, but they are also increasingly fickle, brand jumping according to price and accessibility.

All these touchpoints have driven a wedge between businesses and their customers. In the scramble to “collect” social media fans, the art of connecting has sometimes been lost.

The State of Customer Service in Australia Report, by CPM Australia and Monash University Business School’s Australian Consumer, Retail and Services (ACRS) Omnibus Tracker, found one-third of people surveyed had stopped shopping at a company in 2016-2017 because of poor customer service. Fifty per cent reported inconsistencies in their shopping experience with a retailer.

Customer service specialist Jaquie Scammell says it is not that we’re overlooking the importance of good customer service, but more a case of overthinking it.

One size fits few

Too many rules, Scammell says, have created a barrier between employee and customer and it is here that the copy-and-paste service transaction has been allowed to thrive.

“Service is not something you just do when you put a uniform on, it’s a whole way of life,” says Scammell. 

“It’s how you serve your family, your community, your friends and colleagues. Don’t lose those good qualities when you turn up to work. Don’t get caught up in the ego or the fact you are in charge or you have rules – treat people you meet as an equal.”

Customer service is all about mindset, argues Scammell, and leaders have to empower staff to be aware of that.

She says service is an exchange of energy, and those with an awareness of what cues they are giving – and receiving – will create the best experiences for the customer. The other challenge is letting staff be themselves.

"It's the basic things we learn when we are five-year-olds – like kindness, being curious about the perosn in front of you, paying attention." Jaquie Scammell, Australian Consumer, Retail and Services

Service to believe in

Trust in Australia’s retail sector is decreasing, according to Dr Rebecca Dare, managing director of ACRS research unit at Monash University Business School.

ACRS research shows online businesses are the least trusted by consumers, while specialists, such as pharmacies, supermarkets and retailers of sporting goods and computer hardware, are considered the most trustworthy.

ACRS looked at what drives trust in retail and found consumers want strong policies from a business. They want to know it can be relied on to solve a problem.

Another key factor in building trust was employee interaction – where frontline employees are crucial.

“Customers trust a brand they’ve had a good experience with, but that can change in an instant,” says Dare.

“Customer memory is very short, so every experience has to be a good one and deliver consistently on brand promise.”

In her book Creating a Customer Service Mindset, Scammell profiles six Australian organisations she says have mastered the art of customer service and uses them to explain the attitudes she believes are key to increasing business loyalty.

“It’s the basic things we learn when we are five-year-olds – like kindness, being curious about the person in front of you, paying attention,” says Scammell.

“That can be really challenging these days in this busy world, where we all have a lot of distraction.”

Scammell says despite the rise in automation, there will always be a need for empathy with customers. Asking the right questions can be a game changer.

Swapping default questions such as “how are you?” or “what can I do for you?” for “where have you come from today?” or “who are you buying for?” can help you find out more information to build a faster rapport.

A service provider such as an accountant could ask, “What do you want to tell me today that would help me understand your financial position a bit more?”

According to Scammell, good customer service isn’t hard to accomplish, but it can take time to embed.

Something to remember

Emirates Leisure Retail Australia (ELRA), a large food and beverage company operating in the travel sector, named its customer service program Every Moment. Its purpose statement is: “Make someone’s day”.

Scammell says this is a great example of how “simple can be powerful”. By giving staff permission to do something special for a customer in their own unique way, ELRA has shown them that every customer and employee interaction counts.

Insurer Australian Unity took a different approach. Its leadership team decided to cultivate a service mindset by examining good interactions that already existed in the business, rather than focus on where they were lacking.

Managers covered a wall in the customer contact centre with green paper squares; on each was a message or compliment from a customer to a customer service agent. The goal was to cover the wall in green. It was a visual way of reinforcing existing good service and celebrating the stories.

Businesses know customer service is becoming more important than ever, but Scammell fears the methodology is not translating to the frontline.

“You need to make it a key strategic priority and a part of every conversation, every briefing, every bit of collateral,” she says.

“We have gone too far ‘left brain’, too far logical systems and procedures. We need to bring a bit more heart back into service and remember what we are all here for.

“People will stay loyal to a brand if they feel they are being treated like a human.”

Jaquie Scammell's 6 mindsets for customer service

1. Empathy
Put away the ego and consider how the customer is feeling. If their arms are full, open the door for them. If they complain, don’t handball the problem. Pay attention to them and they’ll reward you with their loyalty.

2. Questions
Be curious. Asking the right questions can help you find out information that will build a faster rapport and help you better meet your customers’ needs.

3. Energy
Take cues from the customer and remember they are taking cues from you.

4. Heart
Bring human qualities to an interaction. Don’t be robotic. Put love and kindness into what you’re doing, as opposed to just treating it as a job.

5. Purpose
Feeling connected to a greater purpose makes staff more motivated. You will get more from them because they’re not just doing it for the money.

6. Practice
One of the biggest mistakes organisations make is seeing customer service as a project. There is no start or finish – it will constantly evolve as the customer wants and demands new things. Practise it daily so it becomes part of the company’s DNA.

Read next: Existing clients: is your accounting firm making the most of them?


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November 2019
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