Not too long ago, I went to the mall with a girlfriend so she could return her empty containers to a beauty product store for reuse. The socially responsible company would give her one free product for every five empty containers she brought back and she had reached that total.
We entered the store and were quickly greeted by a sales associate who, upon our notification, instructed us to pick out a new product and head to the counter.
Carrying her empty containers in a bag, my friend placed it on the counter alongside her new product and awaited an associate. The sales associate who appeared behind the counter took one look in the bag, opened a single container, looked up at us, and said, “We only accept clean containers.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” my friend responded. “Can you make an exception?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “It’s store policy.”
This exchange culminated with the associate directing my friend to go behind the counter and clean the containers herself, right then, in front of everyone – and with me jumping in the conversation to ask if he was serious.
He was; but so were we. So he made the exception, but not without chastising us to never bring dirty containers again.
The company in question is doing a lot of things right. Their environmental campaign appears to be working, we were greeted immediately upon entering the store, and their products are so good that many of my friends and family are obsessed.
But, I haven’t been back since.
To me, the customer experience must always take precedence over company policy, and when company policy has to be upheld, the customer service better be impeccable.
For my part, I worked in a call center for four years during and after college. Before then, I spent my summers and holiday vacations working retail at Anchor Blue – remember Anchor Blue? – and had short stints at TJ Maxx and fitness center Curves. At the call center, I earned the Customer Satisfaction Award in my first full year!
I won’t call myself an expert, but I will say that I’ve been in numerous situations (and confrontations) regarding company policy issues and plain ol’ terrible customer service.
Just recently, in fact, I was on the listening end of a conversation with a colleague who, the previous night, was having trouble with her debit card at a grocery store when the woman behind the counter stated (loudly), “Maybe you don’t have any money.”
As only 29% of consumers reported that sales associates are knowledgable and helpful, there are certainly things that can be done to improve retail customer service. Here are a couple that I think go a long way:
What formal customer service training provided me was a customer-centric point-of-view. It was the difference between “Thank you for calling [Company], please hold.” and “Thank you for calling [Company], are you able to hold?” Just that simple change in language and tone stopped countless conversations from going left.
But of course, training can take some time (Mine took two weeks!). And money. Think of it as an investment. Trained sales associates lead to happy customers, and happy customers buy stuff, which is a win for everyone.
When sales associates understand their job is to find and communicate solutions that work for shoppers, they won’t do things like *cough* make repeat customers wash containers on the store floor or embarrass customers at the check stand.
Sales associates must also feel empowered to make decisions on their own in the name of doing what’s right for the customer. When associates instead feel tethered to managers or policy, they create problems instead of simple solutions.
I’m not talking about giving out unnecessary freebies and discounts, although they sometimes help. I’m talking about reading a tough situation and choosing to make it better instead of worst.
Had the beauty store associate in my earlier example simply made the call to allow the exception without a public shaming, I’d likely be a regular customer right now.
Who’s doing it right?
I often find myself questioning if customer service is a dying art. But, thankfully, there are retailers out there who still do it right.
For example, I found a necklace on social media and bought it at Nordstrom. Steps into the jewelry department, I was greeted by an associate who patiently walked me around and showed me what I wanted and what I might also like. Nordstrom is doing it right.
J.Crew associates greet my colleague’s seven year old daughter with stickers and temporary tattoos, taking a little stress off a shopping mother. J.Crew is doing it right.
Tiffany & Co. sales associates understand that not every shopper is a buyer. Yet, its customer service and shopper experience are uncompromised. Tiffany & Co. is doing it right.
I’ll also note SEE. The designer eyeglasses retailer lets me try on all their delicately placed pairs of glasses that I won’t ever buy because I’m just in there with my husband who actually needs them. SEE is doing it right.
Here at RetailNext, we’re all about inspiring retail that focuses on the shopper experience above all. What are your excellent customer service stories? Let us know in the comments below.
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