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[11 comments]

Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores' Associates 'Say Yes'

January 3, 2014

While others may insist that "Customers come first!," Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores has made it a policy.

The business, spun off from Sears Holdings in October 2012, includes approximately 1,250 stores selling home appliances, hardware, tools, and lawn and garden equipment. Its banners are: Sears Hometown Stores, Sears Home Appliance Showrooms, Sears Appliance & Hardware Stores and Sears Outlet Stores.

In an interview with RetailWire, Will Powell, SVP and COO who first joined Sears in 2003, explained that he personally reads all customer complaints. The company wanted to reduce the volume of complaints while making the stores and store-level associates the "heroes" in the process. With most of the flagship Sears Hometown Stores' 900+ locations focusing on selling major appliance brands, the company found that policies and procedures were getting in the way of good customer service.

So, in early 2012, management removed the obstacles and told store associates to do whatever it took to "say yes" to fix customer problems and issues. As the program initially rolled out, it did just "okay," admits Mr. Powell, so Sears Hometown produced videos showing how the program worked and built a special website to showcase success stories to employees. They now select the best effort once a month and award a prize of $1,000 to an associate. During the holidays they do even more.

The result: complaints were reduced 50 percent by the end of 2012 and another 70 percent decrease is expected in 2013.

Mr. Powell says the key is to find and attract the right types of employees to implement a program like this, since it is based so much on employee judgment. Guidelines are used for what is appropriate, but a lot is left to the individual. If an associate feels uncomfortable about saying "yes," rather than declining the customer's request, they normally escalate the issue to a supervisor, which is done until someone at a higher level feels comfortable making a final decision. When an employee makes a "say yes" decision, they are only required to send an e-mail to their superior after the fact, explaining what they did and why they did it. Those e-mails are evaluated for coaching purposes afterwards.

FINANCIALS:     [NASDAQ:SHLD] [ ]

Discussion Questions:

Can the "Say Yes!" program be a true differentiator in the marketplace for Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores? Do the opportunities outweigh the risks in providing associates more leeway to resolve customer service issues? What safeguards should be in place when giving associates such latitude?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you see greater opportunity for risk or reward in giving associates more leeway to resolve customer service issues?

Comments:

If Sears Hometown has truly empowered their employees and are willing to make what may be considered a mistake as a learning cost then they have a winning program on two fronts. The first is the obvious greater customer satisfaction. The second is great employee satisfaction which will lead to better employees, less turnover and greater sales and profit.

If you can't trust your employees to attempt to do what's right, I have only one question:

Why did you hire the employee in the first place?

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Mel Kleiman, President, Humetrics

It's easy to make customer service ratings soar; simply say "yes" to anything a customer wants. But that's also the quickest way to go broke.

To be a differentiator, the "Say Yes" initiative must have the right front liners in place, and those employees must be thoroughly trained before they are empowered to make important decisions.

Video training is a step in the right direction, but it's not sufficient. There must be a long-term commitment to this initiative that begins with attracting and hiring quality staff, and a focus on continual hands-on, interactive, training.

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Eric Chester, Keynote Speaker, Author, Reviving Work Ethic, LLC

Highly likely as long as mistakes aren't penalized. As the goal of the program is to better serve customers and judgment is a key component, it's going to take some time to foster that. For now though, it sounds like Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores is moving in the right direction.

The one caveat is how independent the company is from Sears Holdings. Since Eddie Lampert merged Kmart into Sears and created the company, the retailer has struggled as revenues have been shrinking. If Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores can truly be an independent entity, then the possibility exists for their "Say Yes" program - and the company - to succeed.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

'Say Yes' is the right place to start. Then implementation challenges must be addressed. It appears that Sears' Powell is on the right track. There are bound to be questionable "yeses" along the way. The program will have to be evaluated on a regular basis and the "yeses" need to be carefully documented.

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Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

A "Say Yes" program is powerful, when the employees are truly empowered to say "Yes." Obviously, there are times an employee must give a "No" to a customer. Contrary to the belief that a customer is always right, the truth is, the customer is NOT always right. At the same time, a customer is always a customer and any somewhat reasonable request, are considered before having to resort to a "No."

One of the programs some of our clients have introduced is a "One to say YES and two to say NO" campaign. This means that if you do have to say, "No," you must get a managers approval. Bottom line is that with the right employees and the right culture, this concept is a wonderful customer-focused "policy."

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

Clearly the objective is aimed in the right direction, but for a brand that retains the name "Sears" in its name, the devil is in the details. For example, cagey customers that know the strategy can take advantage of the situation and force a "yes" from associates to get a better deal or perk. So rather than "Say Yes!" to remedying issues after the fact, a preemptive plan to minimize potential problems like "Say Inventory Management!" or "Say Knowledgeable Employees!" might have a better long-term benefit.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Isn't it nice to see a story with "Sears" in it without the usual gloom and doom? What I get from this story is the way for Sears to succeed is to get Sears HQ out of the way; in this case they're out of the way completely (both functionally and legally), but if we can't have that - because Eddie and Friends insist on sticking around - then I guess the farther the better.

'notcom'

There's no doubt that employees influence customer return on investment, because impassioned employees create engaged, and therefore loyal, customers. Sears is no different. The best way to foster loyalty among employees is to empower them to make decisions that improve the customer experience in real time, through an organization-wide practice we call enterprise loyalty. Enterprise loyalty occurs when a company releases its customer data from the marketing department, where organizations tend to hoard it, and shares it across all departments, from finance to store planning and even with the sales staff (albeit with a good amount of discretion).

Supplied with these insights, everyone in the organization can align their top priorities with the needs and aspirations of their most valuable customers, and continually enhance activities to better serve those customers. As mentioned, sharing customer information with staff requires some limitations - the sales associates don't need to know the customer's address, information about children or credit rating; but knowing his or her purchase behavior over the previous year can be very helpful in engaging the customer.

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Bryan Pearson, President and CEO, LoyaltyOne

Yes! The Say Yes! program can be a differentiator in the marketplace, given the low level of customer experience in retail in general. The keys will be to support the program even when a store associate oversteps their bounds or makes a decision that is deemed in error.

In addition, the best retailers also provide associates with a specific amount of money they can use to "make things right" with a customer, and that would be a nice add-on to this program.

Progress.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

This is brilliant and shows that customer-first retailers will always attract and retain the best employees as well as attract and retain the most profitable customers. The positive approach - trusting that staff will make the best decisions for the company and the customer results in exactly that happening. For too long the P&L-focused retailers have killed the idea of trusting staff or trusting customers and both staff and customers have delivered on that expectation.
The moral? Trust your staff, trust your customers, always find a way to say 'yes', and train an reward the behaviors.

Way to go Sears H&O Stores!

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Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

About time! Appliances, outdoor power equipment and tools are the categories that keeps Sears afloat. Social media and complaint websites have excoriated Sears. Give Powell and his team credit for recognizing this. It is only half the battle though.

A good portion of the voluminous complaints deal with service; the store employees cannot control the franchise, subsidiary and independent servicers. Until there is some form of integration and cooperation with this channel, there can't be complete success.

The new policy is a breath of fresh air; the higher quality/resourceful managers will lead and train their teams to make good business decisions while not "giving everything away."

Alan Cooper, Contract Trainer/Training Consultant, Independent/Freelance

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