Win or Lose in a Retail Minute

Nov 05, 2012

It doesn’t take long (roughly 60 seconds) for a relationship between a consumer and a retailer to go from good to bad or bad to worse. That’s the finding of recent research measuring the amount of time it takes for stores to answer phone calls from consumers.

According to the Consumer Response Survey published by Ifbyphone in May, 59 percent of consumers were more likely to buy from a brand when a call was answered in under a minute.

New research by the firm, the Ifbyphone Responsiveness Index, which assessed the amount of time it took chain stores to answer calls found that 81 percent came in under the minute mark while the others did not.

The majority of calls to retailers, each a member of STORES’ 2011
Top-100 retail brands, were answered within four rings, and the average amount of time it took to reach a living human being was 36 seconds. Fifty-five percent of calls were answered in fewer than 20 seconds.

The top-10 most responsive retailers in the Ifbyphone list included:

1. 7-Eleven (three seconds)
1. Radio Shack (three seconds)
1. Wegmans (three seconds)
4. Ace Hardware (3.2 seconds)
5. Tractor Supply Co. (3.4 seconds)
6. Dollar General (four seconds)
7. Dillard’s (4.2 seconds)
7. Supervalu (4.2 seconds)
7. Advance Auto Parts (4.2 seconds)
10. Auto Zone (6.2 seconds)
10. Williams-Sonoma (6.2 seconds)

"The outstanding performance of these brands stands as an example of the importance brands place on fast customer response as key to their business model. Clearly, for companies to compete, they need a combination of technology and staff to optimize responsiveness," said Irv Shapiro, CEO of Ifbyphone, in a statement.

One of the biggest challenges discovered in the research is the handoff from consumers calling a toll-free corporate number to a local store.

While Mr. Shapiro pointed out that consumers expect to reach a live person quickly when calling an 800 number, many do not. In fact, the average wait time on calls to sporting goods chains, for example, exceeded three minutes.

Following is a breakout in minutes and seconds by channel:

1. Restaurants/Fast Food (55.6 seconds)
2. Apparel & Accessories (1:07)
3. Online Merchants (1:19)
4. Office Supplies (1:21)
5. Automotive Parts & Accessories (1:22)
6. Grocery (1:27)
7. Specialty/Non-Apparel (1:35)
8. Computers/Electronics (1:54)
9. Drug Store/Corner Store (1:57)
10. Mass Merchant (2:15)
11. Books/Music/Video (2:24)
12. Hardware/Home Improvement (2:36)
13. Sporting Goods (3:08)

"Since customers are much more likely to convert or refer when a call is answered in less than one minute, retail brands, especially at the corporate level, need to adjust their marketing strategies to make responsiveness a higher priority," said Mr. Shapiro.

How important is the time it takes to reach a real person at a retail chain/store to the consumer perception of customer service? Aside from time, are there are other “bad practices” that retailers need to correct when it comes to phone communications with consumers?

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18 Comments on "Win or Lose in a Retail Minute"

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Max Goldberg

Good customer service never goes out of style. This could be manifest in how long it takes to answer a call and whether the person who answers the phone is able to satisfactorily answer the consumer’s questions. Retailers can facilitate this process by responding quickly and empowering employees to problem solve.

Consumers want to be treated with respect. Retailers who do this not only strengthen bonds with consumers, but increase employee morale.

Adrian Weidmann

We live in a nanosecond world where we expect immediate gratification. How long do you wait before leaning on your horn at a stop light? Next time count to 4 slowly before acting. Four seconds seems like a long time! More important than the time it takes to answer the initial call is the time that it takes to talk to someone that can actually help you!

Here is one of my pet peeves when calling into customer service. You call the 800 number, it is answered quickly by a computer and a ‘robo-voice’ asks you to enter your customer account number to “help us serve you better.” You then enter your account number as requested before listening to 13 menu options — none of which happens to be what you’re issue is. When you actually do eventually get to a human being the first thing they ask you is what is your account number! I already entered it! Why isn’t it on your computer screen!!??

Retailers and brands need to pay more attention who designs their call center workflows! Perhaps marketing should design the workflow from a customer perspective instead of being designed by the IT department.

Al McClain
Al McClain
4 years 11 months ago

Do consumers CALL retailers to buy things anymore? I see that 7-Eleven tops the list of fast responders, but I almost can’t imagine why a consumer would need to call 7-Eleven. Seriously, I would think that the most desirable consumers for most chain retailers would either come in in person, or use the internet. But, I agree that a timely phone pick up is nice, and it’s even nicer not to be put through half a dozen automated prompts.

Bob Phibbs

You must train that a customer calling in must be taken seriously, so don’t pick up and say “Please hold,” then hit the “hold” button and put the receiver down. Ask if you can put them on hold and wait to hear their response. Nothing says “You aren’t important” to a customer like a distracted associate.

Ed Rosenbaum

This survey was done using a minute to test responses. While I like some of the better numbers shown in the results; I challenge any of us to stay on a line listening to it ring for a full minute. It is far beyond acceptable in any business segment. Of course we will not do business with companies who care so little that they do not care to answer our calls promptly and with a smile.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
4 years 11 months ago

Responsiveness on the telephone is a greatly overlooked aspect of the brand. There is endless discussion about face-to-face contacts, ease of navigation on the web site and so on, but very little about phone contacts. How a customer is treated on the phone is equally important. Handed off to endless branches of “if you are less than 5′ tall, press 8” is a sure-fire recipe to irritate and eventually alienate customers. The customer is not stupid. They understand this is a way to lower expenses. It sends a clear message that communication with a customer is just not that important.

Ken Lonyai
This is a great study to report on. So many businesses including retail DO NOT understand what user experience is or the critical role it plays in their success. Phone responsiveness is just one of dozens (even hundreds) of touch points where a retailer can win or lose a customer as part of a bad user experience. Going through the motions of handling consumer calls blindly is a sure way to make people think twice about getting in the car and paying a store a visit. It’s obvious that if a caller is treated poorly on the phone that the same group of employees will be interacting (disrespecting?) that caller when s/he arrives at the store. In other words, a phone call is a retailer’s one chance to make a good first impression, blow that and well…. As pointed out, answering quickly is just the start of a phone encounter. Being polite, interested, and effective (quickly), for the duration of the call is the real issue. If anywhere in the call’s timeline the ball is dropped, it will have the same effect or worse, as a long answer time. Home centers are notoriously bad for this and make people cringe… Read more »
Ian Percy
It takes only one dropped ball to lose a game…as we saw yesterday. The phone answering thing is among the least of your worries, however. Ok…work with me now: EVERYTHING (parking, signage, lighting, stock, salespeople, phone answering) is a point of ENERGY. The smallest factor (e.g. a burnt out light bulb at a high-end spa) sends out an ‘attract or repel’ frequency. I’m trying to get my clients to do “Energy Inventories” to assess the accumulative impact of energy on the customer. So if parking is a pain the relationship starts out with an energy deficit and you better make that up right away. If the customer meets an unusually helpful and engaging employee, parking is forgotten. But if there are no XL sizes in the sweater that’s on sale you’re down again. One toy store had dark blue walls and ceilings with swirly things swooping down that some designer thought looked cool. But the energy impact on children was that it was a threatening storm. Even store policies send out energy and the customer doesn’t even know what they are. Is the staff room fridge a source of world-wide contamination? That’s negative energy that will hurt you out in… Read more »
Gene Detroyer

This is all about expectations. The speed of communication at every level has increased geometrically. How many of us have replaced phone calls with texting? It is quicker and surer. Take a look at your own trends of number of calls to number of texts over the past couple of years.

The customer mindset on connection has also changed. The customer no longer physically separates the store from other forms of connection (phone, internet, et al). The customer can’t be treated any less if they are calling or if they are in the store. Any connection a customer makes with a retailer is the same as if they were in the store. Just because you can’t see them or touch them doesn’t mean that they see this connection separate from their shopping experience.

Doug Fleener

As a consumer I’d rather you take better care of me in person than worry about the phone. It drives me crazy when I’m checking into a hotel or paying for something and the employee stops helping me to answer the phone.

Answer the phone quickly, but never at the expense of the customer in front of you.

David Biernbaum

Nothing aggravates a consumer more than automated systems that don’t allow the consumer to solve the right problem or talk to a live person soon enough when the automated system isn’t asking the right questions or allowing the right choices. At least the airlines offer the option of yelling “agent” in order to get someone on the phone. Retailers need to do the same. More importantly, retailers need to have people available on the phone that know their own merchandise, where they are located, and easy access to pricing, promotions, and basic details.

Zel Bianco

Customer service is affected by many things, so any chance to provide positive perceptions of customer service should be taken advantage of. Answering phones quickly and efficiently should be customer service 101. One area that could use improvement, in my opinion, would be the automated phone systems. After entering account numbers, phone numbers, whatever the automated voice asks, and then having to wait to speak to a live representative only to be asked for the same information once again! My frustration is the amount of time it takes to get to a live person when calling such a system.

Cathy Hotka

I’m shocked that L.L.Bean and Lands’ End aren’t on this list. Both are exceptionally responsive and flexible over the phone, even taking orders for products you know they carry, but that don’t appear in the current catalog. For some companies, competent telephone employees are absolutely crucial.

Shep Hyken

Response time — or initial contact time — is a major touchpoint that may set the tone for the interaction that is to follow. Keep in mind that customers compare you to, not just the competition in your sector, but also the last business (any business) they just did business with.

Joan Treistman

The answer to the first question is SOOOO IMPORTANT. The answer to the second, asking about bad practices, is pretty simple. Make sure whoever answers the phone has the knowledge and motivation to serve whoever calls. There is nothing worse than finally reaching a real person only to find that the person does not have the wherewithal to be of any real assistance. Scratch that retailer off my list.

Bob Lansdowne
Bob Lansdowne
4 years 11 months ago

They also need to get you to the right person or department quickly. The worst outcome is to be switched around to the wrong person/s and end up getting no response or a misleading one. That drives me to check out another retail option if there is one, and it is likely that the offending retailer will lose me as a customer.

Ralph Jacobson

Fast, genuine concern for a customer is the key to retaining good consumers. It is so wrong to delay serving them, and/or challenging them with trying to rebuff or diminish their concerns?

The best retailers and CPG brands are responsive and timely in their service levels.

gordon arnold
One of the most significant improvements in customer relationship and response that e-commerce brings to the table is time to a live response. This is in concert with how quickly consumers can get important relevant product/service information. The information can be reviewed on an item by item basis or as a selected comparison of similar items. The e-commerce marketing and sales membership is constantly reviewing ways to get the latest sought after information that consumers use for buying decisions in front of them quickly and in a way that is easy to understand with live assistance available along the way. Store fronts are at a loss for this 21st century buying criteria. As the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx find faster and cheaper ways to ship and return cycle product, the e-commerce business will continue to grow into the market shares of store fronts. Live consumer support is very useful in getting IT timid responders to commit to a buy by reviewing the information available with the consumer and walking them through the commitment or unwrap process. As a practice it seems that storefronts are engaging more towards unassisted sales practice opening the door for e-commerce market invasion and expanded… Read more »

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