BrainTrust Query: An Inconvenient Truth About Bad Customer Service

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Jul 06, 2010
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Commentary by Doug Stephens,
President, Retail Prophet

Through a special arrangement, presented here for
discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail Prophet Consulting
blog.

Bad customer service may take years to prove fatal but the eventual outcome
is almost always corporate extinction. Surprisingly, very few companies turn
these negative situations around and improve their customer service position.
And as counter-intuitive as it seems, many act like they don’t even care.

It’s a lot like global warming.

Most would agree that the world’s climate is changing. With this
change we are seeing devastating impacts on the planet’s ability to sustain
itself. Unchecked, the problem will almost certainly eradicate life on earth.

So
why have we done so little to reverse the trend? I mean the survival of the
planet is a pretty big deal!

According to Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology
at Duke University and author of the bestselling book, Predictably Irrational,
there are three primary reasons for our apparent apathy when it comes to problems
like global warming:


  1. The problem seems simply too large for any one of us to comprehend solving.
  2. It’s a problem that threatens future rather than immediate devastation.
  3. Lastly, we have trouble visualizing how the little things we do as individuals
    (like using more energy efficient light bulbs or recycling) contribute to
    solving the seemingly insurmountable problem so we don’t become emotionally
    invested in the solution.

This same holds true with systemically bad customer service. Despite leadership
droning on about the need for improvement, front-line staff often sees the
problem as too large, too complex and beyond their individual capacity to correct.

The
Prius Effect

Perhaps no other automobile has become as synonymous
with the environmental movement as the Toyota Prius. It seems safe to assume,
therefore, that people who own a Prius are more environmentally conscious than
those of us who don’t.
However, there’s no credible evidence of any correlation between driving
a Prius and having an elevated environmental consciousness. Prius owners are
much like the rest of us. They don’t exercise any more day-to-day concern
for the planet than we do. In fact, one study concluded that a mere 27 percent
of Prius owners made the choice based on concern for the environment — most
drive one to save money. Nonetheless, we infer from their choice of
vehicle that they actually care more about the environment than they
actually do.

So, what if we took this idea of inference a step further? What
if you could define specific actions that if performed, would infer to customers
that your employees appreciate them, even if they don’t?  What if we
stopped talking about customer service and simply programmed specific events
into the store experience that makes even the least engaged staff member seem to
actually care about the customer?

As a guest, I don’t know if the bellhop
really cares about me. If they hold the door and smile, I’ll infer that
they care. I don’t care
if the sales associate really values my business. If they shake my hand and
thank me, I’ll infer that they appreciate me. That’s good enough.

And
as for emotional engagement from staff, it’s commonly accepted
that what we do affects how we feel. Change the behavior and you’ll change
the emotion. It follows then that if you get staff consistently doing things
along the path to purchase that clearly indicate caring for your customers,
eventually those same staff will care about customers.

There may also be staff
who choose not to come along for the ride but, trust me, with a clearly defined
set of actions on the path to purchase, they’ll
stand out like a Hummer in a sea of hybrids!

Discussion Questions: Is it possible for retailers
to create the impression of caring for customers through specific actions?
What do you think of the suggestions offered in the article?

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30 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: An Inconvenient Truth About Bad Customer Service"


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Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
10 years 10 months ago

It is so amusing that we are still talking about customer service today, some things never change. Improving customer service doesn’t cost money. It’s a matter of training and letting your associates know how, what and when to act. We get so bogged down in things we must have, like security, technology, store merchandising, etc, that we forget and overlook the most important element–the customer! Disney got it!

Recall his famous quote which went something like, “One disappointed customer will tell hundreds, hundreds of satisfied customers will tell one.”

Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

I would take the contrary, if a bellhop doesn’t hold the door open for me I KNOW they don’t care. I think this is why so many stores miss at exceptional service: actions speak louder than words.

Last week many BT contributors found Uniqlo’s six scripted sayings perfectly OK. I on the other hand felt they were automatons.

I think it starts with the fact most people settle at hiring and training because it is easy, the problem too big, too many chiefs and thus they spend all the dough on “going digital” and fixtures.

A mistake when most of us would put up with a few less bells and whistles if we met a human being who actually enjoyed serving others. Until we ratchet up those hiring and sales training, the few Prius Apples of the world make many retailers look like Yugos.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
10 years 10 months ago
My short answer: no, I don’t. I think it is a very risky game to “create the appearance of caring.” Culturally, you either care or you don’t, and it will show up on the front line either way. One of the strongest trends to emerge lately has been a corollary to relevancy: authenticity. If you create an appearance, but don’t have anything behind it to back up that appearance with reality, then you risk not only undoing all the good will you potentially created, but also potentially piling even more ill-will on top of it. This is the challenge for stores going forward. At a brand level, retailers are getting very good at creating and reinforcing brand elements that consumers love. You could interpret that to mean “caring” about your customers. But all the digital, all the TV presence, all the marketing dollars in the world will mean nothing up against a bad store experience. Burger King is a perfect example–their King, their subservient chicken, all the things they got credit for online and in… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

The problem is really none of the above. It boils down to one thing.

Management doesn’t care enough to do anything about it. They don’t see enough ROI.

Great customer service is not that hard to deliver if management really wants to make it happen.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 10 months ago
True customer service involves far more than a series of robotic activities by the associates that deal with the individual consumer. Unless the associate is a true believer (think Starbucks or Whole Foods), any set of statements or activities is patently transparent and can actually diminish the customer experience. True believers are drawn to a company culture whose primary “center of gravity” is on the sales floor and the customer experience while on that sales floor. This goes beyond the associate and includes the assortment, the store environment, the value equation; in short, the overall value proposition. While this sounds obvious, there are very few major retailers that demonstrate these qualities on a consistent basis, focusing instead on how low they can make the price. Those that do tend to demonstrate some common traits. They listen not only to the customers, but to their field organization as well and include them in decision-making. They empower the field organization to make on-the-spot decisions to satisfy individual customers. They offer tailored assortments based on the geography and… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Great article; one that should be ready by every retailer. As the article points out, requiring certain actions by every employee can give the impression of good customer service, and that’s a great place to start. Then, perhaps, over time those small actions will become part of the retailer’s DNA. There’s no excuse for bad customer service.

Roger Saunders
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Mel Kleiman has stated it succinctly. Customer service has to start at the top. Leadership/management teams that make customer service a core strategy of an organization, and then build it into the culture of the firm, end up making customer service part of the DNA of retailer.

It has to start in the interview, hiring stage, be followed up in training, and be an ongoing topic. As managers walk the store, they have to be able to point to how proper merchandise, clean stores, enthusiastic and genuine associates all tie to customer service.

And then, they have to deliver with the appropriate ‘Atta Boy’ to reinforce the behavior that the strategy/culture call out.

Marge Laney
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Until retailers institute comprehensive sales associate selection strategies, and stop hiring to availability rather than ability, we will continue to have problems with customer service. Selection is key to getting the right people with the right attitude in place to dispense caring and good cheer in retail. Once in place these properly selected individuals should be armed with, at minimum, the behaviors that create an environment that is pleasing to the customer and ultimately rings the cash register.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
10 years 10 months ago

Customer service starts at the top, if upper management doesn’t feel it’s important, nothing will happen. It has to be a culture within the company and embraced by senior management. It can either be the hardest thing to accomplish or the easiest. If the company’s standards, culture, training, and management by example all are designed with customer service in mind, it will happen without any additional costs. But, if these things don’t exist, it will be next to impossible to achieve.

Most of us have either worked for companies that just don’t get it or have been customers of ones that are in this boat. You have to wonder how people are allowed to rise to management positions in these companies? Of course the easy answer is that they excelled at the “really important” tasks of making money, hitting sales quotas, etc. The sad truth is that they could have accomplished the customer service objective at the same time for little or no additional costs.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Retailers,
1) please visit a Trader Joe’s and watch the interactions between staff and customers, then
2) see if you can duplicate that in your own stores, and
3) watch profits increase. 🙂

Kevin Graff
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Doug’s article is quite interesting, and in most cases I think his argument is solid, but only in the short term. Creating the appearance of caring is a good start (remember, most customer interactions are very short). But sustainability is the key. There needs to be a much more deep rooted and sincere cultural foundation in place (see Zappos.com) for service to become the norm. As others above have pointed out, it stems from the top.

Service improvement is not a quick fix (e.g. a new POS system … implement it, and it’s done). It’s a way of life for a business. Remember, if you’re a retailer, you’re in the service business first…the fact that you sell something comes second.

Tony Orlando
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

As a small supermarket owner, our customer service has to be outstanding. What else do we have that separates us from the super-centers and wholesale clubs? We hire people that are genuinely friendly, and work on the details of the job. It starts with a smile, and being a good listener, and a happy customer will keep coming back, even if your store is their second choice for their weekly shopping.

I have experienced horrible customer service everywhere, and I try to explain to my employees how Not to Act, when a situation occurs inside the store.

I hope for the independents that all of us are aware of the advantage we can provide for our customers. We build relationships one at a time.

Kai Clarke
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Customer service starts at the lowest levels…the first person that encounters a customer. It must have a vision to support it throughout the organization’s management, but ultimately it is measured, felt and impacted most by the lowest common denominator…the base employee. It is these employees who have the greatest impact on customers, from stocking a shelf to greeting a customer, to solving a customer’s issues. Once an organization recognizes this, they will better support, train, and pay these base employees to be the best they can be.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 10 months ago
Customer service…my favorite topic. I do not think merely creating the image of caring will work. My opinion is that it will speed you on the road to failure. Customers see through false caring very easily. And it will not take years to catch up to you. It will happen quickly because of the speed of today’s technology and our social media environment. Customer service comes with a price. You hire and train those capable of delivering outstanding customer service, continue to show them you care about their well being and performance; and your business will flourish. The opposite also holds true. If you hire a staff to fill positions, give lip service to training for outstanding customer service; failure is heading your way. Proper training involves a combination of practice and understanding the real meaning of paying it forward. Once you get this part, success becomes your ally. Customer service is not something you work on when you get around to it. It is something starting at the top and working it’s way straight… Read more »
Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 10 months ago
Great customer service is somewhat like art–it is in the eye of the beholder (and occasion). Yes, it is great to have someone help you but it is also great to be able to simply do what you need to do and move on. For example, I like the automated check in kiosk at the airports. I don’t have to stand in line behind people who want to change their flights, etc. On the other hand, if I am looking for something where I truly need assistance in making my purchase decision, I prefer to have a knowledge sales person to assist me. To me good customer service is situational. Another example, I would consider it great customer service if I go in to Starbucks and just get a cup of coffee without having to wait behind a line of people who need 20 adjectives to describe what they want. However, I fully realize that those customers would disdain my version of customer service in that situation–they want to be waited on, I just want… Read more »
Doug Pruden
Guest
Doug Pruden
10 years 10 months ago

I think the heart of the issue can be found in one of the comments above. Too many companies believe as Susan says that “Improving customer service doesn’t cost money.”

Thinking that it should all just “come naturally” leads management to put little time or the money into hiring the right people, and training remains as limited as possible.

In fact, good customer service takes lots of time and costs lots of money, and while there can be a great payback, it doesn’t all happen overnight. For one, consider the example of Zappos. They have strict hiring standards, take time to teach the culture, put their staff through 4 weeks of training, and even offer to pay those recent hires $2,000 to quit if they don’t feel they are a good fit. It surely cost money, yet it’s proven to be an investment with a great payback.

David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 10 months ago
The primary reason that bad customer service happens is that top management often does not have an open mind to truly exploring and understanding good customer service. Here are a few tips to top management: 1. Customer service is not only a necessity but also it is your best opportunity to win customers and keep them. 2. Get inside your own organization to discover in a true and real way that the customer currently experiences your customer service for the good, bad, or indifferent. Experience it yourself any way you know how. 3. Have outside experts not too close to you or your organization assists and help you get the right answers and to help improve your systems and services. 4. Understand that your employees need to “feel” like they want to help customers. Make that happen. Remember that people are people. 5. Humanize any technology you are offering for your customers. Remember that customers are as busy as you are and they do not have time to figure out your complex phone systems or… Read more »
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
10 years 10 months ago
I agree with Susan Rider. Disney had it right. Customer service is driven from the top. If employees understand that the CEO and other executives including their immediate boss really care about customer service they most likely will. Explaining the cost of an unhappy customer in terms an employee understands can really help. If poor customer service leads to you losing 5 customers per week and they tell friends that lead to another 5 per week, how many weeks will it be before we need to first cut year-end bonuses, then staff and then ultimately close the store? What is a customer worth to a retailer and share that with employees. CASE AND POINT: This past weekend my wife and I went to the movies (AMC) which now cost $20 for two tickets not including a drink or snack. Unfortunately, half way through the movie the film’s volume started to shift from really high to low. This continued for the entire second half. As I approached the manager to complain, I had already prepared myself… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Good customer service goes much deeper than well-scripted interpersonal relations. Good manners and appearance of personal concern are important but these cannot effectively wallpaper over a rotten or ineffective company culture for very long. Companies must be built and configured for good service, not merely managed for it. First, structure and practices; then training and attitude.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

“Here we go again,” I thought to myself as I prepared to open the discussion: more efforts to “appear” something that one is not. Enough already! If you’re really interested in satisfying your customer, there are plenty of (obvious) avenues to pursue to do so; if you’re only interested in cutting costs or pursuing the latest fad strategy–Sigma 15 or QYZQIP (or some other acronym)–please continue to ignore us so we can judge you properly and save everyone time and (eventual) heartache…let’s leave the elaborate efforts at subterfuge to James Bond or the comics page.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
10 years 10 months ago

At one time or another, all of us have come upon a sales associate who did a fantastic job of creating the impression that they cared. And then something went awry–usually a failed product–and that impression was quickly erased as the once benevolent associate turned into a malevolent associate. In short, merchants can try to create a list of associate actions that are supposed to create the impression that the associate cares, but if that associate doesn’t care, then that uncaring attitude will eventually make itself known.

Merchants must address the root causes of bad customer service before they can create and deliver consistently good customer service. While those root causes will differ from one chain to another, the one that exists across brands is implementing the policies and practices that ensure the brand hires and retains associates who actually enjoy showing up for work every day.

Carlos Arambula
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

It is absolutely possible to give customers the impression of superior customer service. Moreover, consumers will be willing to spend more for those touches. The bar is set so low these days that small modifications in employee behavior will pay dividends for any retailer or service provider.

I like the suggestion offered in the article. While it can be difficult to get employees to buy into the superior customer services (especially if they are earning close to minimum wage), a trained path to purchase makes the actions organic to the employees and appear effortless to consumers.

George Whalin
Guest
George Whalin
10 years 10 months ago

I can’t remember how many times we’ve discussed customer service here but it’s been going on for years. Yes, there are retailers who actually “get it” like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and others who provide their customers with great service. There are others who have enjoyed success while providing mediocre service and don’t really care about providing great service.

While this forum provides a great platform for discussion, it is unlikely we are going to change the mind of any retailer about how they should be serving their customers. Retailers who see great service as a priority are already doing what needs to be done to better serve their customers.

Jeff Hall
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

We’ve found the key to organizations that thrive on providing great customer service, and those that struggle, is understanding from which “lens” they view service and the customer experience.

The vast majority of companies, whether they are retailers, restaurant operators, financial institutions, etc, tend to view customer service from their internal, organizational lens. This leads to a very process-based approach, focused on internal operational standards.

Customers, however, are approaching the brand experience from their own lens, which is much more outcome-oriented, rather than process-driven. Customers come to you with certain expectations, generally shaped by the brand promise and marketing messages. If their customer service experience is out of sync with their expectations, a brand is on the path to irrelevancy.

Brands that excel at customer service and experience are those which take the time to understand the expectations from the customer lens, then shape their service delivery around it.

jack flanagan
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

It’s largely about having a very clear business model and executing it consistently, all day, every day in everything you do.

COSTCO and Whole Foods (or Trader Joe’s or Nordstrom’s or…) couldn’t be farther apart in how they choose to provide a noteworthy customer experience. Here in Northern Virginia a customer can be shopping Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s in the morning and Costco that same afternoon and walking away from both experiences well-satisfied.

In each case the retailer had shaped very clear (and different) expectations and delivered on them. A key point, however, that it doesn’t just happen on the sales floor. Buying, hiring, distribution and all the other support functions are in alignment to support the folks who interact with the customer.

More than a few other (large, chain) retailers have it backwards. The sales floor staff are there to do the other ‘stuff’ first, then interact with the customer.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews