Consumers Say Service Stinks at Retail

Discussion
Dec 10, 2009
George Anderson

By George Anderson

On a scale of one to 100, consumers give retailers a score
of 48.2 when it comes to customer service.

According
to The SALT & Pepper Group, which did the survey,
poor service is more about what retail store employees don’t do than what they
actually do.

The research, which assessed 39 kinds of service in 73 retail
stores over a four-month period, found that one in four employees failed to
notice when a customer service opportunity was right in front of them. For
example, employees at only 53 percent of stores greeted shoppers entering the
location.

Service also fell when associates found they needed to take
care of more than one shopper at a time. This was especially the case when
shoppers were looking for staff input.

"Associates started to struggle in situations
where customers needed advice," Rick Miller, consulting analyst at The SALT & Pepper
Group, told Brandweek. "Most of them
really weren’t comfortable asking questions to get the information they needed.
I don’t know if it was that they didn’t want to or just weren’t really sure
how to do it."

Among areas where retailers were more effective included
store floor cleanliness, where shoppers gave them a nine out of 10 score, and
product knowledge (7.3 out of 10).

Discussion
Questions: What areas do you find store associates are weakest when it comes
to customer service? Where are they typically strongest?

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23 Comments on "Consumers Say Service Stinks at Retail"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

It’s easy to train someone how to sweep a floor or stock a shelf; the data reinforces what we all know–the sticky wicket is getting them to sell the merch.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
11 years 5 months ago
I hate to phrase it this way, but I don’t even think it’s about selling so much as basic interpersonal skills. I have seen too many times where store associates don’t speak up, don’t assert themselves, don’t manage the process, or the line. When consumers are in a store, they’re pretty much there to buy something, and if they’re not, they’re at least willing to be influenced, or they wouldn’t be there at all. And most people know that they’re the “guest” of the retailer when they’re there. That’s a two-way expectation–how the retailer is going to treat the customer, and how the customer is going to behave. When associates don’t fulfill their side of the expectation–this is their “house” after all, and they should know what’s going on and what consumers should be doing to get what they want–then it leads to the service disappointments highlighted here. Teach your employees to speak up, teach them that they are the store’s ambassadors and need to interact with customers in that kind of a role–not the… Read more »
Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 5 months ago

Selling skills are really weak with floor associates. Stocking shelves and maintaining store image are easy tasks that anyone (and in retail it is everyone) can do. Selling is why you have people on the floor. When deploying new people on the floor, I always have to ask myself some questions:

Does the associate understand our products and where associative products fit in?

Does the associate understand how to ask customers open-ended questions to discover needs and wants?

Is the associate capable of engaging the customer on the floor?

You can get anyone to sweep the floor but it takes merchant mentality to sell at the retail level.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

20 years into this business, and still a day doesn’t go by that I’m not disappointed by someone on the sales floor. Typically, it’s a lack of focus on the customer. Now, not everyone is bad (I had awesome service and salesmanship just yesterday in a clothing store). But all too often, retailers mess up the service thing by missing out on some basics; setting clear expectations, measuring performance, holding people accountable, providing proper training and coaching, and making winning worthwhile.

The good news is that this is all very fixable. When retailers begin to devote as much time to staff as they do to their beloved IT departments, they’ll finally deliver on the service promise, and get better revenue too.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
11 years 5 months ago

I don’t know that the lack of store service is a problem that needs to be addressed. Depending on the products being sold, it may only be necessary for store employees to ensure a clean, safe, and pleasant physical environment. Most customers have done extensive online research before they go to the store. The Internet has become the primary source for research and websites are becoming the consumer’s source of product data. The retailer needs to combine an informative website with its physical presence in order to create an overall shopping experience that is clearly unique.

In the extreme, the store may become merely a distribution point and the personnel need to be adept at handling transactions such as pick-ups and returns. This involves good understanding of company policies and the ability to handle customer relations, but not extensive product knowledge.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

Elaborate selling strategies that are conceived at the home office often fail because their success or failure is not monitored and measured. Sure, customer experience surveys and secret shops are done, but they are way too general and the data set incredibly small.

Retailers must invest in technology platforms that reduce the chaos of the in-store experience for both the customers and the associates. Giving the customers access to service when they need it gives them the control they want. These same platforms should give associates the visibility to eliminate the chaos and the need to read the minds of the customers. The data generated from these systems should give management real-time and historic insight of the success or failure of service strategies down to the individual associate.

What gets measured gets done. Utilizing in-store technology platforms to connect the customer in need with the associate that has the information is what Retail 3.0 is all about.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 5 months ago

When sales soften, the first logical step to protect earnings is to lower variable expenses. The sad truth is that the biggest variable expense for 4-wall retailers is store payroll. It is the first thing to be cut, with the absolutely predictable results described in the article. Not only does the gross number of employees go down, but the training is diminished, the hiring standards are reduced, and the focus of those left moves more to operational activities as opposed to customer service. This of course leads to unhappy customers, lower sales, and a self-perpetuating spiral.

In my view, the real issue here is that there is simply too much selling space and inventory chasing too few customers. Until that relationship comes into better balance, I can’t see any reason to expect 4-wall customer service to improve.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

Bad customer service is easy. Good customer service is not. It takes skill and dedication to learn how to sell through service. Many retailers are not willing to invest the time and effort in their employees and many employees see retail as being a temporary stop on the road to a career somewhere else. Past RetailWire columns have discussed this in detail.

Consumers are mad and frustrated by poor customer service. Retailers need to focus on ways to reward their strong employees and replace the bad ones. They should also work with consumers to find out what they want and how they would respond to better customer service and then develop programs to give consumers what they want.

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
11 years 5 months ago
I see two issues here: 1. We’re confusing two different skill sets. This is a customer-service study, yet the big complaint is associates’ inability to sell. Seems to me that’s a separate training, and we should label it as such. Is it important? Of course–it’s critical. But let’s call a horse a horse and not a zebra. Selling is in fact a service to the customer, and we should hire for it. AND we should train in it as a discipline. But let’s not complain about lousy service when we’re really upset about lousy selling. 2. As a culture we’re profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of selling. That may be why we lumped selling skills in a list of customer-service core competencies. But it’s misguided, because it plays on the stereotypical pushy used-car salesman of the mid-20th century and misunderstands the role of the truly gifted salesperson, who helps the customer find the best solution to real wants and needs by listening and suggesting–guiding that person through the store and making the experience faster and… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
11 years 5 months ago

Store associates are strongest in getting in-store inventory out on the sales floor. They seem weakest when they don’t have enough time or sufficient training to engage customers properly. Thus the problem perpetuates itself.

Why is that? Customers want two things: Great customer service, which costs money, and the best possible price, which also costs money. Retailers, particularly food retailers, affected as they are by low margins and high competition, need sales and they tend to believe that price-value must get “first call” on their available resources. This results in the perception of poor customer service, which, of course, is believably true today. Now the challenge is how retailers can better balance their operating mix.

Tim Cote
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

Customers may want more service, but over and over they demonstrate that they are unwilling to pay for this service. Through action the customer clearly demonstrates that price is a paramount need, and service is a luxury they can live without. Sure we can all point at niche retailers that provide excellent service and are getting results from this service, but how many families really use Trader Joe’s as their primary grocery store?

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

OK, let me get this straight. We hire people at very low wages, give them minimal training, make sure the store is understaffed, and don’t acquaint them with the merchandise. So…why does this result in lousy service?

Kenneth Allan
Guest
Kenneth Allan
11 years 5 months ago

What a great topic! Frankly, retail management does much to derail good customer service. As an example, at a Macy’s store, a sales associate was waiting on me, and a manager came up to her and starting asking her lengthy questions about an upcoming schedule. I spoke up and demanded the manager leave the associate alone as she was assisting me, and that he could ask her all the questions he needed to when she finished. The look I got back was disturbing to say he least and I then added that perhaps I should call Terry Lundgren’s office and we can discuss protocol with his office.

Doug Fleener
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

Boy I know a lot of retailers whose service doesn’t stink. As a matter of fact their service is great.

A couple common traits among them:

– They didn’t lay a single employee off last year.

– They invested even more money and time in their frontline employees. One of our national clients not only continued to do an assistant manager’s meeting this year, but they even added a national meeting for their top associates including part-timers.

– Every level of the organization starting with the CEO is extremely focused on the customer.

– They set high standards and expectations for the frontline employees, and those that fail to meet them are removed.

– Almost every one of these retailers outperformed the market in 2009. More importantly, they were able to maintain their margin. (I will admit that most of these retailers were not in low-margin or those segments like CE that has been hit especially hard.)

So is service really the problem in so many retailers, or is it the leadership and their strategy?

Kevin Sterneckert
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
I agree with the instant survey…retailers are delivering a D in customer service. With the competition of the NET, customer service is one of the key advantages retailers can leverage. However, most retailers constrain their employees with rules and policies that prevent the employee from doing the “right thing.” Take a page from Zappos or others who have hung their hat on customer service. I recently spent 2 hours at a Best Buy waiting for the manager and camera associate as they worked through their price match policy on a significant purchase. The employees did what they were told to do according to the policy…the flaw rests with the policy. Retailers must think about how the execution of policies will be received by the consumers. I know from deep experience why most policies are created, however, many times the consumer–the honest loyal consumer–pays the price of the abuse of others. I recommend that retailers quickly assess their customer-facing policies and adjust where appropriate. There’s one staring in the face of many right now…returns. After the… Read more »
Don Capman
Guest
Don Capman
11 years 5 months ago

Unfortunately, all too often, many retailers get what they pay for. Unwilling to pay decent wages and provide little in the way of incentives, many retailers stick themselves and their customers with talent from the bottom of the food chain. Even when above-average personnel are hired, little if no training is provided. Sales associates don’t know what is expected of them and their performance is not regularly measured and rewarded. They are just warm bodies filling up floor space and driving potential customers away. Sales training and product training are critical to retail success.

Melania Craddock
Guest
Melania Craddock
11 years 5 months ago

Speaking in this frame as a consumer, often I encounter retail staff who are more than willing to help locate items, give suggestions for alternatives, etc, (it is in their nature to be helpful) but are pulled by department management to “get their tasks” completed. In one major retailer I had the experience of a department manager waiting in the wings to chastise a helpful associate for not getting a basket restocked in a timely fashion, because they had stopped to answer my question.

Unfortunately we reap what we sow.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

All good insights. But none of this will change the game like frankly recognizing that retailers do NOT SELL, just provide a self-service environment that hopefully assists the shopper in selling to themselves. Real selling at retail, and a return to personal selling, is far less about staff in the store than fundamental understanding of how shoppers shop. We can, and do, suggest strategies for selling in this environment.

The real advance in a retailer’s selling in their stores is the use of PDAs/iPhones to sell, both with social media and proprietary retailers sales tools–in the store, on the sales floor. This is the game changer that is creeping into the space at an accelerating pace.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
11 years 5 months ago
The longer one has been “in” retail or even just buying things the more obvious the gradual, and now drastic, loss of interpersonal skills on the sales floor is. Here’s an idea that might help fix this problem AND help young people who will struggle to find jobs in general: Back in the day, high schools proudly and successfully taught classes in “shop,” “home ec,” “ag,” and other skills. Retail occupations in many areas are now a large chunk of available jobs, especially at entry level. Wouldn’t it be cool if schools taught a “Sales and Customer Service” skills class, which included not just the basics but also customer psychology, stress mitigation, retail ethics, career development, etc. People here on RW have long decried the lack of interest in retail as a lifelong career. Perhaps this could help that, too. If these classes included role playing exercises and a certification, think how much easier it would be for retail establishments to select better qualified employees from the get-go–as well as being able to then focus… Read more »
Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

The weakest area for me is that retail sales staff don’t actually CARE about the customers. Fix that, and you’ve got it. In order to get people that care about other people on your team, you have to look a little further than looks and history; try education majors, medical students, H.R. staff, day care workers and yes, Moms or Dads! Just as examples, those are (usually) people that care about people, not just fashion models who can grunt. They service other people because it gives them satisfaction, and that is the magical clue to better customer service.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 5 months ago
This is the end result when customer-facing employees are seen as an expense to be minimized and controlled rather than a critical revenue-generating asset. The wrong people are hired, insufficiently trained, inappropriately compensated, and incompetently managed. Compare that to what a customer experiences in the very best independent retailers. There, management is much closer to the front lines and recognizes the indispensability of skilled, motivated and engaged employees. Still, much of this is driven by the business model. In mass-market retailing, business is pushed through via top-down branding and marketing. The lowest price is the thing, and if the store-level customer experience suffers in the drive to achieve the lowest price, customers seem to put up with it. It just may not end up not being so pleasant being a customer sometimes, maybe even most times — sort of like flying coach. Independent retailers understand intuitively that their business revolves around unique assortments and customer relationships, not the lowest price. Their business model could never survive the typical experience a customer receives in mass-market retailing… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
11 years 5 months ago
What do you expect? Didn’t we move from service to self service 15 years ago? Isn’t the point of every chain grocer, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Office Depot…to allow consumers to serve themselves? If you want service, go to a white table cloth restaurant. You will find employees waiting tables for much less than minimum wage, who bet their income on their service to consumers. They can provide detailed information about each of their products. They can handle multiple groups of patrons at once and can spot a dissatisfied customer across a room. Additionally they can address the problem and provide multiple solutions without having to find a supervisor. Folks, the difference here is the mindset of the person in the job and the support and training they receive from their peers and ownership. Isn’t it amazing that a waiter in a good restaurant can make a living from their job, but an employee at most retailers would have to work two jobs to make ends meet. The fact is that most retailers aren’t willing… Read more »
Michael Boze
Guest
Michael Boze
11 years 4 months ago

Customer service is not a average it is specific to a retailer.

Nordstrom as an example has very good customer service. I would expect many other stores do as well. I would not say it is a virtue of better retailers but a requirement and a performance that is measured and graded. You will find good service at Costco, Target as well, however, the customer expectation of service is different and differs with of the type of retail you are speaking of.

Sometimes, good customer service is structural with good in-stock and restocking of product, well laid out stores and good signing, lighting and a efficient through put at the register.

I think wages and management and expectation are all components of good customer service. Saying that I would bet you would find a strong correlation between service and compensation. Minimum wage jobs and a stable work force are contributing to poor customer service.

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