What IS Customer Service?

Jan 19, 2005

By Al McClain

We’ve often bemoaned retailer customer service in our discussions here on RetailWire. A new research study commissioned by American Express and the NRF Foundation attempts to
get at exactly what retailers and consumers mean by customer service, and what state they think it’s in.

In a study highlighted at the NRF convention yesterday by Ken Finkelstein, president of Brookfield Research, there were a number of key findings, among them that retailers believe
they are more committed to customer service than consumers do — no surprise. What stood out in this study, however, is that it identified specific areas in which retailers misunderstand
consumer feelings.

For example, merchants over estimate the value consumers place on areas such as employee education, the ability to place special orders, and retailers learning about them
as individuals. The ideas being that customers, perhaps because of greater Internet access, are feeling more educated about products; they don’t need to place special orders as
much because they can do it themselves on the Web; and shoppers value their privacy more than they do personalization.

Meanwhile, the aspects that merchants under estimate in terms of importance to consumers are almost too numerous to mention, but here are some:

    • accurate, easy to read, and competitive prices
    • quick, easy checkout
    • privacy – that retailers respect consumer privacy and don’t share information
    • good returns policy
    • no pressure to buy
    • adequate number of staff
    • good customer service desk
    • easy to find merchandise
    • available shopping carts

Bear in mind, that these are areas that consumers value AND where there is a significant gap between the value shoppers place on them, and the value retailers think shoppers
place on them. In the “it would be funny if it weren’t so painful” category goes the wide gap between the importance consumers place on being able to get a shopping cart easily,
and retailers perceptions of that as a need. It’s hard to be too optimistic about the state of customer service when having shopping carts available is a need we even have to

Recommendations from the findings include that retailers need to do a better job of educating consumers on the various areas where they are trying to improve customer service,
and go about narrowing the gaps by possibly revamping pricing, payment, and return policies. Finkelstein stressed the need for top retail execs to spend time in stores, to actually
wait in line, return items, and so forth, to see better what their shoppers are going through. And, he stressed the importance of talking with consumers, to learn first-hand what
they think. On privacy, he advised doing a thorough review to make sure you are respecting consumers.

During the Q & A, questions came up about retailers who are opting to cap the number or percentage of items shoppers can return, and perhaps even going so far as to prevent
high-returning shoppers from shopping in their stores. The speaker suggested other retailers without such strict policies will make their easy returns policy a differentiating
point if and when that happens.

As staffs are reduced, he sees retailers moving towards centralized information counters in lieu of salespeople on the floor, which may work well with today’s educated and self-reliant
shoppers. He stressed that consumers are, in general, an amiable group, willing to cooperate and give you information, if they understand what you need it for, and what you’ll
do with it. Hence, the need to constantly communicate what you’re doing, and why.

Moderator’s Comment: What specific areas of customer service do you feel retailers do well and do poorly, and why?

Costco does a great job on returns. Having had to bring back two malfunctioning appliances recently, I noted they do ask you what’s wrong with the item,
but whatever you tell them seems to be acceptable. The returns desk is right inside the entrance, which is convenient, but you do have to go to the service desk, which at least
allows the store to get to know shoppers who are habitual returnees.

On the down side is Staples with their “In Stock – Guaranteed” policy on printer ink cartridges. Ever since seeing the promotion, I hoped they’d be out
of stock on my cartridges, just to test the system. The one time they were, I had to ask for the promised coupon, and they gave me a modest hard time about it, reducing the good
feeling the program engendered.
Al McClain – Moderator

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