Customer Service is a Competitive Advantage

If you have been kind enough to have read my postings over the last year you will be well aware that customer service is a topic that is often on my mind.  In these days of channel blurring and homogenized retail offers, it is the way people are treated in our stores that will provide us with the advantage over our competitors.

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time in some of our stores in California recently.  One of the things I most enjoy doing, second only to meeting our team members at the store, is to stand back in the store and watch how the customer interactions happen.

You can tell a lot about a store’s staff and operation by the exchange that takes place over the sales counter and it’s not something that can be put on for show just because I happen to be standing in the store.  How the staff engages with the customer and the customer’s response can give you a glimpse into not only what happened with today’s transaction but also a peek at how the relationship between the customer and the store has been over the last few months.

The positives:  the Customer Service Representative (“CSR”) already has a customer’s cigarette or lottery purchase ready when they get to the counter and the customer isn’t surprised; the customer and the CSR spend a few minutes talking about tangential items like how the customer’s job is going or how the family is doing; a favor is asked by the customer of the CSR showing familiarity and confidence in the relationship; when the CSR says “thank you and please come back soon” the customer says “I’ll see you soon”.

The positives show that there is a relationship between the customer and the store and, one hopes that relationship spills over to more than just one CSR.  Our goal is for the customer to feel that the store is his and that he can find the things that meet his immediate needs in a clean, friendly, safe, and reasonably priced way.  The key is that the relationship is initiated by the CSR.  In most cases, if you don’t speak to someone they won’t speak to you.  We have to be aggressively friendly but not in an obnoxious sort of way.

The negatives: the customer says that the fuel pump didn’t print his receipt “again”; the customer asks why the store is still out of a product; there is no greeting by the CSR when the customer walks in the store (most CSR’s can keep up the facade for the first few customers while I watch but not after ten or fifteen minutes); the customer starts to complain about something and then says “oh, forget about it”.

The negatives indicate that we have problems at the site.  They can range from poor maintenance issues (the receipt printer not working at the pump), store operations failure (out of stocks), or most importantly, CSRs who either don’t like their job, don’t like dealing with people, or don’t understand their responsibilities.

The first two issues (maintenance and operations) are problems that rest with the store mangers and their supervisors and can be solved with closer oversight and follow up.  The first two of the CSR problems (both attitude related) rest with the store manager and supervisor revealing that it is either a hiring or a counseling problem.  The third one (not understanding the responsibilities) is a systematic training problem and needs to be addressed by making sure that the CSR has had all of the relevant training and understands it.

Fortunately, during my visit all I saw was positives.  I was very proud of my colleagues and their performance.  Everyone seemed happy, engaged, and focused on the customer.

The negatives are solvable.  But to solve them we need to make sure that we pay attention to what happens in our stores on a daily basis.  It is not all about the numbers.  It is also about the people.