The relatively recent advent of online shopping, technological mobility, and pricing transparency puts new meaning to the adage that the “customer is king” (or queen) for retailers. If the customer thinks a retailer’s prices are too high, a competitor will be sought out. A customer may only visit a physical store’s “showroom” to test drive a product he/she plans to buy online. With a mobile device in hand, a customer can verify the truth behind a sales associate’s pitch in just a few clicks. And, retailers’ face time with potential customers is dwindling with shoppers “cybernating” – increasingly headed online for purchases. Today’s customers are well-informed, adept at product research, and know how to maximize their budgets – often at the expense of loyalty to any particular retailer.
Retailers have attempted to cope with this customer power shift by offering rock bottom prices in order to ring up much-needed sales. The reality is, though, that not every retailer is a Walmart or an Amazon.com. Attempting to go toe-to-toe with low price leaders has steered many now struggling retailers down a very steep rabbit hole where profit margins have narrowed and future growth – or the future itself – remains uncertain. And this race to the bottom line price may have led many retailers to sacrifice the very features that differentiated themselves in the marketplace to begin with, such as product quality, merchandise selection, and customer service.
With retailers like Best Buy announcing plans to scale back their physical footprints (and the rent) with smaller, more intimate stores, providing exceptional customer service will become increasingly imperative – because while matching sticker tags might win the battle, it certainly won’t win the war against low price providers.
So what’s the stratagem here? A delighted customer. Delighted customers revel in positive retailer interactions, form a bond of trust between themselves and the retailer, and can communicate their satisfaction to others. And they return for more. With this in mind, I developed a list of five service pitfalls to avoid in the road to acquiring delighted customers, highlighted by testimonials from shoppers themselves. (Note: retailer anonymity has been protected)
1. Uninvested Employees
“Coworkers are very rude and standoff-ish to the customers. They act as if the customer inconveniences them even though it is their job to help the customers.”
While the level of service expected by shoppers can vary based on the type of store shopped (see chart above), it seems a smile, a polite greeting, and a little respect could go a long way in any retailer.
The dreaded “employee congregation” turned off this particular shopper: “Service reps are always standing in groups in the store but will not help any customers. Have to go and find one to get assistance on any purchase or for information.”
Ever been met with an empty response when asked if you found everything you needed? “I told the cashier I couldn’t find what I needed in the store and she said ‘sorry about that’ and didn’t offer to help or anything at all.”
When a higher level of service is expected – perhaps when buying larger ticket items like electronics, appliances, or autos – employees should be educated beyond what a customer can read on the showroom floor (or their mobile device): “Pushy salesmen don’t know about products other than what’s written on cards on display.”
Rewards programs are meant to keep the customer returning, right? Employees well-versed in customer incentives as well as warranties and return policies would better help to ensure a future visit: “I don’t know why, but every checker I have ever dealt with is cranky/grumpy, and I have asked about how the reward program works 3 different times and no one will take the time to explain it to me. Even the manager was rude to me and told me that I took too long and was holding up the register, and I was just trying to figure out the reward system and handle my 3 and 1 year old at the same time. I have just had terrible experiences there.”
2. Draining Atmosphere
“I just don’t feel good in that store.”
A positive in-store experience is one of the key ingredients in delighting shoppers – and battling the online competition. In today’s uncertain economy, customers want to feel good about their purchases and spending their hard-earned dollars on items ranging from the most basic groceries to high-end electronics. Shoppers want to know that their business is appreciated, they are valued as customers, and feel welcomed to return.
“As much as I love the store, I hate shopping there. It’s always crowded, they hardly have anything I want in-store, and the associates are sometimes seriously unprofessional and unhelpful.”
“[The] last time I was there…, I waited for help for over 20 minutes and then got a salesperson who know nothing. The store was a disaster. The checkout lines were ridiculous. That was over 4 years ago, and I have not been back.”
Consider the possible ramifications from such a negative experience; not only has the shopper not been back to this store in four years, but they could have “warned” their friends, family, even social media connections not to patronize this retailer as well.
“They have so many rules that keep changing and are so rigid, but then you get a different person and it’s a different policy. No continuity and when there is, it inconveniences the customer.” Inconsistent messaging, internal communication failures, and a lack of continuity between a retailers’ multiple incarnations (in-store, online, mobile, over-the-phone, print, etc.) leads to frustration – and the breakdown of trust – between a store and its shoppers. These particular experiences didn’t seal a long-term relationship with these customers:
“They do not seem to know what they are doing, especially when you order online and arrange for pick up in a store. I received different answers from everyone I called, and no one appeared to be interested in solving my problem.”
“They will tell you one thing on the phone and when you arrive at the store, the customer service reps have an attitude and give you different information than you captured on the phone call previously.”
4. Hassle-full Return Policies
“Even with a receipt and tags on item you have like 18 minutes from the time of purchase to change your mind.”
While retailers understandably go to certain lengths to protect themselves from suspect returns (like that obviously worn date night dress), complicated, stringent, and interrogative return policies chip away at the post-purchase experience, which could impair future shopper/retailer interactions.
“Even though they claim to have a very good return policy, they tend to be very rude when something needs to be returned.”
“I always feel like I am bothering the associates and if you need to return an item…you would think the Customer Service rep has to pay you out of their own pocket.”
5. Perceived Ego: Too Big to Care
“I had an issue with the local store and the store manager would not talk to me, I contacted the national office via e-mail on their website and never heard back from them. I don’t do business with them anymore!”
Having an issue go unresolved or a question unanswered makes a shopper feel unimportant and undervalued, which is quite the conundrum when the customer is king, right? While retailers both large and small have likely let a few customers slip through the cracks unintentionally, it’s the bigger retailers that tend to have to worry about perception – when the bottom line seems to eclipse customer service: “…their profit potential always takes precedence over individual customer concerns.”
One retailer’s ego became particularly apparent when this shopper was ignored behind the scenes, but became Customer #1 when he/she resorted to a more public forum: “[I] had a problem with delivery…and couldn’t get help over the phone after four calls. Once I posted my poor experience on Twitter and Facebook, they called right away all concerned. No one was concerned when I called them.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.