The Key Is Customer Service. - What sets you apart from others?
Greetings to all. Before I begin, Gwen Payne has submitted an article for review for a guest post slot. Her topic is "Provide Long-Distance Care for your Loved Ones With These 5 Innovations." I believe this to be an interesting and useful topic for many. I will post her article as a guest blog post on April 17th. Thank you, Gwen, for your submission. If anyone is interested in having their article posted on my blog, please submit it to me for review in word format to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tonight's topic came about interestingly. About 2 1/2 years ago, I posted a blog regarding customer service. It focused on the problems we all have with customer service call centers. As it turns out, two of my subscribers sent me emails asking to elaborate more on customer service related to brick-and-mortar retail stores.
As it turns out, I have been working on my next course for a learning platform I create courses for, Udemy.com, which happens to be about this topic. I've been working on this course for a month now, and three modules are completed, and I have the last two left to be completed. The course will run approximately two hours and be published in 3-4 weeks. This course has five modules with a quiz at the end of each module. After successful completion, you can download your framable certificate of completion. Worthy of hanging on your wall. This preview is a small preview of what will be taught in my course.
Every business has customers. Without them, they would not remain in business. Customers range from brick-and-mortar retail stores to online outlets and more. However, the basics of good customer service are the same. Only the variations in training are different. Since I already wrote a post regarding online outlets, this post will focus on brick-and-mortar retail stores.
Think about this question for a moment.
Is it better to be good or good to be better?
Allow me to take a moment to explain my experience in this area. I started my own retail business during what was considered the worst economic times in our history. Companies were laying off workers weekly, and small businesses were closing. Finding a job was close to impossible. I was young and did not have a great deal of experience. Therefore, many others with far more experience than I got the few available jobs that were available.
I learned quickly that not having an income and needing to pay back my school loans and other bills doesn't cut it. I had the knowledge and skills but lacked experience. I made a choice. A huge gamble. It took every penny I had, but I started my own business. It was a retail store for walk-in customers, but I also catered to commercial businesses. I opened a 2-way radio electronics business. I knew that the small companies that used 2-way radios to communicate could not afford the larger shops that carried the major brands. My business model was to cater to these shops and work my way up.
I knew that pricing and customer service would be the key to success. This was my shot. A big risk and gamble. If it tanked, I would be broke. I owned that business for 17 years. A retail business and commercial business relies heavily on strong customer service skills. Needless to say, it was very successful. But not before, I learned some hard lessons.
At some point, I became interested in becoming a firefighter and paramedic. After a fire department hired me, I sold my business. It was an honor and a privileged to become a career firefighter and paramedic. I did all my schooling for this while I owned my business. I was very fortunate. Because of how my business model was structured, I hired and trained good people, allowing me time to continue my education in my other areas of interest. Owning a boat and being a U.S.C.G. licensed Master Captain gave me the opportunity to captain many boats and learn more about good customer service. Boaters are a niche community and are usually very hard to please. This was my testing ground. If that is not enough to convince you, I also have been an educator for over 40 years.
As a firefighter and paramedic, I also took care of patients. In its own way, that is also a form of customer service. The same applies to public service in the fire service. Those of us who worked in the field called them patients and citizens in the communities we serve. However, in their eyes, we are providing a service, and anyone who provides it MUST have strong customer service skills.
I worked in that field for over 30 years. Add that to the years I owned my own business and ran a boat captain business; it is fair to say that my entire working life revolved around customer service skills and learning proper structure. After retiring from the fire service, I worked my way up the ladder to corporate management. During this time, I continued to operate my boat captain business part-time. My whole working career revolved around keeping customers happy and solving problems. Considering all of this, I believe this qualifies me as someone who knows and understands the business structure model and customer service.
Along the way, everyone learns certain lessons. The most important lesson about customer service is that some people will not be happy no matter what you do. Some customers like to complain and are never happy. Your job is NEVER TO STOP TRYING TO MAKE THEM HAPPY.
WHAT IS CUSTOMER SERVICE?
Customer service is the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.
Well, that's a good start, but let's elaborate more on that.
Customer service is the support you offer your customers — both before and after they buy and use your products or services — that helps them have an easy and enjoyable experience with you.
That's a good start. But there is much more to it to get to that point. So let us get started,
WHAT CUSTOMERS EXPECT:
THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT.
We have all heard that statement, and customers will remind us of it should we forget. The truth is that is the farthest thing from the truth. The customer is NOT always right. However, it is NOT your job to prove they are wrong. It's your job to make them happy and solve their problem. At times along this path, you may have to make the customer feel they are right. Customer service is not about your principles and beliefs. It's about the needs of the consumer. That is the one principle that makes Amazon so successful.
You must engage with customers if you own, run, or work at a business. Another thing I realized was to adjust to this new venture, I need to remember that when I walk into a store, I am the customer. What do I expect? When you shop, you have high expectations and want to leave happy with the product or the service you paid for. Therefore, why would you think for a moment the customers you take care of expect anything less? You are correct. They don't. A customer does not care if you had two employees not show up for work today. They don't care if you had a fight with your significant other before work and are in a bad mood. When you walk into work, you leave that at the door.
Customers can understand when someone is in training if that is explained. They have more patience than we give them credit for if handled properly. Honesty is always the best policy. Explain and apologize for the delays. DO NOT TRY TO MAKE EXCUSES. Customers do not care about excuses. Customers expect to be taken care of by staff who are knowledgeable about the products they sell. Referring a customer to someone with more knowledge about a particular product is fine if you do not try to put up smoke screens. Simply state, 'let me get you someone more familiar with your needs than I am.' Then, get someone to help answer their questions and stay with them until another staff member arrives. NEVER abandon a customer.
I used to tell my salespeople, don't just show a customer where something is and walk away. ASK QUESTIONS. Showing them where it is and walking away does not end the customer service process. But it can end the sales process. With today's internet technology, customers are more knowledgeable about what they are looking for than they were decades ago. Once they feel you are putting up smoke screens and don't know what you are talking about, you lose them.
They will go to your competitor, and the bad word-of-mouth or online reviews will eventually catch up to you.
Customers expect knowledge, good performance, good service, quality services, good products, experienced staff, reliability, and satisfaction during and after the sale. And most of all, reasonable and fair prices.
If you are a business owner or manager, you must ensure your staff is properly trained. That is not always as easy as it sounds, and staffing problems will always haunt you. However, it starts with a strong business model and structure. Most customers do not care about your day-to-day operating problems. Before anyone can tackle customer service problems, they must have a strong foundation. A customer service problem exists due to a lack of structure, inadequate training, or product issues. Without structure, you lack guidance. Without guidance, your staff is out on a limb because they do not know who to turn to. Anything in the business without structure will always experience customer service issues.
When I owned my own business, and as we grew, I had eleven people working for me. My goal was to keep everyone who worked for me happy. I learned quickly and the hard way; the two DO NOT mix. It is important for any manager to have happy employees, meaning employees that enjoy their work and want to come to work. This will make them better staff members. But there are times you have to be the boss. There are certain basics every manager MUST follow.
Roles, responsibilities, and expectations MUST be clearly defined,
There MUST be an internal structure,
It's fine to be friends, but at work, it's business,
Proper training is paramount.
The hardest thing for me to do was delegate things to others. I had to learn to delegate unless I wanted to be there every hour we were open. I had a store manager, a service manager, and a sales manager in my store. They all reported directly to me. However, the store manager, or whomever I designated, was in charge in my absence. A clear definition of roles and responsibilities and management structure was clearly defined.
Why is that necessary? Simply put, your staff will know who to turn to and not feel alone on a shaky limb. As managers, we will ask from time to time how things are going. We must realize that most staff members will not tell you how they feel. Mostly because they do not want to make you feel they can't handle things. Make no mistake. There is always something they are not telling you. They want you to think they have everything under control, even when it might be a total mess. From time to time, someone will tell you exactly how it is. LISTEN. That individual is probably correct. Listening does not mean you will change things. However, it might trigger you to think differently or re-evaluate some choices.
Co-workers complaining amongst themselves is normal. Everyone needs to vent. Also, no job is perfect. Every job has its pros and cons. However, many of these flaws can be overcome and resolved through proper management intervention and strong communication. Remember, you are the one in charge. Your staff follows your lead. If your lead is lacking, your staff will be lacking. "The boss" has to keep the peace. Get along with their staff. "The Boss" needs to listen to their staff, evaluate the issues, and correct them. If you are the boss, putting bandaids on problems only stops the bleeding for a short period of time. The problem still exists and will resurface time and time again. In addition, never forget that oftentimes, change is not only good but required.
These are the hard cold facts. The truth is, anyone with a title cares about that title and what comes with it. If that were not true, there would be worsening internal issues. These are not bad people. It is human nature. As the owner or the person in charge, you set the example when establishing structure within the ranks. In the long run, you will earn more respect from your staff.
You might ask, how does all of this tie into customer service? That should be obvious. We do not want our staff arguing on the sales floor, losing their temper, or not getting along. All of this affects the operation and the attitude of the staff. Customers see this and can sense it. Therefore, quality and performance fall short of expectations. In every business course I took, STRUCTURE was always the first and key element. Without it, nothing works long-term. Lack of structure also leads to a higher staff turnover, which affects customer service.
This is not what customers expect. You are failing in their expectations. Therefore, I found that when I stopped trying to be everyone's friend and came up with a solid structure, call it a chain of command if you want, internally, things ran much smoother. Everyone in my store's management team and when I worked in corporate management knew their roles and responsibilities, who the go-to person was, and my expectations. My staff respected me more because I defined the structure and didn't leave it up to them to work it out among themselves.
Before figuring this out, all I was accomplishing was throwing a life ring to those who didn't know how to swim. That is how I learned. It took some time. I always believed everyone could be an adult and play well in the sandbox. That is the farthest thing from the truth because people have egos. They have what they believe is right and wrong. Their perception of how things should be. Therefore, the conflicts begin.
I learned that the person in charge must never undermine those they put in charge. If my staff had a problem, they brought it to the person in charge. If that person could not resolve it, that person would bring it to me, and I would sort it out. When you undermine the people you place in charge, you decrease their credibility in the eyes of those that may have to take directions from them. All of this leads to staff members that are not content. Customer service WILL suffer.
A dear friend of mine worked for a large chain store. She was a problem solver and was excellent at it. She would have to go from store to store and resolve these issues when they were not resolved internally. These are real business problems for retail stores and even offices. Customers can walk into a store and feel the tension in the air. Think about that. How often did you go into a store where you could tell the staff members who wanted to help you and those who did not? How does that make you feel as a customer?
Customers do not deserve or expect this unorganized structure. And that is what it is, unorganized. Your business structure should run like a finely tuned violin. Every store manager or business owner faces these issues. It does NOT make them bad owners or managers. It only means they need to get down to the basics. These are what customers expect when they walk through your doors. Even as a writer, I need to keep my readers happy. Keeping people happy is a never-ending job, especially in retail.
In the world of retail, everything is always in a constant state of flux. Most corporations change their policies as much as people change their underwear. A retail store MUST be able to adapt to this. This can be accomplished with a strong structure and a properly trained team. I had a professor who used to ask the class to develop a mock management structure for a particular type of business. It was the job of the rest of the class to tear it apart, discuss its strong and weak points, and how to improve it. The real purpose of the exercise was to get people to work together as a team. Find the problems and find the solutions. It was a great class.
HOW DO WE KEEP OUR CUSTOMERS HAPPY?
There is only one way to keep a customer happy. Give them what they want. Contrary to popular belief, people know they must pay for goods and services. However, they don't mind paying if the goods and services are excellent and if the price is reasonable, the staff is responsive, knowledgeable, and friendly.
It's all about the service, before and after the sale. The sale never ends when the customer walks out the door. It continues when they return again if there is a problem or they need something else. As well as each and every time they walk through your doors. As team members, we must be innovative, supportive and encourage customer feedback. A customer's feedback is how we learn how to improve. Not only ourselves but our business model. We can evaluate the areas where we are successful and the areas we need to improve.
Don't fool yourself; we can always do better. I always made it a habit to ask a customer if there was anything I could have done better to assist them. Did I meet their expectations? Customers appreciate it when you ask them their opinion, don't fool yourself; most will be honest and are willing to give it.
These things and more are how you keep customers happy. A clean environment is also important. No one wants to shop in a store that's a mess or talk to staff who do not present themselves well. Never forget, you aren't the only game in town. Anytime a customer walks away, you probably feel like you didn't do your best. You're right. You didn't do your job. Every customer is different. They have different needs and are different people. Each customer needs to be treated individually.
WHAT SETS YOU APART FROM OTHERS?
What do you do better than others? Why do you shop at one store and not the other? Remember, you are not only running a business; you are also a customer. The best way to filter through a good customer experience is to put yourself in the customer's shoes. If you were the customer, would you be happy with the goods and services you were provided? If not, you need to focus on the skills that require improvement. Make no mistake about it. No one is perfect, and we all will have an off day. It's human nature, so don't beat yourself up over it. However, knowing you are having an off day helps you work through it. What sets you apart from others is what you do better than others. Earlier, I asked you to think about this question.
Is it better to do good or good to be better?
Now there is a question that is totally based on individual perception. Each of you may answer it differently. For me, it is always good to do better. By striving to do better, we learn, and as we learn, we improve. If you are content with only being good, then that is what you will settle for. It's also an individual choice. You may be at a point in your career or life where being good is good enough for you. Good is not a bad thing, but better than good is a good thing.
In business, you have to do it better than the others. That is what will set you apart. Consistency is also very important. Once your customers get used to your excellent service, they will expect that same type of service each time they come into your store. Customer service is personal. It's personal to each individual customer. Keep this in mind. People generally do not remember the 99 things you did right but will remember the one thing you did wrong. Since we all know that everything will not always go well, fixing a problem becomes a key element in customer satisfaction.
The key factor will always be good customer service. Welcome them, engage with them, ask questions, and don't crowd them. Some people like to look around and shop. However, once you make contact, stay visible to answer any questions that may come up. Do you like a salesperson following you around? Of course not. So why would you do it?
Remember to treat the customer as if you were the customer.
THE LARGEST PROBLEM:
The biggest problems with customer service issues are:
Lack of proper training,
Not enough staff
These problems are not the fault of the staff. The issue lies with the management team. Training is an expense line item for most businesses on their general ledger (GL). It is lost money. On the surface, there is no profit in training. It is looked at as lost revenue. Many companies view it as two people doing the same job as one, which does NOT relate to increased profits. That is the farthest thing from the truth.
This is a flawed approach because, in the long run, poor customer service can be due to improperly trained staff, and you lose more in lost revenue and future revenue than what is spent to train your staff properly.
The other problem is inadequate staff to train people or just not enough staff. At times, that can be true. However, I don't buy that thought process over a long period of time. I will concede that training a staff member at certain times of the day could be more challenging than at other times. However, paying someone to do nothing because they haven't been properly trained is the largest loss of revenue most companies face. Since the pandemic, employers have had a hard time replacing their staff. Many have learned they must update and increase their hourly rate to attract more applicants.
Once again, some companies see this, and others do not. Businesses requiring specific skills or knowledge should pay more for qualified staff, or they will not find them. Does it cost more? Yes. However, the increased revenue and having knowledgeable staff will easily justify the cost and increase revenue. Revenue that may be presently being lost.
Two rules to remember:
You have to spend money to make money,
If you pay cheap, you get cheap.
Training is always a line item in the budget considered lost revenue. And yes, it is, if not done properly. When I had my business and worked in corporate management, every new staff member had a 6 - 8-week training program that was strictly adhered to and tailored to what their job would be. They were assigned a training individual that was responsible for completing their training. In almost every case, the new staff member did NOT require the full allotted time. The reason for this was basic logic. Training and only training was their focus. How you structure that depends on your business model.
By doing this, the new staff member can be evaluated to see if they are suited for the work. Maybe they are better suited to work in another area of your b business. Whenever a company places an untrained staff member in front of customers before they are not ready, they break one of the cardinal rules of quality customer service. KNOWLEDGE.
Admittedly, every business is different. Therefore, the training is different and must be tailored to your business. In my business, we had two sides. A retail side and a commercial side. Some staff members could handle both, and others only one. This brings us to the proper utilization of staff. Large department stores have greeters. These people generally do not know the details of the products you sell but are friendly and courteous, and they know the lay of the land and can direct people to the right area where trained staff can help them. This usually applies to large stores.
This in no way means they are not intelligent. They may not have knowledge of your industry but have great people skills. Therefore, you are utilizing their skills and knowledge properly. For example, you cannot teach electronics to someone with no education or knowledge of electronics. However, they may possess other skills. In time, they may learn more and can advance. However, throwing them to the wolves and providing poor customer service sets them up for failure and can result in many customer complaints. If your business receives many customer complaints, you are doing something wrong.
You might ask, does this apply to every business? Yes. The basic training and structure principles apply to every business, regardless of size. When I worked in medicine, we had constant training for upwards of 387 field staff members in one division, and we had four divisions and roughly forty new hires every three months. However, proper training principles apply to 10 people as they apply to 387. A professor I had once said;
Training will make you good, but only if the training is good.
Establishing strong and efficient customer service is not easy. It takes a strong training plan and proper implementation. Anything short of that will ALWAYS result in poor customer service and lost revenue.
Structure, accountability, knowledge, experience, friendliness, being courteous, fixing problems, and availability, are just a few of the elements required for strong customer service skills and getting your customers a good sales experience.
This last point I saved for last. PATIENCE. You must remember. You often know what you discussing but cannot assume the customer does. That might be why they are asking questions or walking away. You talked way above their level of understanding and only confused them more. Therefore, you may have to repeat it differently a few times before they get it or you figure out how they learn things. Always keep it as simple as possible. It is always easier to up your pitch than tone it down, especially after you have confused them.
Sometimes you have to draw illustrations so people can understand what you are saying. Most people are visual learners. Of course, this depends on what they are asking. Some people are visual learners and won't understand what you are trying to say until they see it on paper. At times, people can and will take you to your last nerve. Patience is an important trait to possess. In addition, you must balance between explaining things too fast or too slowly.
Sometimes, part of customer service involves evaluating how they understand things. Are they ready to buy, or just asking questions to gain information? This is often times referred to as gauging a customer. You can't rush or blow them off whether they are buying or shopping. They may not be buying something today, but there is always tomorrow. Some customers like to leave and discuss or think about it before deciding. If you blow them off, they aren't coming back. Therefore, if they were planning to return, the sale you just lost for today could be the one you lost forever, and you also lost a repeat customer.
When I opened my store, my father gave me some of the best advice I received. He said;
Don't try to send your kids to college on one customer. You make more money with a customer when they keep coming back to buy more.
Every customer that walks through your doors is a potential buyer. If not today, maybe tomorrow, next week, or next month. Make your customer feel comfortable with you. Have you ever not bought something somewhere because you didn't like the salesperson? Maybe they were engaged with you until you told them you were only shopping, so the salesperson rushed to get away from you.
Keep in mind that retail stores make money on their repeat business. The customers that return and make another purchase. We live in a world where anything can be bought online and, in most cases, cheaper. The customer does not have to leave their house in the rain, snow, heat, or cold. They come to you because they need it now or like personalized service. Don't forget that many large chains have closed some of their stores due to the online sales market, and many other smaller stores have gone out of business.
Small mom-and-pop shops are barely surviving. They cannot compete with the pricing or the inventory. Some items are also disposable. People do not have things fixed as much as they used to because they can replace them. Especially now, with the cost of goods and services being so high. These are all reasons your customer service MUST be second to none and better than the other guy.
Strong customer service is built from the ground up. Not everyone has the right personality for sales, but they make great cashiers. See where your new hire fits in your business model. Your salespeople are the first point of contact for your customer. They represent your business. If they are not good, your business does not look good. This is why good structure and training are so important.
There was much information here, which is only the tip of the iceberg.
I could write a book on this topic and will be getting much deeper into these topics and more when my online learning course, "The Key To Customer Service," is released on Udemy.com in a few weeks. However, for now, this provides you with brief summary of small, medium, and large business structure, why it is important, and why strong customer service is the key to success. I hope you enjoyed the post.
Be safe, stay well, and focus on being happy. And remember to always:
Live with an open mind,
Live with an open heart,
Live your best life.
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