Recently, I walked into a retail outlet and, while pondering upon a product, a sales assistant approached me and uttered the magic words, “can I help you?”
When I said that I was interested in buying the product but still had some questions, the assistant took it from me and, in an attempt to give me answers, proceeded to read the content on label out loud.
Now, at the risk of sounding cynical, I know how to read. Instead of providing the help I needed, the sales ‘assistant’ became an annoyance and ended up costing the store a sale.
This kind of customer ‘service’ has no place in modern retail. In fact, retailers would be well advised to eliminate it altogether and save money. The only reason why you could legitimately justify staff roaming around reading product labels to customers would be to deter thieves. But does this justify the expense?
In addition, the digital age presents retailers with an even bigger challenge. In seconds I can find highly detailed information about virtually any product using my phone’s internet browser. This makes staff who even have detailed product knowledge (and don’t need to read the labels) to a large extent redundant as well.
In an era of effortless access to information, retailers can only justify employing customer service staff who add real value. This means the ability to offer multifaceted advice: what product to choose, how to use it and how to get the most out of it in the customer’s specific circumstance. Anything less just adds unnecessary operating cost.
In my experience, most retailers will find the transition from “can I help you” to “I can really help you” service provision difficult. Challenging the current point of view can often be met with an emotional defence – a lecture about the intangible benefits of service, delivered from high moral ground.
Yet, the wise retailer should know that all facets of the business require commercial scrutiny. Nothing should be done simply because of the belief of benefit, no matter how strong the belief. There has to be tangible evidence that the activity returns value, for customers and for the business.
To optimise operating cost and provide competitive advantage, retailers need to adopt a modernised view of customer service, one that places the emphasis on adding real value for customers. This means staff must be able to give customers information that can’t be found on the label or online. Some staff at Bunnings excel in this area – older tradesmen, who can teach a lot to even a very experienced handyman.
For an apparel retailer this could mean staff being fluent in the latest trends and how to make trending fashion work for each individual customer, helping them to put together ensembles that suit their style, look and personality.
But, you may ask, what about more mundane aspects of customer interaction, such as dealing with issues like complaints and returns?
In these instances, service happens to be a compensator for the lack of product quality. I call such activities compensatory service, not real service. As a general rule, the lower the quality of your products the more compensatory service you will need to provide.
This explains why a car that needs to be serviced every 50,000 kilometres wins hands down against another car requiring service every 10,000 kilometres. Personally, when I buy something, the less servicing it requires the better.
Addressing the issue of product quality requires working upstream with your suppliers. Define upfront acceptable standards, reduce the number of suppliers and develop close relationships with them to reduce variation. Also, don’t handle faulty goods – simply return or destroy them.
As mentioned above, the scope of compensatory service you have to provide relates directly to the quality of your offering. So, don’t see the high number of staff you have working on the service counter as a virtue. On the contrary, see it as a penance.
The rising cost of skilled labour means that everyone on your payroll must add real value. Paying staff just to greet customers with a smile or handle returns must be seen as business waste.
If you want to survive and prosper in the retail landscape of 2015 and beyond, initiate now continuing effort to improve product quality, eliminate compensatory service and to add real value when you engage with your customers face-to-face.
I view the mantra “can I help you” as an honest promise from your brand to the customer. So, make sure that when your staff do utter those words, they actually mean what they say.