As a small business owner and seasoned marketing professional, a day doesn’t go by when I’m not perpetually seeking out and observing what positive, spreadable customer experiences might look and feel like – particularly as a strong proponent of “locally-owned” brick and mortar stores.
For generations (close to 35 years), our entire family – extended and otherwise – has been committed to strong advocacy of locally-owned retail businesses. When larger box stores began to infiltrate our community, our world was shaken. We, however, continued to support and spread the word that buying through locally-owned businesses was good for everyone. Over the years, our focus was consistent – we sought what was most important to each of us – an ideal customer service experience – often over price. When making a purchase, members of our family concentrate more on value and consistency of service excellence – attentiveness, helpfulness, and responsiveness – in our vendor selection. We often look beyond the fact that products offered at these small retail operations are frequently the same or similar to those offered elsewhere and that prices were consistently slightly higher than at other retail stores (big box). We’ve been willing to pay the higher prices…as we believed an impeccable, ideal – often magical – customer service experience was worth much more than a few dollars.
The Last Great American Hardware Store
While my past experiences have been similar to what Charlie shares – that locally-owned businesses tend to have a “more friendly atmosphere; people there actually try to solve your problems…while lots of big places don’t care about whether they can solve your problems or not…you’re just a number,” I would actually question whether Charlie and store owners and staff who have been in the business for a very long time – and once were the only “act in town” have grown complacent and don’t actually see or feel what the customer undergoes?
Many big box stores (Target, Home Depot, Office Depot, and so many others) now populate the landscape of our little community…but, our family continues its commitment to small locally-owned businesses. That is, however, until last weekend.
Several months ago, we chose to visit a locally-owned hardware store to purchase a 9×9 metal baking pan. We intentionally selected a pan with a recognizable brand name (Entenmanns’) and paid about $1.00 more than we would have if we had shopped at a box store in town (i.e. Target, Bed, Bath, and Beyond)…but, as shared earlier, our history with this particular store had led us to believe that we would receive “value” for our money – in the form of a superior customer service experience.
Over the next two months, we used this baking pan to prepare several scrumptious vegan apple and pear cobblers. As a former chef, my partner knows (and advised) that we use only plastic utensils on the type of pan we’d purchased (“Teflon”)…so, we used the plastic serving scoops that came with our rice cooker. One day, I noticed that the fruit in the cobbler had turned an unusual shade of light gray. When I shared this observation, my partner informed me that additional cumin had been added to the mixture which might account for the discoloration. I, of course, was not convinced that cumin would cause fruit to turn gray so quickly (and actually became concerned). So, I immediately stopped eating the cobbler. When I prepared to wash the pan, I noticed that sections of the inside surface of the pan had peeled away – clearly not a result of extra cumin or the utensils being used!!
I retrieved the receipt, and together we visited the locally-owned hardware store where I’d purchased the pan. I approached one of the on-floor sales staff in a very calm, polite, and neutral way – asking if anything could be done about this pan – which was less than two months old. She left my side in search of the department “manager.” Within seconds, an older gentlemen named Don P appeared by our side. Before asking any questions or gathering any information, he launched an attack – an accusation – and began an animated demonstration – blaming us for using improper utensils on the pan. He even catapulted over to their utensil section, grabbed a plastic tool and began aggressively applying it to the pan. Several attempts were made to try to explain our specific situation (knowledge and use of proper utensils, etc.). Listening, however, did not appear to be a skill he possessed…and within minutes a shouting match ensued.
It quickly became obvious that this “manager” (and his protégé) did not possess, reflect or represent the “old time hardware store” we’d experienced and grown accustomed to on numerous and frequent visits over the years. Wondering what might account for this elevated, non-customer-centric attitude, we eventually left the store feeling extremely disgruntled and vowing to never set foot in there again (even after 35 years). We also felt obligated to share our experience…in order to protect others from being forced to undergo the type of treatment we received. Obviously, something within this locally-owned hardware store had changed or shifted.
As the week progressed, my mind digested this experience. By week’s end, I realized that this experience might brought a learning opportunity – maybe several – to my door step. Several extremely fascinating and ironic events surfaced and stood out in my mind:
- An apology was never forthcoming for what we’d encountered with one of the products this retailer choose to place on their shelves and sell to innocent, unsuspecting customers;
- The treatment I/we received took place over a pan that cost $6.48 (including tax); and
- Exactly one week prior to this encounter, as completing a purchase transaction, I’d been invited to sign-up for a new “Loyalty” program the store was initiating. This request, at the time, seemed a bit unusual – silly, actually – as my family and I were already extremely committed, loyal customers.
As I mulled over all of this, my marketing (and consumer-oriented) background and interests kicked in. Maybe this is a good opportunity to write and share my professional (and personal) thoughts about customer service, attitudes, and the often overlooked symbiotic and intricate relationship between customer service and loyalty programs.
As shared earlier, this locally-owed hardware store carries many of the same products sold by other stores (box) in town. When buying a product – and encountering a problem – the consumer naturally seeks assistance from the retailer who sold them that product. The consumer is not concerned with or aware of relationships the retailer may have established with manufacturers or supplier to place that product on their shelf. The consumer is simply interested is obtaining reasonable, fulfilling products and positive resolution to any problems.
I’m certain you will agree…we’ve all had memorable – even exceptional – customer service experiences. We know what they look and feel like. Following a positive experience, I always walk away with a bounce in my step and cheerfulness in my attitude for the entire day – even for a week or month. Personally, I feel so exhilarated about the opportunity to reinforce my vendor/retailer choice I become inspired to shout my experience out into the world.
One thing I do know for certain from having worked in a corporate setting (and now having my own businesses) is that a positive, productive customer experience starts at the top. In his book Lessons from the Mouse, Dennis Snow shares a few of his critical observations:
- The job of the leader is to ensure that their value is exceeding the cost;
- A business brand is what people say about you;
- Critical components to ensuring a solid customer service experience include:
- HIRE PEOPLE wired to perform behaviors that are customer-focused;
- TRAIN (or retrain) and communicate the importance of this specific type of behavior
- REQUIRE ACCOUNTABILITY (coaching, recognition)
A favorite business owner – Richard Branson – also elaborates on this attitude by detailing the roles and responsibilities necessary to execute and deliver on an ideal customer service experience. Reflecting on my experience with the locally-owned hardware store shared earlier (and my own business), I considered the following take-aways from Mr. Branson essential to focus on and pass along (especially to this locally-owned hardware store):
- Anybody can sell a cup of coffee; anybody can buy a physical airplane; we all buy the planes from the same manufacturer;
- Everything in the end comes down to customer service and the people who are serving you;
- The quality of the interaction they (customers) have with your people (employees) is what encourages them to return; and
- Customer service is everything in the end.
Many business leaders seem to agree – integrating these behaviors and elements are critical in building a solid business and customer loyalty program.
A few additional thoughts shared by others also support the need to ensure active engagement by leaders to re-enforce solid customer-centric behavior patterns in order to create a foundation for successful Customer Loyalty programs:
- THE DEFINING FACTOR IN CUSTOMER LOYALTY
“…they understand that in the new economics of service, frontline workers and customers need to be the center of management concern. “…if the gap between expectation, perception and delivery of customer service is managed at a high level, the customer will perceive that the relationship is a mutually beneficial one where there is an equilibrium of commitment. This in turn will encourage repeat customers and give a greater share of the customer….
- REPEAT CUSTOMERS GENERATE 5-15 TIMES MORE REVENUE
“It is a well-known fact that it takes much more resources and time to acquire new customer than to keep an existing one. Marketing analysts estimate that repeated customers could generate between 5 to 15 times revenue for the business than first time or one time buyers alone.” “The revenue potential that could be generated by repeated customer is huge and yet it is estimated that 75-90% businesses are doing little to nothing to keep customers coming back.”
- AVERAGE CUSTOMERS ARE BECOMING SMARTER AND AWARE
“As the average customers are becoming smarter and aware, it’s becoming difficult to cater to all their demands. Customers expect value for money, at all costs. They expect a polite approach from sales and service representatives. Moreover, they want to be appreciated for their patronage! The whole point of rewarding a customer with better prices or services is to encourage them to repeat their behavior. If rightly executed, a customer loyalty program can dramatically increase profitability. Retaining existing customers is relatively easy on the budget than targeting new ones.”
So, how about you…?
- As a consumer…are your purchase decisions putting a step in your walk? Do you feel positive about your purchase experiences…and are they in YOUR best interest? Or are you subjecting yourself to abuse by enterprises that claim to be (but are unable to be) customer-centric focused but are unable (or unwilling) to transfer (and enforce) values and behaviors that reflect productive buying interaction (not just transactions) to their managers and employees?
In the end, it doesn’t seem that difficult to “make me (or anyone else) feel special.” I know because I’m committed to doing that everyday with and for my clients. How about you?
- As a small business owner, are you providing the kind of leadership that demonstrates your commitment to ensuring a positive, enriching experience for your customers or clients? Do the behaviors of your staff reflect your values and help the customer sing (and dance) your praises? Or are you sitting on your laurels (history) and hoping that your once loyal customers will be foolish enough to stick with you rather than wandering off to the more fertile soil of box stores and online purchases? If you are, you just might be missing the boat and wind up being forced to tell a story similar to Charlie’s (video above).
Crafted, researched and written by: |LIZ CARLOCK
The Write Resources, LLC™
© 2014 EM Carlock