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Opinion: What customers wish retailers knew about service

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The downfall of mass retail, in my view, began over 30 years ago. As commerce shifted by transitioning to a service-based economy, we didn’t have the work ethic to sustain the service economy we were trying to become.

I formed this observation because typically a sizeable chunk of my clients are in retail. For two decades, we culled data from our mystery shopping and customer loyalty surveys conducted in retail stores, fast-food restaurants, banks and automotive shops.

From the data, three main shortcomings surfaced: a low priority placed on delivering excellent service, the failure to invest sufficiently in employee training and a culture that lacks clear service standards to guide behavior.

One place these shortcomings are noticeable is in face-to-face customer greetings. A significant number of customers in our data, for example, either report not receiving a greeting or indicate that the employee’s greeting felt robotic and cold.

Certainly, any business – not just retail – stands to gain from learning what customers expect. Here are six areas to consider.

1. Listen when a customer communicates a problem. For every customer complaint you hear, there can be another 20-30 that go unspoken. When you receive a complaint, it pays to listen and then solve it effectively.

A study reported in the Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing indicated when you resolve a customer issue successfully, it is more likely to increase loyalty than if the customer never experiences a problem.

2. Don’t tolerate grumpy employees. Whether a restaurant hostess, phone representative or salesperson has a bad attitude, it’s usually because they hate the job, despise a boss or can’t stand customers. If someone won’t take pride in giving great service, they shouldn’t be in a customer service role.

3. Stay relevant in new ways. A recent CNN article described how Kohl’s has experimented with accepting returns for Amazon. The service has attracted new customers to Kohl’s, so they’re adding Amazon returns at more stores. According to the article, they’re also working with Aldi and Planet Fitness to locate next to stores. To thrive today, it’s a good idea to consider unconventional ways to remain relevant.

4. Reinforce clear standards. Standards of service must be clear, consistent and reinforced. I think Chick-fil-A is fantastic at this. Delivering positive employee and customer experiences across thousands of units, or in just one, begins with clear standards.

5. Impress potential customers. A local bank that arranges for food trucks to set up on their parking lot in the summer probably does it to attract potential customers. It’s a good idea, but they failed to recognize an opportunity one day when it was blazing hot and wait lines were long.

Fifteen people, counting myself, waited about 30 minutes for our food. It wasn’t the bank’s fault, but they could have created a positive impression for some miserably hot people by sending caring employees out with bottles of cold water. Employees did come out but only to get orders they’d placed in advance so they didn’t have to wait.

When I got on the bank’s website later, I chuckled at their claims of delivering the best customer experiences and personalized service.

Positive customer impressions don’t only occur inside a business, but begin the instant customers drive up, click or call.

6. Be consistent. In preparation for a speech at a fast-food brand convention, I worked for a day as a front-line employee in a franchisee’s store. It was amazing for me to witness the detailed process and training invested in delivering great customer service, and consistent food and beverage quality. They left nothing to chance, requiring employees to pass tests after watching instructional videos and working with mentors.

Retail doesn’t have to be on the outside looking in on our new economy. Smart leaders today invest sufficiently in delivering great customer experiences, consistently.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at


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