The quality of customer service can make or break a shop's reputation. But there?s a lot more to it than a friendly smile. Helen French finds out what customers want?

Is your service the best it can be?

Retailers need shoppers. It’s one of the more obvious facts of life – along with the sun rising and setting every day, and processors getting more powerful every year. The importance of good customer service should be just as obvious – otherwise those shoppers just take their money elsewhere. But sometimes the little details get forgotten in the rush to get products onto shelves.

PCR commissioned a study to find out more about what consumers want from their shopping experiences – what drives them into stores, what persuades them to buy more than they intended, and what makes them complain. The results, as compiled by Infinite Field Marketing, are revealing.

We also spoke to several retailers – indies and chains – to gain insight into how they tackle the issue.

Reputation is king

We started by asking: When purchasing an IT/consumer electronics product, what makes you go to the retailer in the first place? While price was a serious factor, with 25 per cent of the 250 respondents plumping for that option, reputation was the clear leader, at 36.11 per cent.

And how do you build reputation in the first place? Marketing and PR campaigns likely have some effect, but a lot of it will be down to word of mouth – which brings us back to customer service.

As René Wright, head of computing at Best Buy UK, says: “If someone has walked out of a store having had a positive shopping experience, they are much more likely to return, consider, recommend and purchase from you in the future.”

We were also keen to know what made customers loyal to a particular store. Here an overwhelming majority said good service, at 54.92 per cent, but price (21.31 per cent), convenience (11.48 per cent) and product knowledge (8.20 per cent) were all significant too.

Anant Pitrola from Ask Direct’s customer service team comments: “Hassle-free and prompt customer service results in a positive shopping experience and helps to build trust and a good relationship between the customers and ourselves.”

Got the knowledge?

In an industry where technology is constantly moving forward at breakneck speed, product knowledge is something that IT retailers have to get right.

Scott Wilkinson, from SimplyFixIT, says: “I think that it’s easy for people who work in computer shops to think that everyone needs a Core-i7 processor with the latest graphics card and an SSD hard drive. Techie staff can give you a list of reasons why having four cores is better than one, but the reality is that some people don’t need all that power. We look for staff who can explain the full benefits of technology, not just the theoretical benefits.”

Garry Stonehouse from Gbiz IT Computers suggests that businesses have to be proactive: “We always make sure our staff have a complete understanding of the products and services we are offering. We have a weekly staff training meeting where we try out new products or play with new software, discussing the benefits and weaknesses of it from a customer’s perspective.”

Best Buy places a lot of importance on training too. Wright comments: “Our nine-week Blueshirt Training Academy includes plenty of time spent on ensuring our Blueshirts and Geek Squad Agents understand each individual customer’s needs and determine how to provide the best solution to meet those needs.”

The price is right

When we asked what positively affected the buying decision in-store, price came on top with 30.71 per cent, with demonstrations at 18.11 per cent and add-on deals (such as ‘when bought with…’ or ‘three for two’) at 14.96 per cent.

Add-on deals came out even stronger when we looked at what made customers spend more money than they intended – this time getting a whopping 50 per cent of the vote. Think carefully about where you can give customers deals – choose products that complement each other as well as those that have good margins.

Don’t switch off online

Businesses with an online element can’t forget about customer service just because no one physically wanders into a salesman’s path.

James Housley of CBC Computers feels it’s important to have ways to communicate with customers directly: “We offer an online live chat service which is available from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday. Staff are on hand during these hours to answers any product queries the customer may have. Our online chat service has a sales department and a returns department, which gives the customer a choice of whom they direct their query to.”

Pitrola points out that customers who shop online start off with a disadvantage: “When you’re shopping online, you don’t get the chance to handle or try a product out before you make a purchase and so we have to be able to answer any questions that customers may have via phone, email or our online help system.”

Broken loyalty

So far, we’ve looked at what customers want – but what makes them walk out the door? For 47.61 per cent, negative contact with staff was the villain. Perhaps surprisingly, the next biggest factor was the store being too busy at 23.8 per cent, due to it being harder to find staff and products – something that’s not always easy to control.

We also asked what would break a customer’s loyalty. Here, 69.77 per cent said bad service, with poor product knowledge the runner-up at 21.54 per cent.

Dino Marcangelo, senior manager customer development, John Lewis, feels that in the current retail environment, it’s harder than ever to retain custom: “Customers quite rightly are getting more demanding in their expectations of us as retailers and I would expect them to vote with their feet if they don’t receive the service they expect.”

Stonehouse points out that when one person experiences bad customer service, it has a ripple effect that can soon reach many more: “Bad customer service does prevent customers from returning, but even worse, these customers tell other people who will then consciously avoid your shop.”

With that in mind, what’s the best way to make it up to a customer who doesn’t feel they’ve had good service? The people we surveyed felt a discount could go a long way – 40.18 per cent said that would be a good conclusion to a complaint. Twenty-eight per cent would be happy with an apology.

Next steps

What can you do if you want to improve? John Lewis is renowned for its customer service – having won many accolades, including a Grand Prix PCR Award earlier this year – so we were keen to find out how it tackles the issue.

Marcangelo feels choosing the right staff is key: “At John Lewis it is all about the people on the sales floor – employing the right calibre of person and then developing their knowledge, skills and expertise will pay dividends.”

SimplyFixIT actively seeks customer feedback: “We monitor online review sites and we ask all our repair service customers to complete a feedback form where they can anonymously tell us about their experience. The negative experiences are really what you’re looking for. Dozens of feedback forms that say that the service was great are good for the ego, but what are you learning? It’s the one person who tells you that actually, their phone call wasn’t returned that can show you where your systems might have a problem.”

Lastly, Stonehouse says: “Good customer service has to be a company policy for it to be effective.” Will you put that advice into practice?

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