Modern Magic Formula

customerserviceI recently had dinner with a small group of leading figures in the UK retail industry.  The broad topic of discussion was the current state of play with particular reference to shoppers changing habits and the rise of mobile and internet shopping.

The findings will form part of a larger report later in the year, so I won’t steal Kantar’s thunder.  However we did keep coming back to the same point.  Whatever the channel, the only real point of difference any retailer has is the way their people interact with customers.  There is nothing that any of us offer that someone else does not, or could not offer.  And they may well be able to do it cheaper, faster, better etc.

I have had the pleasure of working with Martin Butler in the past.  He puts it far more elegantly than I can and in much more detail – for more on this check out his books here.  Martin argues that ‘People don’t buy what you sell‘ and as a consequence retail is ‘The art of being chosen‘.  For all of our focus on new technologies and channels retail still is about being chosen and for me that increasingly comes down to customer service.

So called ‘showrooming’ (where a shopper visits a store to try a product with the full intention to buy online) is often seen as a threat by many retailers.  I have certainly been into stores to look at an item ‘in the flesh’ then walked out and bought it online using my phone before I hit the street.  And yet it is a great opportunity, here they are presented with a potential customer who is ready and willing to buy.  Great customer service can easily trump price and I have definitely been into a store to try with no intention of buying there and found myself handing over my plastic having felt I had just made a new connection.

Arguably any retailer who sees showrooming as a threat and not an opportunity has big issues.  These may not be easy to fix but I’d argue that they are simple to understand.  It is ultimately all about the people, all about their training, all about their leadership and all about their freedom to act.

This all seems very obvious.  Yet retail is typically very controlled and hierarchical, it’s more about monitoring and checking.  Staff clock in and out, there are strict rules to prevent theft and fraud and processes to ensure everyone keeps working.  In this environment there is little room for trust, procedures and policies rather than common sense cover all aspects of the job.

This frequently translates into a disengaged ‘jobsworth’ attitude.  Staff will not be willing to move away from the laid down policy regardless of the circumstances for fear of their job.  I heard a story of a staff member who left to train as a nurse.  On his last day after his shift a few drinks were had and somehow his shoes ended up in a canal – I think we have all been there.  No worries, he went back to his store that was just closing up to buy a pair of cheap sneakers to walk home in.  As the tills were closed he was refused to be served, he offered to leave the cash.  But no, there was no policy to cover this.  It might get the sales assistant in trouble.  So he walked home barefoot.  I forgot to mention – it was snowing.  Does anyone think this was in any way right?

The solution isn’t easy but it is simple.

Trust.

Trust that you have hired the right people (if you haven’t whose fault is that?), trust that they all want to do a good job (I know no one who sets out to do a bad job), trust that they want to learn and grow (we all do if we allow ourselves to admit it).  Build an atmosphere of trust and trust staff to not only do things right but to do the right things. Human beings not human doings.

The rest follows.

You will feel very exposed and yes sometimes your trust will prove to be misplaced. And weighed against the freedom and benefits of not having to act like a secret policeman, the improvements in customer service with the consequent improvements in results it is a risk that might be worth taking.

Of course this does not just apply to retailers, or even to organisations.  As individuals we are all looking to be chosen and trusting in ourselves is a good step on the route to being chosen. After all if you don’t trust yourself why should others trust you?

All we need is a magic formula
A whole new backbone
Is what we’re looking for
So you wanted to change the world
But I didn’t believe you
That’s why we’ll say goodbye to the good old days son
I’m trying the best I can
But there’s a white flag burning in the middle of my hand
I’m tired of being exposed
And I don’t know how much more of this I can stand

Modern Magic Formula – Biffy Clyro

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