Customer Service: Getting the Basics Right

Yesterday I needed to stop at the grocery store to pick up a couple of pantry basics, and because my errand path had me away from the store I usually go to for such items I ended up in a Safeway… utterly befuddled and confused. The item I needed was not in the aisle that it would logically be stocked in.

After 5 or so minutes of scanning the aisle in the event I simply missed it, I waited… and waited… and waited in the hopes that an employee would saunter past and offer some help. No dice. So from the aisle I googled the store phone number and called, hoping to get to someone who could send someone over to offer help. After navigating the phone tree I ended up in the general customer service queue, and much to my amusement I could hear the in-store announcement system paging someone to “pick up on 201″. After another 4 or so minutes I was dumped into a voicemail box. Now I was frustrated, not only do they not have someone physically present that can help me but they don’t have anyone on the phone either… I called again, this time short circuiting the phone tree and after another couple of minutes I did get someone, who was subjected to my frustration (not that she cared anyway) and then someone hurried over to aisle 6 to help me.

And then my new in-store helper did something that went beyond the absurd… he started looking through the shelves that I had been staring at for a good 15 minutes. Finally, I said to him “hey buddy, I’m not an idiot, I have pretty much memorized what is on this shelf and what I’m looking for isn’t here”. He ran off and came back, directing me to aisle 3. Success.

I left that store thinking:

1) I hate Safeway, they suck.

2) Did that guy think I was a moron?

3) I will be hard pressed to go to that store again.

Customer experience matters and in Women’s Wear Daily (WWD is a trade publication for retail, they cover a fascinating range of subjects and increasingly are a goto source for me on how social technologies and trends are impacting the retail environment) there is an in-depth article on why customer experience matters more than ever in the face of competition from online retailers. (The WWD is subscription required, here’s an abstraction of the article.)

Customer service is just one element of customer experience, the bigger topic covers everything from what happens when you are in the parking lot to what you do when you are back at home ruminating about how you had to call the store’s switchboard to get someone to help. Bottom line, this shit matters because nothing beats the convenience of shopping online and I will usually get a better price as well… so retailers need to compete on something other than price and promotion.

No segment is insulated, I bought a car sight unseen and had it shipped across the country, the bathtub, hardware, fixtures, and tile for our new bathroom all came from online sources, when Amazon Fresh arrives I will shift grocery spend to them, and I haven’t stepped foot in a Best Buy in years.

Lastly, over the weekend there was an article about Virgin America (still growing but still losing money) and what was interesting was the comment thread. The overwhelming majority of comments highlighted the great customer service the company delivers… the total customer experience that focuses on getting more money – repeat business – from the customers they already have in addition to acquiring new customers.   This is a great close to my post, retailers need to focus on:

1) Total customer experience: From parking lot to what happens when someone asks you what you think about x, y, or z months later.

2) Use technology to deliver in store help in addition to in person help.

3) Physical aesthetics matter.

4) Empower employees to be decisive and actionable, values matter more than controls.