For the most part, business owners view marketing and customer service as two separate parts of their businesses. Marketing is all about reaching new customers, while customer service focuses on existing customers. In the retail industry, though, repeat customers are the very lifeblood of your business, and that means customer service is really just an extension of marketing. Even as you give your customers the best possible experience today, you’re looking forward to their return to your store tomorrow and hoping they bring friends.
Take a moment to step out of your role as a store owner and think of yourself as a shopper. For better or worse, you, like most people, have probably become disillusioned with all sorts of marketing. Advertisers are notorious for exaggerating their products’ strong points, glossing over drawbacks and sometimes even lying outright. Even if your marketing is completely honest, you’ll have to pay the price in consumer trust that less scrupulous advertisers and marketers have frittered away.
One sort of marketing that will never lose its credibility, though, is the referral. If a friend, family member or colleague points you to a store, you’re far more likely to shop there than at the place down the street that just gives you a sales pitch. If you can harness the power of referrals for your store, you’ll find you have a steady stream of incoming customers who choose your business over others.
How do you do it? It’s very simple: Take care of your customers, and they’ll take care of the rest.
Maximize Relationships, Not Profits: Trying to make as much as possible on every single transaction is the definition of a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision. The average retail store sells thousands of items every day, so losing a few dollars here and there isn’t going to hurt you much. Be generous and forgiving when it comes to discounts, returns, coupons and special deals. Your customers will remember those positive experiences and spread the word.
Emphasize Conversation: The retail industry is fundamentally a service industry, and that means conversation should be the beating heart of your business. Get feedback from your customers and be sure to follow up. When customers see their ideas implemented in the store, or even get a follow-up phone call from the owner, they’ll be strongly encouraged to come back over and over again.
Take Care of Your Team: Customers don’t hold the keys to great customer service. It’s your employees who will actually be dealing with customers, and they’re the ones you need to focus on to market your store effectively. Provide extensive training to make sure all of your employees know how to interact with shoppers, and be sure to reward workers who go above and beyond. If you hold up providers of great service as examples, the rest of your team will be inspired to do the same.
Don’t Tolerate Poor Service: It’s often said that the good a man does is buried with him while the evil he does lives on. The same principle applies in retail: Your customers have much longer memories for the negative than the positive. Worse yet, customers are 50 percent more likely to share their bad experiences than their good experiences, a fact that partially explains the preponderance of negative comments online. Make it known throughout your store that you’re absolutely committed to great service, and don’t let anyone get away with slacking off. Remember that poor customer service is absolutely a fireable offense.
Learn to Say “No” Graciously: If the customer is always right, what do you do when the customer is flat-out wrong? Many business owners make the mistake of letting customers walk all over them in the name of “service.” In reality, you can stick to store policy and deny customer requests that just can’t be accommodated, but you need to do so in a kind and respectful manner. Even when dealing with problem customers, be prepared to explain why you can’t give them what they want instead of just saying “that’s against policy.”
Be Consistent: Nothing wrecks your store’s reputation faster than contradictory accounts from different customers. People need to know they’re getting the same high-quality service regardless of who happens to ring them up. Make sure your store policies are clearly articulated and constantly check up on your employees. If one customer gets a special deal, be prepared to offer comparable deals to others in the name of fairness.
Have a Targeted Approach: No retail owner is perfect, and you only have so much energy to focus on improving your customer service. Work smarter by getting customer feedback and focusing only on the things that genuinely help your customers. Perhaps they’d like to see more employees out on the floor; perhaps they’d like to be able to get through checkout more quickly. Take those suggestions to heart, and your customers will notice.
Combine Service and Marketing: If you’re already looking at customer service and marketing as two means to the same end, why not put them together directly? You might use Twitter to spread the word about an interesting customer interaction, for instance, or ask your front-end staff to participate in your next big marketing project. Incorporating customer interactions into your marketing will give your entire business more credibility.
Be Timely: If a customer comes to you with a concern that can’t be addressed right away, follow up as quickly as you can. Be sure to reach out within 24 hours, even if all you have to say is “we’re still working on it.” Nothing says “we care” better than timely feedback; conversely, waiting too long will make your customers think you’ve forgotten them.
Be Home-Like: Above all, your aim should be to help your customers feel at home when they’re in your store. That may be as simple as welcoming them when they arrive and saying goodbye when they leave. When regular customers don’t come in for a few weeks, greet them enthusiastically when they return. Make sure your store is well-maintained to make the environment more welcoming, and strive to offer products that fit your customers’ tastes. Your customers should feel valued when they’re in your store and missed when they’re away.
In retail, great customer service isn’t just a complement to your marketing; it’s the very foundation of your marketing. With time and effort, you’ll be able to build great relationships with customers that keep them coming back day after day.