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What happened to customer service at Sears?


The entire history of Sears is way beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but a short summary of Sears has its roots dating back to 1886 when the founder, Robert Sears began selling watches in Chicago.  Thirty years later arose the brands of Kenmore and Craftsman, and during the organization’s  billion dollar growth came Allstate, Caldwell Banker, and Dean Witter. Such was the tradition of Sears as it was well known as the General Store and a provider of everything one needed. When Sears introduced their catalog business, retail sales was revolutionized. Color photos of merchandise delighted shoppers browsing the hundreds of pages of shoes, women’s lingerie, washing machines, tools, and even children’s matching outfits; Sears was the ultimate shopping experience for every member of the family while they sat comfortably at home.

So what has happened? According to online surveys, over 80 percent of customers now give Sears poor customer service grades citing reasons of inept management, unreliable products, poor customer service, and a profound lack of employee training. Of course, Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart, and the Internet giant Amazon have all cut into the general store attitude of Sears,  however there will always be shoppers who prefer brick and mortar establishments and enjoy the experience of the places our grandparents and parents loved to shop. Sadly one of the problems is that Kenmore and Craftsman, although still strong in the Sears’ culture, are now outsourced and sadly that leads to repair problems; so much so that Sears is now a bankruptcy target with a loss of $3.1 billion in 2012.

Can Sears be saved? Probably the best suggestion to Sears would be to bring back the culture of the last century. Customer service begins with employees who want to be working and doing their best. My last experience in Sears in the upscale Palm Beach Gardens Mall was in search of a new washer and dryer when I moved into my new home. Sadly there was an insufficient staff to help anyone, and the salespeople had limited knowledge of the merchandise. According to Measuredup.com, complaints about repairs all through the country are consistently poor for Sears’ appliances, lawnmowers, and even tractors. The cost of repairs seem even more contentious. Consumers driven by finding the lowest prices will ultimately buy online; stores like Sears therefore have to concentrate on their showrooms and presenting superior products, “wow” customer service, and follow-up service and repairs to build customer loyalty and referrals.

Sears went online in 1997, but their entire culture is essentially broken. It’s been suggested that Sears reinvent themselves to focus on men. After all Craftsman tools have always been a male Christmas present staple; for all those weekend home chores. Experts say get rid of the women’s clothes and jewelry and stock up on Lands End merchandise which appeals to men. Invest in some expert staff training, raise salaries to attract the best sales personnel, concentrate on the company’s culture, and rebuild an organization that once dazzled shoppers across the United States.

Photo courtesy of justj0000lie

BMW modeling customer service innovations after Apple

4235391538_b80f750c2cBuying a new car is a baffling and expensive experience for everyone; options have become so technical making it extremely difficult for car buyers to figure out what they need or really want. BMW recognizes the dilemma and has launched a new program called Genius Everywhere remarkably similar to the Genius Bar at Apple stores. In a story posted by industry marketer Advertising Age, the “geniuses” will be salaried personnel who will walk around BMW showrooms with iPads and provide interested browsers with information about specifications and features.  Let’s face it – how many of us have any knowledge of new gizmos such as Night Vision or Active Steering?

If you have ever been to the Genius Bar at an Apple store, knowledgeable men and women in blue shirts walk around the store carrying their iPads  teaching, explaining, or helping set up appointments about an Apple product. The Genius Everywhere program plans to use trained college students wearing white shirts who generally want to work evenings and weekends to provide specific information helping potential buyers to understand the cars and the advanced technology. All Genius Personnel will be salaried, and if a customer is interested in purchasing a car they will be referred to a salesperson. The program is now being tested in Europe, and the company hopes to be ready to launch in the United States by next year when it introduces its 13 electric cars.

The luxury market for car sales has become extremely competitive. Gone are the days of tattooed, pushy salesmen. Customers don’t storm out as a salesman rips up a contract; tactics like that don’t work well in the luxury segment. Statistically Mercedes Benz buyers have a 62% loyalty repeat business, BMW has a 47% repeat and Audi follows with a 37% repeat loyalty base. Showrooms boast coffee bars and breakfast choices – my dealership in North Palm Beach has a concierge service to accommodate  a customer pulling up with or without an appointment.

Cadillac initiated a new program with their Cadillac User Experience (CUE) designed to pare down the confusion of all the technology into a touch screen and a few touch controls. The program was actually developed after Cadillac engineers teamed up with Cadillac drivers to determine their habits. Now a user can be connected to Bluetooth, USBs, MP3 players, navigation units and weather maps in a simple user friendly control panel called the Infotainment system. Lexus employs a delivery and technology experience using trainers to help consumers navigate the latest technological systems. And now Ford has joined the customer assist ranks with their latest multimedia system called My Ford Touch.

In the past the car buying experience has often been historically tainted by obnoxious salesmen, false advertising, and inferior customer service once a buyer signed on the dotted line and drove away. Technology now can help all consumers buy their next dream car, with the demands of “wow” customer service making it all a much better experience.

Photo credit: ronsombilongallery 

Can personal customer service survive in a digital world?

social-media-iconsThe fast paced world of Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp combined with the technological advances of smart phones, interactive websites, and emails enable millions of users to make better informed decisions than ever before possible. There’s hardly a moment when someone isn’t consulting Google to learn more about a product, a person, or a service. While the digital realm can indeed help all of us to buy smarter, perform better, and be better educated, can it ever replace a human at the hub of customer service?

If all goes well during a purchase or service, chances are the tweets, emails, and text message applications so readily available have helped to engage our customers with loyalty programs, discounts, rewards, and product information. We know that customers have the power to choose from a myriad of options, and most of us revel in the latest technological trends to communicate, but what happens when a service or a product goes awry? Does that email we send off to the organization just supply us with a standard response and advise us that a representative will contact us in 24 hours? After all, a 24 hour turn-around period to answer an email is considered standard. In the “old days” we could call customer service on the phone, and even though we waited quite awhile until someone finally answered,  (You are call number 19, but please don’t hang up. Your call is very important to us.) wasn’t it possible our problem was solved within a shorter period of time when an actual person answered the phone?

Where automated email queue is certainly more financially efficient than a room full of customer service agents, the loss of the “personal touch” can have devastating effects when our customers no longer feel connected or appreciated. From the moment a customer walks through the door, the way he is treated beyond what is expected still makes the difference. It goes beyond the sale of the product or after the service is performed; quality customer service is the time when that customer has a problem, and it’s the time when they are completely satisfied that you have resolved their situation by connecting them with someone who can:

  • Use good communication skills
  • Understand the product or service and has a thorough working knowledge of the components
  • Listen to the problem
  • Is empowered to solve the problem without having to call back at another time or seek a supervisor for a decision
  • Treat the customer with respect

Customer service is an ongoing project of education, training, and hiring the best people for the job. Whereas social media can have  profound advantages promoting our organizations, customers want to like you, to talk to you, and to know there is always a physical presence available when needed. Satisfied customers are by far the best salespeople for any organization, so prepare customer service agents with the tools they need to succeed. Their success is your success.