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Walmart’s dismal customer service scores drive customers away

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Since 2007, Walmart department and discount stores repeatedly have been labeled with the dubious distinction of having the “worst customer service in America.” The Bentonville, Arkansas based retailer scored a 71 out of 100 rating; the lowest grade for customer service as rated by  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction in the United States. As a supermarket, the company didn’t do much better; scoring a 72 out of 100 rating  and similarly low scores since 2005.

The problem with Walmart is multifaceted. Having a person who greets customers at the door is hardly a solution for often poor quality merchandise, poorly trained staff, and dismissive sales associates who seem more interested in going on break than solving customer issues. While shoppers tend to overlook product quality and concentrate on lower prices during tough economic times, once people head back to work and their economics have begun to improve, buyers become less tolerant of rudeness from the customer service desk or inferior merchandise that may have split at the seams after only one laundering. Yet, shoppers can be a forgiving lot if customer service personnel are at the job and eager to please, but that doesn’t seem to happen much at Walmart.

Many Walmart customers opt for one-stop shopping, especially as the gas tank prices continue to rise, but is it really worth the long wait, the rude staff, and the mere frustration of seemingly no solutions to certain product deficiencies? Even Walmart’s e-commerce scored a low 78 out of 100 for performance during the 2012 holiday season. Amazon led all e-commerce retailers with a score of 88 according to For See’s E-Retail Satisfaction survey.

Perhaps Walmart needs to begin with the basics and start to treat employees with respect, offer better wages to attract talented employees, offer competitive health care, bonuses, work incentives, and consistent work schedules. As it is now, the constant turnover of employees make it impossible to properly train and promote talented individuals. The company needs employee pride, a well-tuned culture, and a mentoring program where associates can learn how to deal with customer complaints.

If you’re still a shopper at Walmart and have customer service issues, here are some alternate solutions however that may help:

  • Bypass the automated phone menus if you can. There are many free services to help customers find direct numbers. Check out dialahuman.com for one such service.
  • Have a precise history of everything you have done and everyone you have spoken to in order to rectify the issue. Write it down, have names available, times and dates you have spoken to customer service reps, and how long you have been kept on “hold.”
  • Elevate the importance of your issue by asking to speak with a supervisor.
  • Don’t be negative. Once you get to someone with authority, you want to be cooperative and at least let them think by treating you right, you will want to be a Walmart shopper again.
  • Don’t say “it’s the principle” of the issue. Have a reasonable solution to offer. Don’t be rude, don’t raise your voice, and don’t ever use profanity.

Brick and mortar shopping still remains the most popular, but as shopping behaviors change and traffic continues to shift to online stores because of low prices, greater selections and convenience, customer service needs to improve. It has been stated that consumers continue to lower the bar as to customer service, but it only stands to reason that e-commerce is going to take a huge chunk of business away from organizations that ignore their customers’ needs.

What happened to customer service at Sears?

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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.

Why do customers want to keep coming back?

There’s only one chance to make a great first impression; that very moment you turn a customer off when something goes awry is the same moment the competition tries to reel him in with a more attractive offer and a lot of new promises. For many of us the ultimate in business growth and success is repeat business, because these are the very loyal customers who will not only return for another service or purchase, but these are the very same people who will tell others why they have chosen us and advise them to follow our successful paths.

Great companies who continue to lead today’s generation of “WOW” customer service all have the same basic principles for success. Each one offers a great product or a great service, well-trained and empowered personnel, a proven history of problem solving and customer satisfaction, and the alignment of every department working together in order to deliver a successful experience to a purchaser. The best of customer service begins with the perception of exactly what a customer expects. If you delivered a product in the past, but failed to make that lasting impression your customers won’t be calling you again. If your customers felt you were just there to make the sale, undoubtedly they will have moved on to your competition for their next purchase. Customers want to appreciated, and although they won’t come out and tell you that, their actions speak louder than words.

For instance, potential home buyers walk by a real estate company along Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. The couple decide to stop in for a chat. From Rhode Island, Mr. and Mrs. Jones have dreamed of having a place in the sun to relax along the sandy beaches of South Florida during the cold New England winters, and although they have looked online for Palm Beach listings, they have never had the opportunity to actually visit the areas affordable to them. Their ideal search therefore begins with an experienced agent who can explain the possibilities, introduce the couple to available financing opportunities, coordinate the specific and unusual insurance demands of Florida, and find them the perfect property to suit their needs. Summing it all up – success comes with knowing your business, your market, your customers, and having the ability to collaborate experts in all related fields to produce a strong relationship to accommodate customers until they reach a successful closing experience. Whether it takes one week of intensive potential home previews or six months of credit repair, the partnership of working together for the benefit of the customer or client becomes that positive memorable experience.

So how does an organization deliver customer service which strives to exceed great expectations?

  • Each and every action should be  a commitment to a customer which ultimately ends in loyalty. The customer has to know they are important, and each and every sale made concentrates on the needs and wants of the customer. A customer should never think that all an organization cares about is just the sale.
  • Only hire the best employees, and spend the money and time training them. Move past the employees who are just there waiting for payday. Although the initial hiring salaries and subsequent training can cost a company more than budgeted at the onset, poor employees mean unhappy customers, fewer referrals, and non existent loyalties.
  • Every business decision should be well planned and strategic. Dedicate customer service as a top priority. Each time a customer calls in with a suggestion, a question, or a complaint, make sure that any representative is able to deliver efficient service.
  • Consistently work to improve your organization.

Zappos customer service ‘core values’ sets record for longest call

Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team repeatedly exceeds expectations of the family culture CEO Tony Hsieh envisioned as his passion for customizing customer service always remains a number one priority 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. On December 8, Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus spent 10 hours and 29 minutes on a phone call. According to The Huffington Post, the call set a new record; beating out the previous record at the online shoe and apparel retailer of 8 hours and 29 minutes.

As an integral part of their unconventional and innovative customer service, Hsieh’s ideas are reflected in everything Zappos. If work shouldn’t be viewed as onerous, “being a little weird requires being a little innovative.” The call between Shaea and a customer named Lisa didn’t concern a customer service problem; it involved the caller transferring to Las Vegas and asking questions seeking information about neighborhoods, jobs, and what it’s like to live in that part of the country. Shaea stated she took one bathroom break during that time, and her teammates brought her food while she was on the call. And to Shaea’s credit, the caller did purchase a pair of Ugg boots.

There is nothing better than the human factor when calling customer service. Of course automated systems are cheaper and more efficient than hiring humans, but most customers calling in and having to deal with an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) where one must “press 1 to continue in English” becomes exasperating and confusing as the next prompt warns the caller to listen carefully because “the options may have changed.” If customer service is all about sending away happy customers while forming lasting relationships so these customers return to make more purchasers or tell their family and friends what a great experience they had using a company, shouldn’t some retailers be taking lessons from a company like Zappos? Statistics reveal that automated answering systems have longer hold times; whereas automated answering systems average a wait time of two minutes per phone call, a human answering the phone averages only a minute wait time.

Customer service is all about making the customer feel important, and the largest part of Zappos investment into customer satisfaction is training their team to be good listeners, and staying on the phone as long as necessary to help. After all, aren’t future customers a large part of building a company, and isn’t a company built one customer at a time? There’s little doubt that customer Lisa will always be a loyal customer, and there’s no doubt that Lisa will be telling friends and family about her experience with Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus. And it’s not that a customer service agent must stay on the phone forever, but having the option always available for the taking is a step in the right direction.

How to ‘WOW’ customers at a buffet

The luxurious and extravagant hotel on the island of Palm Beach, Florida touting two turrets with waving flags reminiscent of a Roman palace immediately creates the illusion of a magical kingdom fit for the most discriminating clientele. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Breakers Hotel sits on 140 acres of manicured lawns, hedges, pools, spas, hotel rooms, and exquisite restaurants. The staff ranges from 1600 to 1800 depending on the time of year and covers 50 languages. From the moment one arrives, the promise of a truly regal customer experience is realized.

So it came to be my family’s desired location for Christmas dinner; the dinner buffet in the Ponce de Leon Ballroom. And the “WOW” customer service experience began. From the smiles of the welcoming staff as we drove up to the grand entrance, to the lobby with the vaulted ceilings, tufted sofas, and the attentive service personnel ready to direct their guests to whatever direction they might be headed, ensured a lasting family memory.

At one time buffets were designed, at least from the customer point of view as an “all you can eat” experience where massive quantities of food were presented without much thought to presentation. Today’s guests expect elegance, upscale ambiance, an easy traffic-flow to navigate through different stations, and an upbeat and attentive staff.  So how did the Breakers exceed customer expectations?

Two hostesses greeted us as we approached the dining room and within moments led us to our table. A live band played soft music; the saxophonist was incredibly talented. The buffet was set up on both sides to accommodate either section of the dining room with an exquisite dessert table set off to the side. There was never more than a few moments wait to scoop up a delectable selection of food ranging from salads, cold displays of jumbo shrimp, oysters and little neck clams, to caviar, hot buffet items, and carving stations; each selection skillfully presented amid a backdrop of exquisite Christmas decorations, ribbons, and wreaths. After all isn’t presentation at least 50 percent of a buffet’s appeal? The wait staff was able to anticipate and react to their guests requests, and were knowledgeable about vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diets including questions about ingredients for food sensitive diners.  Managers in well tailored suits, hostesses in professional holiday fashion, and waiters anxious to please and attentive to every detail knew when to approach and when to leave guests to the privacy of their special family moments.

A good buffet showcase such as the Christmas Day Dinner is more than just a fine dining experience.  It actually serves as a showcase for banquets and special services. The ability of this extraordinary customer experience draws people into the hotel who may not normally visit, but who have been so impressed by the services and venue may now one day plan a wedding, social occasion, or business conference. And from this experience comes our family telling our other relatives what a wonderful afternoon we spent at the Breakers, and the good reviews pass on and on. Of course, the story of this exceptional experience can’t be complete until I mention a few of the desserts which included gourmet hot chocolate shots, peppermint bark, walnut rum balls, and egg nog mousse martinis. There just wasn’t a frown in the place!

Counting down holiday shopping days: Great customer service needed

MallThe National Retail Federation estimates the average jolly holiday shopper will conservatively spend $750 for family and friends this season. Of course that includes gifts, decorations, and greeting cards which we all like to share as the joys of the season take over our common sense. What we don’t like however, are problems with the merchandise or services we purchase. Therefore customers are more likely to shop at the competition when customer service perfection fails. Sadly the loss of business can be from one bad experience and how it is handled, so the pressure’s on.

For many shoppers, the local mall is the venue of choice for holiday gifts. There’s convenience in parking, a wide selection of merchandise, and often last minute sales  even beat the price of online shopping. The most popular products for gifts include toys, electronics, and clothing, and here is where retailers definitely find it imperative to put their best foot forward to not only lure shoppers into their stores, but build up enough confidence and satisfactions that these shoppers will want to return – perhaps even in January when sales notoriously slump. And even though customers always want to cut corners when it comes to getting a bargain, never underestimate the power of excellent customer service.

When time is almost always at a premium, statistics have stayed constant showing shoppers still willing to pay extra for superior customer service. If two stores in the mall carry the same merchandise, but one store excels in pleasing customers and presents that ‘wow” experience we all dream of when shopping, customers still swing towards the near perfect experience. So what are some of the customer service “need to master” skills in order to create that exceptional experience ? Here are the top three:

  • Be enthusiastic when customers enter your store. Make customers feel comfortable – not necessarily by overwhelming them by trailing them around the store, but be helpful. Is there no better feeling when shopping then not having to search around an entire store for the product and having a sales representative available to answer questions or help a shopper find a specific size or color? Customer service representatives should like their jobs; it’s quite apparent when an employee is just counting down the hours until their shift is over. Have a great training program, and hire the best you can afford. It’s not about having warm bodies to ring up sales; it’s about having employees who add to the importance of your business by representing it with knowledge, honesty, and enthusiasm.
  • Customer service representatives should be thoroughly familiar with what their business offers. The sales process begins with listening to the customer to find out what they want and need. When a talented salesperson is able to advise, lead a customer and then help them make the best choice, customers appreciate the effort. Great customer service isn’t about over selling, it’s about filling the need with the most appropriate product or service and doing it with patience, efficiency, and grace.
  • Never forget to show your customer or client you appreciate their business and their loyalty. That ever important “thank you” reminds people they are individuals and each time they enter your store you are appreciative of their business and will always strive to do your best to meet their needs.

While the crush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed, consumers always remember the best shopping experiences – including prices, quality, and customer service experiences. Be one of those exceptional providers and watch your business continue to grow.

Photo from Flickr

 

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