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Customer satisfaction for retailers at all time high

For the third year in a row, customer satisfaction in the retail trade for the United States is at an all time industry high, but of course there are always some caveats since many of the top retailers who scored relatively low for customer satisfaction are among the top retailers. Go figure!

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report examined the implications of both e-commerce and retail businesses concluding that better customer service, discounting of prices, and lower gasoline prices offset a drop in Internet sales. For instance, gas station business is based solely on price, and with GasBuddy.com, it’s easy to check, however stations have also improved by offering customers quick options for groceries instead of having to head off to the nearest supermarket and  make another stop.

Perhaps one of the more interesting conundrums of the report stated that eight of the ten retailers with the worst customer satisfaction scores were among the 20 top retailers in 2012. Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walmart with the supermarket scoring the lowest ACSI score for customer satisfaction  and poor customer relations, still received a high customer satisfaction score for mobile and Internet business. Part of the problem of low scores come from employee feedback where lack of benefits and competitive salaries evoke mediocre to low reviews from the staff.

Interesting enough however, even though brick and mortar stores suffered this past year from less foot traffic, customers were pleased with shorter waiting lines, more products in stock, and the personal service that brings consumers into a store. Add that kind of exemplary service to a romantic city street decorated with twinkling lights and attractive merchandise offered from decorated windows, the holiday season became a fun experience for shoppers.

For specialty stores, the availability of merchandise scored the highest benchmark for customer satisfaction, and in general consumers were pleased with relatively good service, clean and attractive spaces well laid out, and quicker checkout. The down part of specialty stores compared to department stores, however are less sales and promotions. (Even the wealthiest shoppers enjoy a good bargain.)

The Internet retail experience was affected this year by a huge mess of weather delays; scarcely was there a day in the news that supply and delivery didn’t make headlines. Amazon.com didn’t seem to suffer much by offering free delivery and other “wallet oriented” apologies. It doesn’t seem one can beat the convenience, the merchandise selection, ease of navigation, useful customer information on the sites, and customer support of e-commerce; especially coming from an age of young professionals who spend more time online shopping than at the mall. Brick and mortar organizations are constantly challenged to meet and surpass a shopping experience worthy of a personal adventure.

Maybe one of the worst customer satisfaction experiences lately, scoring at the very bottom of ACSI benchmark are Internet Service Providers. Comcast Corporation, as it wens it way to a $45 billion mega merger with Time Warner Cable may be destined to become the two worst companies combining for the worst service imaginable. Facebook pages like Comcast Sucks and I Hate Comcast have thousands of likes and complaints ranging from outrageous bills, endless waits on the phone for service, and inconsistency of service. It’s practically unimaginable that Internet providers will ever do better.

As a new year of customer satisfaction rolls on, let’s hope to continue to see improvements whether we step into a store or sign on to the Internet.

Service with a snarl: What to look for and how to avoid it

No doubt we have all been victims of bad customer service, and no doubt we have left companies and moved on to their competition because the experience, at least in our own eyes for the moment, had been intolerable. Of course, we all have those particularly heinous stories of sub par service and indignant insults, but fair is fair, and perhaps some of those “fly off the handle” experiences could have been handled better; both by the customer and the service person.

Whereas the warning signs of poor customer service seem to be universal in this day and age of technology and good old personal one on one intervention, the adage of the “customer is always right” can never be a one-size fits all solution. It is true that waiting in line or a long telephone “hold” wears down a customer’s patience, and could very well be the foreshadowing of a busy and understaffed company, statistics state Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line for such services as cash registers, amusement parks, movies, fast food restaurants, and the list goes on.

The real payoff happens when we get to the front of the line or the representative answers the phone. How is the customer treated? Is there an apology for making us wait? Is the service we expect now provided? Is the customer service representative owning the problem, or are we told someone else will have to get in touch with us? The popular recording:

“Your call is very important to us. Please do not hang up. All of our representatives are busy helping other customers,” is only believable to us if we can expect our problems to be corrected or addressed.

The real solution is a customer service representative who is well-trained and intelligent who tells an unhappy customer:

“We’re sorry, and we will make this right.”

On the other side of the customer service debate, however we must remember that customers need to own  respectable codes of behavior. Customer service agents are not FBI hostage negotiators and should not be expected to tolerate screaming profanities, unrealistic goals, and vulgar behaviors. Agreed, everyone can get slightly miffed from waiting in line or being left on “hold” for more than a customer thinks is acceptable, ( could be one minute, ten minutes, or an hour) beginning the conversation in an arbitrary manner is not likely to get the desired results. Try to throw, “it’s the principle” out of your mind and concentrate on the desired end result; whether it is to be a refund, a replacement part, or a better seat in the auditorium for a Katy Perry concert. Nothing replaces the time honored old English proverb:

“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Organizations have

to figure out which way they want to operate. Low levels of service are inexpensive, but the high costs of customer dissatisfaction, the lost business, and the money spent to process and repair the damage, takes its toll. High levels of service are expensive, and it costs more to provide those services, but the costs for dissatisfaction issues are much lower.

So the next time you think you are a victim of a snarly customer service person, why not take a deep breath and imagine the “best in life is yet to come.”

Customer service sparkles with romance at St. Augustine specialty boutique

2011-11-05 023While Cupid may not have the reputation for worrying about customer service when it comes to thoughts of love, it’s clearly evident the diapered imp of romance has never had to deal with an epic proposal like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in the middle of AT&T Park in San Francisco; all resplendent with a 50 piece orchestra and a $3 million 15 carat diamond ring. Still love isn’t always dependent on dazzling drama nor is it only for the privileged or the rich; “WOW” customer service can make even the simplest proposal an affair to remember.

In one of 14 unique stores around the world, Filthy Rich located in St. Augustine, Fla. offers affordable, high quality reproductions of celebrity replica jewelry from collections ranging from the Golden Era of Hollywood to Jacqueline Kennedy and even fast forward to the contemporary collections of Carrie Bradshaw. It’s a store “all about the fun” where a shopper can also find movie props, film cell art, Elvis Presley memorabilia, and even a life size statue of Marilyn Monroe wearing the iconic white dress from the movie The Seven Year Itch.

And so one day a young couple in love walks in to the store to browse the elusive gap spanning the past to the present of Hollywood’s most glamorous and romantic times, and the young woman falls in love with the store, where of course “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” She stopped at every display, read all of the posters, learned, laughed, and left happy.

The next day the young man returned and spoke with the owner about how much his girlfriend enjoyed the experience at the store, and wanted to ask the store owner for a specific favor; the young man wanted to propose to his lady in the store since she found the store to be so romantic. And that is what happened, but with a clever twist and the kind of customer service to be remembered and passed on to friends, relatives, and coworkers. The store owner and the young man arranged the date and time he would bring his girlfriend back into the store. The engagement ring, a genuine diamond purchased from a nearby fine jewelry store, was brought in and carefully placed in one of the contemporary collection display cases awaiting the arrival of the couple.

And so the fun began. The boyfriend told his girl to choose a ring for fun, and pointed to the  real diamond ring. Of course she said it was beautiful, and as the shop owner pulled the ring out for the young woman to try on, the would-be groom fell to one knee and proposed.

Perhaps it is the unconventional and innovative way the “WOW” was delivered that made this an amazing experience because the end result made an emotional impact on the receivers. Since there was no monetary reward for the shop owner, (remember the ring was purchased at a fine jewelry store) could this be another example of going “above and beyond”? While there are no magic formulas for small businesses to guarantee their success, sending customers away who are happy and therefore pass on positive feedback, are the building blocks to repeat business and loyalty. Good service starts at the top; when the owner makes it their mission to set goals of greatness, continue on the challenge for excellent service, and train the staff to be courteous, knowledgeable, and helpful. Keeping promises, paying attention to complaints, and answering the phone help to form those very important relationships because we are judged more by what we do than by what we say.

Of course, throwing in incredible experiences and being helpful even if no immediate compensation is realized is sure to catch the attention of many others. Where do you think that couple will shop the next time?

Memorable experiences make for “WOW” customer service

Ritz Carlton

Perhaps the best of the best try to make every experience memorable by paying special attention to details. One recent experience at the Ritz Carlton where my real estate partner and I recently visited for lunch to meet with a European client who had flown into Palm Beach for the day to preview a listing we were offering, certainly left a wonderful customer service memory I had never experienced before, but have mentally earmarked as one of the most memorable customer appreciation opportunities I’ve ever witnessed.

For women who know that wearing high heels may not be comfortable after hours on your feet and previewing properties, both Erika and I were more than happy to relax in a comfortable lounge in the reception area to wait for our client. We laughed and cajoled with each other how sore our feet were, and moments later when our client approached, she was also wearing similar ridiculously high heels and readily recognized with good humor how uncomfortable the extended wear of such shoes can be. In less than five minutes, a young woman from the Ritz Carlton staff came over to us and very politely told us, she had seen us rubbing our feet and knew exactly how we were feeling. She then invited all of us into the spa for a complimentary foot massage. Of course our client happily obliged, and for the next 20 minutes, the four of us (including the client’s husband) were indulged in pure relaxation and what must count as one of the greatest impromptu customer experiences for a hotel.

So what makes something like this so memorable, and why did the employee take it on her own to offer us such a complimentary service? Strong leadership skills and great training enhance the talents of great employees. When searching for the best customer service personnel, integrity, mutual respect, innovation with a mixture of creativity and the ability to have fun and like what they do catapults these valuable employees to the top of the list. Highly motivated and successful employees who complement an organization that encourages their staff to “own a situation” and gives them the ability to make free standing decisions reflects the high level of care and concern that excellent leadership skills include in the day to day quest for excellence.

While the complimentary service may have cost the Ritz Carlton a few more dollars than a more customary perk for a hotel guest and their friends, think of the residual benefits for this five star establishment. After all there is a lot of competition in Palm Beach to be the best of the best. Still what guest wouldn’t tell the story to her friends over cocktails and dinner? And then what friend wouldn’t remember the story when getting ready to book a few days on the luxurious Island of Palm Beach? And never underestimate the connections and kind words from the local real estate agents who often are asked by foreign clients where to stay.

For the grateful, andfor the people who capitalize on opportunities to create a great service experience, it’s about more effort, and a unique way to spread the word about the extra mile some organizations will go to that brings back the faith in “WOW” customer service.

In the fiercely, competitive struggle of fashion and service, Burberry does it well

burberryy-logoWhat keeps a company in business in today’s competitive retail market? For the luxury brands, buyers insist on the quality of  merchandise accompanied by exceptional customer experiences.  Within minutes of entering a boutique, can a prospective buyer be confident of a friendly atmosphere, of comfortable surroundings, and that of a customer service consultant capable of expertly assisting without being annoying?

Welcome to the world of Burberry, a company which dates back to 1856 with 21-year-old Thomas Burberry opening his own outdoor apparel shop in Hampshire, England. Introducing gabardine, a water-repellent and comfortable fabric, Burberry’s trench coat eventually became a household word often included in the wardrobes of the rich and famous, and happily filtering down to the working class.

But it’s not just about the high end clothing even though the men’s single breasted trench coat sells for $1,295 or the cotton polo with the Burberry distinctive tartan trim sells for $150, it’s also interesting to observe some of the innovative methods used in a highly competitive market to set themselves apart. Chief creative officer Christopher Bailey made sure only one central location would be responsible for the Burberry theme; thus concentrating on design and the ‘brand’ which is inexorably fashion. The strong growth in China has boosted the organization’s growth more than 13 percent in the last three months, and according to Wikipedia, the organization has 500 stores in over 50 countries.

With the expert incorporation of social media, Burberry has more than 10 million Facebook followers, but even Twitter was not to be the final public method of expanding the younger consumer desire of fashion and function communication. Burberry began its own social platform capitalizing the roots of their 150 year-old British tradition with The Art of the Trench, described as a “living celebration of the Burberry trench coat and the people who wear it.” Where one might think that customers may have turned up their perfectly coiffed hair at such a public display, the site is full of young, good-looking customers; even featuring a few pint-sized kiddies modeling their trench coats.

And in my own experience, the Burberry store in Palm Beach Gardens offers the visually appealing, experienced sales consultants, and the ease of completing a purchase with the least amount of stress. Since 2012, sales personnel use iPads as part of the company’s technological makeover which contains customer history,  buying preferences, and all that is needed to tailor one’s shopping experience. Match that with their online collections, excellent return policies, concierge service, and alteration facilities, the customer experience keeps you smiling and relaxed. Shopping should be enjoyable, and should it matter if we pay $49 or $149 for a polo shirt? Can’t other stores take a lesson or two from a London tradition who just seems to do it better than most stores?

A practical approach to dealing with customer service frustrations

irslogoNo doubt, it has been a tough week for customer service. Internal Revenue Service acting agency head, Steven T. Miller who is resigning from his post stated earlier this week:

“I can say generally, we provided horrible customer service. I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selections.”

And if that didn’t capture enough of America’s attention, how about the Maserati owner only identified as Wang who smashed his $420,000 Quattroporte with sledgehammers to protest the dealer’s poor customer service while shocked onlookers watched?

Of course, the normal customer service experience for disgruntled customers rarely take on the profound consequences as these two examples, but the importance of being able to successfully and calmly maneuver through a maze of frustrating obstacles before getting problems resolved can seem insurmountable to consumers at any moment. With that in mind, the better part of valor calls for the customer to wait until he is calm before instituting contact for a bad product, poor service, or any project requiring the help of an organization’s customer service department.

In businesses that continue to concentrate on the value of great customer service, “chat” lines have become great assets for a positive link between customer and service personnel. The lines of communication are open immediately, and consequently there may be a quicker and friendlier resolution to the problem. Winding one’s way through the phone maze may be infinitely more challenging however, but staying calm and listening to the voice commands will hopefully get you to a representative. Of course, one can always just punch in “0” for operator; that works fine on some systems. If you get the music and are asked to hold, why not place your phone on the “speaker” option and continue with your other work while waiting?

Have all of your paper work available when speaking with the customer service representative. Have the notes in front of you of people you have already spoken with, what correspondence and emails you have already received, customer reference numbers, and any other pertinent information you may have to make the process move along quicker and more efficiently. As you speak with the representative, remember not to be rude, never curse, hold back on sarcasm, and remember that the person you are speaking with isn’t the enemy and probably is not the person responsible for the defective product, lack of promised return, refund, or the cause of the poor service. Human nature commonly follows the basic premise of the more gracious you might be, the more interested the customer service agent will want to extend her arms of helpfulness.

Suppose the telephone conversation and subsequent actions or promised actions of the customer service department doesn’t solve your problem or meet up with your expectations? A popular solution is to take it to social media. Post on Twitter or the company’s Facebook page that the action taken has been less than what should have happened, or that no one has ever returned your call. More than likely, that action will garner attention. And when it’s clear that you need to move up the complaint ladder to a supervisor, again it is suggested to be cooperative and complimentary to the representative you have been dealing with – please don’t say you don’t want to deal with them anymore, but thank them for their time and ask to speak with a supervisor.

By this time most customer service problems have been resolved, but if it’s a fight to the bitter end, then it might be time to email the CEO. Surprisingly enough, some correspondence does make it to their desk while others have had to rely on television news anchors for the latest IRS complaints.

Guest Post: Ritz-Carlton Customer Service Secrets

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is known worldwide for it’s “legendary service.” So much so, Apple uses the luxury hospitality brand as a model for its owner customer support traditions. Part of their success can be credited to one simple mantra – “Radar On – Antenna Up.” This means seeking out the customers unanticipated and unvoiced needs. This could be as simple as replacing an empty tube of toothpaste while a guest is out on business, or handing Roarie the stuffed Ritz-Carlton lion to an crying toddler.

These practices have not only increased word of mouth and brand loyalty. Ritz-Carlton also boasts among the best employee retention rates around. To create raving fans, they start with inciting brand enthusiasm from their team.

Recently, I sat down with Ritz-Carlton Vice President Diana Oreck to see if she could share any more secrets to the company’s customer service super sauce. She heads up the company’s executive training program, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Here is what she had to say:

The answers in this article have been modified from the original transcript of Diana Oreck’s interview with Software Advice.

Q: One of the Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards is “anticipate unexpressed needs.” Why is this important to customer service success and how do you train employees to recognize and act on unexpressed needs?

A: It’s very important because legendary service is about surprise and delight. It’s not robotic, it’s not scripted. And the way we teach it is through a class called “radar on, antenna up.” Golden nugget: You cannot give legendary service if you’re on autopilot. We have a daily lineup everyday in every [Ritz-Carlton] hotel around the world where we provide scenarios and discuss the best approach in the class. For example, we might go to a room and see you have one drop of toothpaste left in your toothpaste tube, so we are going to replace that tube of toothpaste without you asking and that’s a nice surprise when you return from business.

Q: What metrics or qualitative data does Ritz-Carlton use to measure customer service training success (How do you know it’s working)? How do you collect this data? 

A: Oh yes, we poll our guests once a month. The Gallup organization sends out a survey to 38 percent of guests that stayed the month before. It’s done randomly with the hope we will get 8-10 percent return. We live and die by that guest engagement number. This is the sum of responses to about 30 questions, including How likely is that guest to recommend Ritz Carlton? Were they delighted and satisfied with their stay? If there was a problem, did we take care of their problem? We know that if that guest engagement number goes up, we know that our training programs have been successful.

Q: Retention is a big issue for a lot of customer service teams. Is the same true for Ritz-Carlton? What does the company do to retain talent?

A: We’ve got a vast list. Rewards and recognition is huge. Ranging from our first class card, which is the most popular form of recognition at Ritz Carlton. It’s just a card that we give it to one another as a thanks. It can be peer to peer, peer to manager, employee to president, president to employee. And then we have things like birthdays, where we give gift certificates. Employees can become ‘five-star’ of the quarter. We don’t do employee of the month, because we find it’s much for meaningful if it’s the quarter. We are also one of the only hotel companies that still provide meals for their staff.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes companies make when training customer service staff?

A: They’re not being specific enough. They’ll say things like “Give great service.” Well that’s nice, but people need a road map. Never assume anything, make sure you have your service standards written down and allow people to observe you in action. Don’t assume that their mother or father, or previous employer taught them what really great service looks like. Have a written service strategy.

Q: What other successful customer service strategies have companies adopted by studying Ritz-Carlton?

A: It’s all about empowerment. The thing that our guests are most wowed about is that every single employee has $2,000 a day per guest to delight, or make it right. But we never use the money because that money is just symbolic. We are saying to our employees – we trust you. We select the best talent. Just help the guest. We do a lot of training around empowerment. So I would say this – you need to empower employees. You also need to make sure that you are inspiring employees to bring their passion to work everyday and to volunteer their best. And you do that by reinforcing their purpose, not their function.

About Diana Oreck: 

Diana leads The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center – a corporate university created to provide opportunities to leadership and learning professionals wanting to benchmark human resources, leadership, quality and training practices. The program has twice won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1992 and 1999. Diana has more than 30 years experience in hospitality and customer service expertise.

About Ashley Furness:

Ashley is a CRM Market Analyst for Software Advice, where she writes about customer service, marketing and sales strategy. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising. She is a University of Texas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Guest services and planning needed to create a ‘Wow’ experience in buffet style holiday feast

Buffets traditionally save on labor costs and provide an excellent venue to showcase a restaurant’s best food and service. In a resort area such as South Florida, the ‘”WOW” experience includes customer service, atmosphere, cuisine, and of course – location. So how does all of this compare with the Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa located in Jupiter, Florida on a beautiful Thanksgiving afternoon? The resort is located directly on the Atlantic Ocean beach and offers 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor dining facilities, yet no one even glimpsed a view of the sandy beaches nor could anyone boast a “WOW” experience for a poorly planned Thanksgiving feast.

Let’s travel back to the beginning of the experience when there were confirmed reservations made for a specific time. First impressions are important, and the initial customer service coordinator’s poor judgment and lack of planning immediately diminished any well-meaning intentions. When guests are forced to wait for over an hour before they are seated, and made to stand around with no apologies and no direction as to the reasons for the delay, it would seem a new marketing plan would be imminent. When guests with confirmed reservations are made to wait as “walk-in” customers are seated before them, when no servers ever appear in the make-shift lobby crowded with guests waiting to be seated even taking beverage orders, and when hostesses do not communicate with waiting guests, it’s dubious anyone will be wanting to come back for another holiday celebration.

The best advantage of a buffet is the flexible format and of course, it is easier to accommodate more people than offering sit-down menus with table service. Frequently the rule of thumb is one server for 18 guests during a sit-down function as compared to one server for 24 guests at a buffet, however when servers are cleaning up tables, delivering drink orders, and other buffet associated duties to 40 or more guests, service suffers. Diners miss out on the experience of the best a resort can offer, and dining in two conference rooms without even a window certainly suffers the anticipated ambiance of a family dinner overlooking the grand vistas of a beautiful seashore facility.

So what could have been done to ensure a positive experience for guests? The excuse that management could not plan for the length of time a guest stayed at the buffet and therefore backed up multitudes of awaiting guests was not sufficient. Since the 16th century when buffets originated in France, experienced catering and convention managers have been able to estimate the time guests spend eating. Buffet managers should have planned for more staff or at the very least – limited the amount of reservations and of course denied “walk-ins.” A more experienced hostess staff should have been keeping waiting guests constantly informed of the situation, and an apology with an incentive should have been offered to guests for a future visit. And of course, there should have been the same choices of food for the guests at the end of the day as were available for the guests at the beginning of the buffet.

And even though it is a beautiful spot for a peaceful afternoon, the chances of my family ever returning are slim. When we tell ten of our friends and they tell ten others, what might have been a great place to plan a wedding, a party, or a family reunion becomes a place just “off the list.”

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