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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

Book Review: Roadmap to Revenue

I just finished reading Roadmap to Revenue: How To Sell The Way Your Customers Want To Buy (Amazon.com link). The book was written by Kristin Zhivago, a Revenue Coach and worldwide speaker who helps CEOs and entrepreneurs understand what customers really want and how they want to buy.

In a nutshell, Roadmap to Revenue helps us understand the customer-centric instead of the common company-centric mindset. In other words, the most successful organizations work on selling the way customers want to buy while making it easy for buyers to find you. From the moment a reader opens the book, a whimsical roadmap appears on the front inside cover which begins with an “awakening point” and concludes with “revenue city.” Following the correct route, the organization arrives at the ultimate reward of success. The author guides the reader through:

  • Discover – The “awakening  point” to help figure out what makes customers buy and how to help the customer benefit from a product or service
  • Debate –  The “resolution junction” identifying customers, how they want to buy and  strengths and weaknesses as applicable to the sales process
  • Deploy –  The “action plan” in the buying process that satisfies the customer-centric experience and thus increases revenue

The book creates an interesting customer experience strategy and follows a logical sequence of explanations and examples to help the reader understand the behavior of customers and what they want. In the very beginning of the book we find out there is no “silver bullet” solution to make customers come to you. In fact many businesses sabotage and impede their own efforts. Fortunately the solutions to success don’t require major restructuring, but knowing how and when to appeal to customers to set you apart from your competition. Buyers don’t always know what they want even though they may approach a particular product or service with interest, but if the buyer doesn’t follow through to the purchase, there arises the question of what happened and what did not occur that interfered with the sale.

From Chapters 2 to Chapter 5, the reader discovers the mindset of the purchaser and what to do. In the technological age where any purchaser can Google 80 percent of  their questions prior to purchasing a product or service, the onus to answer the specific 20 percent of questions remaining in their minds can lead to disappointment on the part of the customer if the agent for an organization doesn’t have specific answers. Sales personnel and customer service personnel need to be documenting customer questions and making all data available to everyone in the company as well as on websites. The more specific the information pertaining to what a buyer wants, the more a buyer will be attracted to what you have to sell. As you continue to learn what your customers are thinking, you will be able to meet their needs, even as the market changes. Sometimes you just need to make changes to a product -most times by learning through extensive interviews and reports.

From Chapters 6 through 12, the reader finds out how to understand the customer. Of four levels of buyer scrutiny, we discover how customers want to buy from us and how to avoid making expensive mistakes.  The Scrutiny chapters address each level; Light, Medium, Heavy, and Intense which depends upon particular products or services.

The book uses real examples about marketing and selling channels in order to reach customers and answer questions. As social media hype continues to increase, businesses still need to be guided by the vital information from their customers and knowing what is important to them and what specifically appeals to them. For instance, how you handle a buyer who has just researched a product and landed on your website is paramount.  The potential buyer is theoretically knocking at your door, so be sure your website is chock full of answers, integrity, and efficiency. On-going relationships, repeat business, and endorsements continue to lead  organizations along the road to financial rewards and future success.

Bottomline: The book is a good read and is aimed towards retail and consumer service providers. As a real estate sales agent I found many of the chapters particularly focused towards creating a customer service culture using data to build a knowledge base of what customers are looking for and how to interview potential customers to encourage them to buy from me and ultimately make a sale.

Pros: Well-written and logically planned. The book reminds us to put customers first and how to think like a customer helping us to create that ever important customer experience strategy to set all of us apart from our competition.

Interested: Those interested in the book can buy it on Amazon.com.

Getting back to the basics of effective customer service

In one of the most successful self-help books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey identifies the elements truly effective people use regularly as tools towards their success. No matter how quickly technology continues to dazzle us with innovative ways to contact our customers, understand new products, or strive to make purchasing convenient and quick, satisfied customers and our future relationships with them are what keeps our businesses growing. Might we just build trust and more satisfied customers by getting back to basics, and using  proven methods of success? Here are Covey’s habits as explained in his book. Read how easily they can be related to the core values of effective customer service:

  1. Habit number one calls for us to be proactive or to take the initiative to realize the decisions we make will ultimately determine the course of our businesses. No matter how far technology takes us, people still want to speak to real people when they are having a problem or expecting excellent service. Customer service has always been a top priority for American Express as compared to the endless prompts and procedures of other credit card companies. It’s interesting to note that more credit card companies have recently been reaching out to the public stating that real people are now readily available when a customer calls.
  2. The second habit is to begin with the end in mind or picture where you would like your business to be in the future. Amazon, Zappos, and the Ritz Carlton hotels pictured clients and guests having access to every amenity, guaranteeing satisfaction with unquestioned return policies, and hiring the most effective agents who could bring a dream to reality.
  3. Put first things first and prioritize your tasks as to your customers. Keep promises, work on your company values, and above all concentrate on the most ethical and respectful ways to promote better relationships with all of your customers. Sometimes it isn’t just about the sale, and people remember when you go out of your way to help.
  4. Can you think win-win? Outstanding customer service calls for everyone to win. Can you solve problems and still be fair? While you may not make a customer happy all the time, the win-win situation still counts if there is value and respect for both sides. If one can concentrate on long term solutions and still come up with a reasonable compromise, all parties can maintain their dignity.
  5. Habit five says to seek first to understand, then to be understood. Communication is a two-way street. The most important part of excellent customer service is the ability to listen. We can’t solve problems if we don’t understand.
  6. Next we synergize which is to join forces with our teams and work together to encourage the best possible customer services. We just cannot depend on the front desk agent who answers the phone or who replies on Facebook. Customer service includes every department from CEO to delivery. The best customer service oriented companies encourage employees to learn, join together to teach each other, and work where the “whole” complements the “parts.”
  7. And finally the seventh most successful habit is described as sharpening the saw. The analogy pertains to the man who kept sawing through a piece of wood, but his saw was too dull to finish the job on time. When asked why he didn’t just stop and sharpen his saw, the man replied he couldn’t because he wouldn’t be able to finish his job by stopping. All of us need to take  time to energize ourselves whether we choose to spend time with our children, run ten-miles on the beach, or relax in the mountains of New York State. Take some time, and learn from our mistakes.

The valuable time we spend honing our best talents and helping our colleagues to be the best they can be will help to establish the  most successful companies.

Google enters into customer service industry with Trusted Stores Program

Critics are saying that Google has entered into the customer service arena which in the past  directly contradicts their automated tech abilities and less than stellar customer-centric talents. The introduction of the Google Trusted Stores Program may be the foundation for competing with Amazon someday, but it’s interesting to see Google becoming a customer service representative for customers right down to even offering a purchase protection plan when a sale goes awry.

So how does the new program work? Actually Google has been testing their “Trusted Stores” badges since October 2011, and it is offered to all United States businesses with a self-service sign up interface. The service is free of charge to customers and merchants, and according to Google the intended purpose is to increase trust for online shopping, so if a customer doesn’t know the company they can check its reliability before turning over their cash. According to an article by NBC:

The new program is Google’s attempt to make nervous buyers calmer about parting with their credit card numbers on an anonymous site.

The Google Trusted Stores Program will rate online stores on their delivery of an overall customer experience. A potential customer will be able to see who ships quickly and their reliability. For instance, shipping will be rated on the percentages of on-time shipping based on the time frame specified by the company and the average days for a product to ship. The service section of the evaluation will be based on the percentages of issues resolved within a short amount of time and the low percentages of customers needing assistance from a particular organization.

What makes the program most interesting is the promise of a Google customer service representative who will mediate between a participating merchant and customer when a problem occurs and of course the Google new purchase protection plan of $1,000 at no charge for qualifying purchases.

Google  group product manager Tom Fallows states they are not getting into a ranking system, but trying to help shoppers feel more comfortable with buying online. It would seem that the less known merchants would benefit the most from this program; so far Wayfair, Timbuk2 and Beau-coup have all signed up and subsequently announced that business has increased. To date Google states 50 merchants have signed up for  the program.

Whether Google expects more merchants to spend their increased revenue on AdWords or if it’s just a push to compete in  customer service excellence that garners the attention of all customers, the Trusted Stores Program will be even more interesting when Google rivals sign up for the service.

Employ more customer service options to provide a concierge level of excellence

It’s not that we need surveys to show which organizations step out of the box to ensure a concierge level of excellence so coveted by consumers; organizations like Zappos, Amazon, and Nordstrom essentially offer everyone “fantastic” service. Customers who feel they have been treated royally will return to spend more money and even pay a premium for products or services. The problem is that only 55 percent of customers will share their good experiences whereas 82 percent of customers will share their bad experiences, and that’s what cuts into revenue and the coveted bottom-line to success.

Consumers are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to what they believe to be a great buying experience, and as entrepreneurs and innovative business owners there is the constant challenge to present customers with the most convenient and innovative ways and technologies to deal with consumer needs. For instance, what could be more frustrating and time consuming than having to navigate through a maze of telephone prompts when the Internet goes down or a defective product arrives in the afternoon mail? Why don’t all organizations supply an “escape” prompt where a live person will intervene? There should always be a way for a customer to engage a representative of a company before their last ounce of patience runs awry. It’s true that not every company can employ the 24/7 quality phone service of a corporation like American Express, but customers look for the least amount of work they have to do in order to be the happiest with their purchases.

In 2011, over 72.6 percent of Internet users purchased products online, and therefore customer service excellence needs to offer the sensational experiences which used to be associated only with brick and mortar establishments. Facebook and Twitter continue to gain popularity, and as organizations realize that IT personnel are not equipped to handle customer service, trained representatives have taken the wheel and hopefully provide clear and accurate responses to customer complaints before the frustration “factor” sets in and conversations get out of control. Email has become the most popular alternative to the telephone, but companies need to realize a quick answer is most likely going to make the difference in a consumer’s future shopping choices.

So how does an organization keep abreast of delivering the best buying experience besides telephones, email and social networks? No matter what the service or product, always clearly display every option a consumer can employ to reach out for help. Let a brick and mortar store prominently display liberal return policies, terms of special sales, guarantees and sincere promises of quality customer service with the best product or service an organization can make available. Let online companies use SMS text and online chat options to optimize a customer’s experience. Give an online customer the option to pick up their product in a store if the customer chooses. Clearly state F.A.Q.’s on company websites, be clear and concise when dealing with a problem, and treat each and every customer the exact way the company president would want to be treated.

Take lessons from the leaders in customer service

If I have a problem with Comcast, I am obligated to call their toll-free number and begin the maze of selecting the right option. When I finally arrive at choice #3 I am then instructed to hold on for the next available agent who will assist me with my problem. There is no relaxing elevator music where I can work until an agent answers; instead I’m forced to listen to a litany of advertisements offering me more services that might very well call me back to this same maze of customer service mediocrity.

Customer service needs to be more than just a smile and a representative having memorized the instruction manual. Agents are there to provide answers to questions, provide easy links and processes to purchase products and services, and respond to customer requests, but there’s a world of difference between organizations that step out of the “box” and those that plod along just humming from day to day. On the positive side, Comcast continues to improve their customer service home visits by guaranteeing their technician to be on time for home visits or providing a credit of $20 to one’s account. Still the first line of customer service which is that first impression hardly provides even a sparkle of “dazzle.”

Let’s visit with Zappos.com for a moment and discover how their customer service recipe extends far beyond what most other establishments offer. The organization started in 1998, and by 2009 Amazon paid one-billion dollars for an online shoe store which amazingly continues to entertain and delight while increasing its visibility, excelling  in connecting with customers, and selling more online merchandise than most other  stores. And it’s not a comparison between a service as in Comcast and a retail experience as in Zappos.com; it’s a response to understanding and perpetuating the best “foot” forward of service.

So what makes Zappos.com a leader in customer service? To begin the company works hard on their brand, has a definitive plan for success where everyone joins in, delivers the “wow” experience, and encourages employees to join in the quirkiness of the organization thus enabling employees to think on their own, enjoy the time they spend at Zappos, and feel they are all integral parts to the success of the company. It’s a fun place to work, folks smile and laugh, and the enthusiasm is contagious ranging from the new employees in training to the jungle-themed  corner desk of CEO Tony Hsieh who encourages employees to use social media and create their own videos telling their own stories. With a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee and a one-year return policy, consumers find the entire buying and service experience fun and efficient. Personnel at Zappos.com react to people by understanding what customers want and need without having to ask.

Great customer service representatives do seem to carry some common traits:

  • Great company representatives have excellent writing and speaking skills.
  •  Representatives are able to respond to a high volume of business without stressing out.
  • Great agents are self-confident without being boastful, are convincing and have a contagious personality.
  • Successful agents are able to take on different jobs and are willing to participate and help their fellow employees.

Should a superstar with these qualities walk through the door of your organization, be sure to offer her a job and watch your business grow.

Book Review: The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business

I recently finished reading The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business by Richard R. Shapiro who is the founder and President of The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR). Mr. Shapiro’s organization provides research, training, and consulting services to Fortune 500 corporations on how to improve customer service.

The book begins with a lighthearted description of four distinct categories of customer service personnel any organization is likely to have on their payroll:

  • We begin with the Welcomer or “Doctor of First Impressions.” These are the customer service representatives we all want; these are the people who enjoy their jobs, enjoy working with customers, and these are the employees who should be appreciated and valued. Most likely these are the people who volunteer in our own communities and love working towards the welfare of others. These are the people who make a difference.
  • Robots are the next classification and encompass the largest proportion of sales associates and representatives. Although they value and appreciate their positions in one’s company, they most likely view their jobs as exactly what is written in the employee manual and rarely step out of the box to do anything else than the obligatory customer interaction needed to get through the work day.
  • Moving on to the indifferent sales and customer service representative, these are the employees likely to be chatting on their cell phones or those who scarcely acknowledge a customer as she walks through the door and begins to shop.
  • And the final category are those we rarely encounter, however somewhere in our lifetime, we meet the hostile employee we hope never to meet again. That hostile employee can be rude and nasty and make you wonder why he even has a job.

The Welcomer Edge is divided into personal experiences and real business examples describing many of the author’s real world experiences applicable to either small or large organizations. The author presents examples in each chapter in order to highlight the advantages of nurturing customer relationships. Customers are not just seen as customers; skilled salesmen see customers as people first and remind all of us that good will, meaningful conversation, honesty and smiles go a long way when developing customer loyalty.

Good customer service is good for today. Having a welcomer provide good customer service wil make you return tomorrow. That’s a big difference.

So what makes a great welcomer? According to Mr. Shapiro, these are the people who are of course helpful, but in addition these are the people who show customers they care. A question is never just answered with a “yes” or “no” answer even though that one word would be correct for the circumstance, but these are the very people who understand that it’s not just “selling” a service or a commodity – it’s helping someone to find what they need or want. It’s what makes the difference in businesses like Zappos or the Ritz Carlton – it’s the attitude that some people have developed to make that initial contact with a customer the reason for that customer to want to come back.

Each of the eleven chapters of the book provides practical suggestions, specific examples, and addresses how business owners can connect the dots to better customer service. At the end of each chapter, “power points worth repeating” sum up the power of welcomers and how each missed chance can ultimately mean a missed opportunity in business.

Bottomline: Having a welcomer, or “Doctor of First Impressions,” are those employees who make customers feel important. From the moment a customer walks into a store the customer feels appreciated. By the time they get to the check-out experience, a connection should already have been made, and that lasting impression is what will keep that customer coming back again. The little things an organization does are the very elements that make the big difference in the ultimate customer service experience.

Pros: Mr. Shapiro’s book was well-written. He presents his experiences in a variety of different venues. The reader can’t help but smile at some of his personal experiences; many of them most of us can probably relate to at one time or another.

Cons: A few of the author’s examples might be a bit drawn out and not realistic for many people reading this book. For instance, I’m not sure how much time a business person would want to listen to his server’s vacation experiences or personal stories when often time is of the essence. That just might be all about one’s perspective though.

Interested in purchasing a copy? You can get it from Amazon.com ($11.90 in paperback) by clicking here.

The silent exit of poor customer service

Kelli's editMost customers who feel they have been the recipients of poor customer service will never vocalize their feelings to a particular organization. According to First Financial Training Services and the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, only four percent of dissatisfied customers ever complain making the other 96 percent essentially ripe for the picking when another company offering similar services or products appear in the horizon.

Typically an unhappy customer who perceives that attitude of indifference will tell eight to ten of their friends, coworkers or family members about their bad experiences, and one in five people will tell 20 others. As the story spreads, it can become similar to the kitten over-breeding-epidemic – way out of control.

So what are some of the more obvious signs of poor customer service that silently drive customers away?  Here are a few observations:

  • There are no employees at the store’s front service desk.
  • Floor personnel are talking on their cell phones.
  • Managers ignore customers.
  • No direct eye-contact with personnel and customers.
  • Employees who are not familiar with the entire store – only one department.
  • Rude employees.
  • The attitude of indifference as perceived by a customer.

All is not lost however, since seven out of ten customers will continue to do business with an organization if their complaint is resolved, and 95 percent of consumers will be even happier if the problem is resolved immediately. While statistics also show that the average business spends six times more money to attract new customers and clients, loyalty from the current customers is also very important. Business comes from all over, and a growing client base is what grows a business.

As business owners do we necessarily recognize the signs of bad customer service? The answers actually depend on the owner or managers who first must demonstrate their interest in providing the best experience for every customer or client who interacts with their organizations. The CEO and upper management have to like what they do, because that attitude directly reflects on every employee and customer alike.

For some specific suggestions as to how to keep customers from walking out the door never to return – develop a rapport, call them by name, show that you are genuinely interested in their lives and how your organization can make a positive difference. And when a problem does occur, don’t read into it as the day the world fell apart. Instead step back for a moment and consider the viewpoint of the unhappy customer. Be reliable and credible, apologize when mess-ups occur, and resolve the conflict.

Exceptional customer service where representatives step way out of the box as they do in such luxury organizations as the Ritz Carlton or Mercedes Benz invite all businesses to take a few hints. Of course these organizations have huge budgets to spread the word, however companies like Zappos, Nordstrom, and even Amazon worked their way up the customer satisfaction ladder by careful training, attitude and that all inspiring will to please.

As someone with an infinite knowledge of pleasing customers and resolving conflicts the moment a problem is brought to his attention, his advice still rings in my mind – “you always want to dance with your clients.”

photo credit: Debs (ò‿ó)♪

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