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Customer focus customizes Rite Aid services

Competition among pharmacy retailers and the need to create more efficient business plans are  a sign of the times. Ten years ago, everyone still had a local pharmacist who would fill prescriptions, give a little professional advice and while mother was at the store, she would buy mascara, shampoo,  a sun visor and aspirin.

Mega-stores such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens have pushed pharmacies to new heights in innovative ideas to keep their customers and attract new ones, hence the age of new conceptions as the  Rite Aid  “Customer World Store.”

Rite Aid’s slogan, “With us, it’s personal” had executives redesigning existing stores and planning to remodel, relocate and build between 800 and 1000 stores in a five-year plan starting back  in 2005. The stores were all designed and recreated using the feedback of customers and customer focus groups that had been developed. So what did customers say they wanted? Solutions were derived from the two most important questions:

  • How did customers rate the various services?
  • How important are each of these services?

Customers overwhelmingly asked for easy ways to find what they were looking for at any visit. Everyone has had the experience of walking into a store with a list of what they wanted to purchase, and upon entering the store had been so overwhelmed by confusing layouts and designs of the store, they quickly got discouraged. Using the customer focus groups, the company was  able to concentrate on targeted problems consumers faced, and with that in mind was able to expand merchandise selection, easier store navigation and create a professional feel at the pharmacy that made customers feel more comfortable and secure.

The customer focus group wanted wide and clutter free aisles. In the waiting areas for the pharmacy, they wanted the experience to be more personal and intimate; thus the new design of the section with lowered ceilings, comfortable chairs, televisions and a consultation section for private meetings with a pharmacist. Online shopping has been partnered with drugstore.com to provide more pharmacy service at all different times. Other improvements suggested by the groups included a separate vitamin department, picture center with digital user-friendly equipment, self-service kiosks and stools, and a drive through pharmacy.

The latest store which opened in Edison, New Jersey yesterday has followed the suggestions of the latest focus group. With more than 14,000 square feet, the new store features direct views to each department, more visible department signs and at center stage, a brightly displayed presentation of cosmetics designed to appeal to female customers.

Listening to the customer, adjusting to the needs of the customer and following through on a practical plan to show the customer that they do indeed matter reflects the importance of something more than just a corporate mission statement. The implementation and the fresh approach to enhancing customer satisfaction goes a long way.

photo credit: Rite Aid

Customer focus development

Customer focus is more than just adding directions to your company’s mission statement or sending everyone to training. The training part is just one piece of the total package. Everyone has a customer they want to satisfy and therefore the focus has to address needs, expectations, and behaviors. Customer focus challenges a company to adjust certain aspects of an organization to align with customer values through new strategies, organizational design, business processes, performance measures, information and support.

Working as a group, customer service representatives can identify what they deem as important ways to satisfy customers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Meeting Customer Requirements: What new processes have been implemented to validate customer needs? With current customers, is the company producing the products they want? Good ways to address these questions are by surveys; perhaps one every six months to stay on top of an ever-changing market. Setup customer focus groups and ask for feedback. If the company has group meetings or sponsored events, that would be a good time to get input from participants.
  • Convenient Delivery of Product: A lot of people do their online ordering late at night. Is there an IT support group on call but not on site? That could be a money saver for the company, but not for the customer.
  • Principles for Resolving Problems: If a customer places an order and the company is out of the product, how do you resolve the problem? Customers want to be treated fairly, and they don’t much care about excuses. If you resolve their conflicts and you think it is fair, but your customer doesn’t, you will lose your customer.
  • Communication is the Key: This must happen actively and often.
  • Meeting Customer Commitments: If a company has to make excuses why a commitment has not been met on time, the company has missed customer focus.
  • Performance Measurements: Employees have to be held accountable for their actions. Many companies reward exemplary customer focused behaviors with bonuses; positive reinforcement trumps negative criticism.

Many times owners and managers take it for granted that their staff works towards the same objectives. Group sessions are positive methods to help staff understand the customer-focused vision which enables companies and employees to succeed in a very challenging market.

photo credit: Torley

B&H Customer Service

When I was in New York last week, I visited the famous B&H Photo Video electronics store on Manhattan’s West Side. This very successful store’s unique business practices and philosophies have been written about in countless books and magazines over the years and from visiting the store or dealing with them over the phone or online, you can tell why. I pulled up the company’s philosophy on their website and found that it focuses on these five things:

– Our Easy Access Displays
– Our Educated Staff
– Our Partnership with Manufacturers
– Our Cutting Edge Inventory Tracking
– Our Liberal Return Policy

Needless to say, these things are very different than what you see or hear about from a typical electronics store. And what’s more interesting is that when you visit the store or buy something from the company’s store or website, many of these things are apparent. For example:

  • Easy access displays. You can try out almost everything on the floor at B&H. Instead of just looking at the boxes of headphones or of portable hard drives, you can put the headphones on and see how big the portable hard drives are. I didn’t notice much that was just kept in boxes or otherwise inaccessible to customers.
  • Our educated staff. I didn’t ask anyone there any questions, but there is no shortage of stories about extremely knowledgeable B&H employees. A friend of mine (who is from NY) went with me to the store and also spoke about how knowledgeable the employees are. What was also nice was the large number of staff members available at any given time. They were all over the store and there were also well placed information booths where customers could ask questions.
  • Partnership with manufacturers. B&H says it uses this advantage to let manufacturers show their “newest and hottest products to customers and staff.” Doing this helps to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable about what products are available and how they can help customers. The store also hosts meetings in its conference center to encourage people interested in particular topics surrounding photography and video recording to come to their store and share what they know with others.
  • Inventory tracking. A system that makes special orders simple is a system that helps promote customer service. Beyond that, B&H has an elaborate and extremely unique system of conveyor belts and similar devices that move products around the store and to a pick up area. This helps cut down on shoplifting and employee theft and thus, helps keep prices low.
  • Liberal return policy. B&H isn’t the only retail store that has a very liberal return policy (see this post on Nordstrom). A liberal return policy represents a desire to keep customers loyal to the company in the long run instead of just making money off of them in the short run. It’s easy enough to not accept returns and keep the money from that particular sale, but it won’t do anything to win customer loyalty. B&H places a premium on customer loyalty, which is why they have a liberal return policy.

B&H is definitely worth checking out if you’re in New York and/or if you’re in the market for any sort of electronics gear. They’re a great example of a company that puts customers first and believes in being honest and straightforward with its customers.

If you’re interested in reading more about this company’s interesting business practices (including shutting down orders on their website on Fridays and Saturdays), check out this great article in Inc. Magazine by Joel Spolsky. It’s worth a read.

Photo credit of the B&H checkout process goes to me (I took the photo when I visited).

Customer loyalty and Toyota

There have been 8 million Toyota vehicles recalled. There are car manufacturer meetings, government meetings, blog entries, and water-cooler discussions, yet brand loyalty has not dropped as much as expected.  The Consumer Reports 2010 Car Brand Survey shows Toyota only down by 10% with Honda now in the lead.

Depending on which survey you read, it is difficult to discern if Chevrolet and Ford have surpassed Toyota or still lag behind in sales. According to Edmunds.com, a popular automotive network newsletter where you can also buy and sell new and used cars, Ford increased 35% this past month. Snowstorms in the Northeast kept many buyers out of the showrooms in February, so the numbers may not be accurate.

So how are the Toyota representatives putting the giant back together again? After all, Toyota has had the most complaints about rogue gas pedal car acceleration over a 5 year period, and 52 people have died in sudden acceleration crashes in Toyota vehicles since the year 2000. Jim Lentz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales stated, “We’re committed to doing everything we can – as fast as we can- to restore consumer trust in Toyota, and these recalls are part of this effort.” Toyota has promised more stringent quality control, more investigations into customer complaints, and a quicker response time when identifying safety issues, and has apologized to consumers and loyal customers repeatedly. Car dealerships have staff working 24/7 to repair and replace parts, and local and national television commercials have been launched reiterating customer loyalty.

Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, USA stated, “We launched this program to expand the focus on our customers, and thank them for their loyalty by adding value to our products.” And with that promise, Toyota introduced new financing programs and incentives offering 0% financing on popular models, low lease rates, and complimentary 2 year premium maintenance programs.

It will be interesting to follow Toyota’s rise and fall; will they be able to regain their giant market share and their once stellar reputation as a car manufacturer that provided reliability, durability, and safety? It’s not over yet; the hypersensitive press and public are waiting.

photo credit: ThreadedThoughts

Customer service gone bad

It’s hard to tell if you’re losing business because of the economy or doing something wrong. Competition is so keen now, what once may have just been mildly annoying is now the reason your competition has claimed some of your customers. Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the management support, training and motivation of your workforce. I’ve compiled a short list of the most annoying habits of customer service personnel which is  almost guaranteed to have your customers running to your competition. Any of these sound familiar?

  • Chewing gum. Can you think of anything more annoying than listening to someone chewing gum over the phone when they are talking to you? In person, I can’t seem to concentrate on what the representative is telling me because the movement of her jaw and the snapping sounds distract me too much.
  • Phone texting. Does a customer service representative think that I don’t notice how he is texting someone while dealing with my problem? As I am signing my name and filling out a store form for my refund, the person behind the desk is sending his girlfriend flowers from his Iphone.
  • Multiple phone transfers. I had a problem with a generator and called the toll-free number. Not only was I met by too many numbers to push for more extensions than I could count, but each time I had to repeat the story of my generator and why I wanted a refund due to a manufacturing error. Last I counted, I told the same story six times.
  • Lying customer service representatives. Do they lie because they just don’t care or don’t know the answer? The last representative told me the refund would be in the mail the same day. Six weeks later I still did not receive the refund or an explanation.
  • Key personnel missing. I look up the manager or key person who can help me with my customer problem, and leave numerous messages asking for a return call. He is always in meetings, traveling or having a family emergency.
  • New person on the job. New customer service representatives should have a trainer if the new person is a rank amateur, and that would save me tapping my foot on the floor waiting for the representative to go back and forth trying to solve my problem. Now if there was a trainer next to the newbie, I could have been on my way, happier and the problem likely would have been rectified before I tapped a hole into the floor.

Basically, even if the customer doesn’t realize customer service means more than refunds, exchanges, or a polite greeting, doesn’t it come down to the little things that make the biggest differences?

photo credit: Dan Zen

Improving a Department in 4 Steps

Over the last week or so, I have been working with a company on improving the service experience within a small department of theirs. The department has about 5 employees and a relatively simple, but also important job within the company’s broader customer service department. The department was in need of attention, so I took a simple and straight forward approach to improving it. Here is what I did:

  1. Met with the employees. My personal style is to talk to employees about what the problems and opportunities are before I talk to managers about the same thing. Some people do it in the opposite order, but I prefer to talk to the employees first. One of the first things I like to do when I’m given a broad assignment (e. g. “Make this department better.”) is sit down with the employees in the particular  department and ask them what they think they do well, what they think needs to be improved upon, and what their ideas are in a very casual, pressure-free way. Before I go into meetings, I do my own research into the questions and come prepared with my thoughts and opinions as well (going in completely blind is a waste of time).
  2. Took their ideas back to the drawing board. After I met with the employees, I took their ideas and feedback back the drawing board. I did more research on my own and used their feedback and thoughts to come up with a flow chart of how I envisioned the revised process working. I then went through the department’s operating procedures and revised those in accordance with the flow chart I had just come up with. Even though many people hate them, I like flow charts. They’re great at visually showing how something (should) work and what needs to happen when something else happens.
  3. Went to the manager(s). At this point, I went to manager in chart of the department and showed him what I had come up with. In this particular situation, the manager was on board. In other situations, some back and forth between you and the manager/boss/co-worker might be necessary.
  4. Went back to the employees (with the manager). After the manager and I had come to an agreement about how everything should work and solidified some more details, we went back to the employees and pitched/introduced our ideas and what would be happening. This meeting was a lot more formal than the last one. There was an agenda, handouts, etc. There were a few minor suggestions / comments from the employees, which we took into consideration and used to update the procedures accordingly.

This process was highly effective and relatively painless. The time from first meeting to implementation was about a week and we’ve continued to follow up since then to tweak things further, but overall, this schedule and general procedure for making changes tends to be effective within support organizations. When you involve the people who do the work on a day-to-day bas in the decision making process, getting changes made and implemented will be a lot easier.

Be More Accessible in 3 Simple Steps

I briefly touched on what can be done to avoid employee / manager conflicts just under three years ago (wow!), but I was thinking more about the idea of accessibility of managers and supervisors today and thought it was worth a follow up post.

I’ve always tried to be very accessible as a manager. I respond to emails quickly and consistently, keep my door open, and try to be as available as possible to talk to employees and customers whenever they have comments, concerns, or questions. I’m by no means a perfect manager, but I do feel that being acessible and available is an important thing for a manager, especially one who works in the customer service field.

Here are three simple things you can do to be more accessible:

  1. Have an open door policy. Physically keeping your door open can set a great example for your employees and your co-workers. I can’t stand “closed” office spaces with big doors and no interior windows and have always made it a point to keep my office door open as often as humanly possible. It is sends a less than subtle signal that you’re willing to talk and that you’re accessible (just like having a closed door all the time sends a very different signal).
  2. Have “office hours.” The concept of office hours is common at colleges and universities, but kind of unheard of in business. Ideally, you don’t need office hours, but a lot of managers have crazy schedules filled with a plethora of meetings and other engagements that subsequently make it hard to get in touch with them. To deal with this, try to set an hour or two per day aside where you’re available to talk to employees who just want to walk in and express any questions or concerns they might have.
  3. Schedule “town halls.” I stole this idea and this terminology from politicians, but that’s only because it is a good idea. Every month or so, schedule an informal “town hall” with a group of employees who are  (for example) half randomly chosen and half specifically selected where you either come in with a topic or idea that you want to discuss or simply open the floor to general comments, suggestions, questions, etc. This is a great way to get to know your employees better and to make them feel as if they’re more involved with the company.

There are literally hundreds of books on the subject of manager accessibility and leadership styles, but I’ve always found that these three things have worked well for me. What has been effective where you work now or have worked in the past?

Shared Information for Customer Service Success

I was listening to Steve Odland (the Chairman and CEO of Office Depot) present at an event today and one of the things he talked about was how sharing information across the organization could lead to decision making empowerment and aptitude. 

Odland said that if everyone at Office Depot knew as much as he did (in terms of cause and effects, how actions fit in with the rest of the company, etc.), the company would be much more cohesive and efficient. People could confidently make decisions based on the full picture and not worry about something they’re not aware of existing and influencing whatever they’re deciding.

This idea can apply to customer service as well. The more each of your customer service representatives knows about what is going on at your company and with your products, the better decisions they can make. If you trust they can make these types of good decisions, then you can empower them to actually make the decisions and take action. 

Think about some of the ways you can share more company information with your employees. Send a weekly or quarterly summary about what’s been happening at your company. Consider having meetings with a couple of employees at a time where you answer questions and address concerns. Share your short and long term strategies with your employees and let them know what the management team is working on.

Things like this not only keep employees informed, but also helps make them feel more important and engaged with what’s going on at your company and most importantly, where it’s going.

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