Building a Customer-Centric Culture: 5 Elements to Customer Service

True customer service in a retail store is a combination of five basic elements: (1) organizational culture, (2) employee temperament, (3) leadership example, (4) communicated expectations, and (5) management leadership training.

Chuck Coonradt once defined organizational culture as the way things really work when the boss isn’t looking. At a high-end department store, for example, we might generally experience superior customer service, even when the boss of the clerk serving us isn’t looking. That’s because, over an extended period of time, high-end stores have created an organizational culture of superior customer service. How was this accomplished? The leaders of the organization had to not only communicate the importance of exemplary customer service, but they also had to personally demonstrate high levels of service with their own actions. Then, over time they created a culture helped define employee behaviour.

The second element is employee temperament, which is a technical term for what we commonly call personality. It is true that some temperaments are better suited to deliver superior customer service than others. But that does not mean that those of us whose personality isn’t naturally well-suited toward customer service can’t improve our skills above our natural inclinations. As evidence, stores that have consistent customer service are not staffed with employees of the same personality. Rather, the store has set a high standard and communicates its expectations to every employee, regardless of his or her personality.

The third element is the example of customer service demonstrated by the leaders. It is foolish for a leader to expect his or her employees to deliver customer service at any level higher than what the employee sees on a daily basis from the leader. In other words, the leader determines the upper control limit of service in a department, store, or company. Watch the company president, vice president, or district manager while visiting a store and you’ll see a demonstration of the upper control limit of service.

The fourth element is the extent to which the leaders have effectively communicated their expectations to the employees. It’s not enough to merely set an example, employees must hear, and hear again, specifically what is expected of them with respect to customer treatment. It’s important to communicate the expectation that loyal customers are the life-blood of a company, and everything (within reason!) should be done to keep them coming back.

Customer service and management leadership training is the fifth element. Because everyone isn’t naturally effective at delivering customer service, and there are some techniques that work better than others, it is vital that every employee receive adequate customer service training. In fact, to create a culture of high service, employees must receive regular training. Management leadership training creates a front-of-mind-awareness that determines not only what is important, but also how things are to be done. Unfortunately, most customer service training consists of nothing more than ‘retail charm school’. Smiling and speaking up to customers you encounter in the aisle isn’t enough. Real opportunities for customer service all too often happen when something goes wrong. For example, out of stocks, price checks, voids, refunds, returns, and exchanges are prime situations where a customer can be won or lost, depending on what the employee says and does while handling the transaction. Employees must be trained in specific methods and techniques of how to handle these special situations, or customers can be lost for life.

The five elements of customer service are a framework to develop a climate or culture for consistent superior service. It’s important to remember that the issue really isn’t ‘customer service’. More accurately, it’s creating a memorable experience for customers. Don’t forget that customers return to stores that are memorable, and don’t return to stores that are forgettable. What are you creating in your store, a memorable or forgettable climate?

Consider the PE formula where P equals the customer perception of what actually happens while shopping in a store. E equals the customer’s expectation of what will probably happen when he or she does shop a store. If P equals E then the store did exactly what the customer expected. If P is less than E the store fell short of the customer’s expectation. And, if P exceeds E the store did something more than what the customer expected. The only truly positive memorable experience is where P exceeds E. That must be the goal.

Superior customer service that is memorable can be defined as a situation where the shopping experience exceeds the customer’s expectation of what was going to happen. This means a clean and safe store, where desired products are in stock and easily located, where employees are friendly and helpful, and where the checkout is accurate and fast. Effective customer service is far more than merely being caught by a mystery shopper saying something nice to a customer.

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