Ask any retail store manager about the importance of good customer service, and you'll probably hear some familiar refrains, such as "Customer service is our No. 1 priority," "We take care of our customers," and "The customer is always right." But take a look at what happens on the actual floor, and you may discover that all that talk about customer service actually amounts to little more than lip service.
According to retail management consultant and radio host Dave Ratner, most retail managers don't have the time or tools to measure how well they're doing in the customer-service department. What's more, upper management often does not make customer service a priority.
"The responsibility for enforcing strict standards of service lies with management," Ratner says. "But here is the rub. It's impossible to enforce those standards if you don't give the managers the tools to implement the standards."
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
The amount spent on customer service often indicates how important service is to the company. But tight budgets tend to have a ripple effect, Ratner says, constraining individual store managers who are sincere about delivering customer service.
"Too few payroll dollars to make good customer service a reality will really deflate morale in the store," he says. "The store managers can't hire full-time folks [because they'd have to be given benefits], so they are stuck with part-timers and can't hire from the pool of the best employees." And he notes that poor customer service has nothing to do with the younger generation's work ethic: "On that score, the kids get a bum rap."
By contrast, organizations that provide store managers with the budget to back up customer-service efforts tend to have happier employees, which results in happier customers and, not surprisingly, more business, he says.
Secrets to Better Service
So what can store managers do to make sure their retail workers deliver good service? Ratner, who also owns a chain of four pet stores, offers these suggestions:
- Use Preemployment Tests: Ratner has prospective employees take a test put out by the National Retail Federation. "It absolutely cuts down on the bad hires, and helps weed out the weaker employees," he says.
- Use Secret Shoppers: Some businesses offer discounts to certain customers to be secret shoppers, which Ratner says is money well-spent. The prospect of a good report from a secret shopper can even be used as an employee incentive. "We try to make the store shopping reports a positive experience for employees when they get a good report by buying pizza and little things like that," he says.
- Let Customers Have a Say: Ratner places blank "Dear Dave" letters in the store to make it easier for customers to tell him about their shopping experiences, good or bad.
Ultimately, terrific service comes down to a one-on-one interaction between a customer and a store employee. That's why the kind of service the customer experiences depends so much on whom managers decide to put out on the store floor, Ratner says.
"That's my number one rule," he says. "Hire for attitude and not skill. You can't train nice, you can't make people smile and you can't teach folks how to be friendly. If you hire folks who already ‘get it,' you will never have customer-service problems as long as you give them what they need to make the customer happy."
Learn more about customer service careers.