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Retraction: Lessons From the Past

[The Editor would like to retract the front cover story from the 12-17-06 issue of the Picket News. Because the end of the story did not run we are running the entire story again. We apologize for the misprint.]

Lessons From the Past
by Jennifer LB Leese

The holiday season is the most important time of the year for many retail stores. Competition is tough and retailers are always looking for an "edge" to help them against the competition. One of their best advantages is the quality of customer service. Customers will often pay a little more or buy a little more if they are treated with respect, patience, and understanding.
For some people customer service is something like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Many shoppers feel that customer service for most retailers needs improvement. Especially when we (the customer) have to deal with customer service call centers--most of which aren't even based in the United States. Most of us have had the experience of endless waits on hold, the need to repeatedly provide our personal information to several different customer service representatives--all while trying to solve a problem by telephone.
"Once companies have happily accepted our money, things change. Instead of treating us as individuals with value, we are "managed."
"Calls are "managed" to the shortest possible talk-time; customer service representatives are managed to completing the highest number of calls per hour," says Ernan Roman, president of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing.
The importance of customer service isn't new. Ever since independent distribution became an important part of moving products from the channel between manufacturers to the end users in the 19th century, customer service has been a number one concern.
Customer Service Then
In the days of the Pony Express in the Wild West, the letter or package would often arrive late, as well as torn and dirty, perhaps because one of the horse riders had been ambushed or even killed along the way. It was the customer perception that the employees of this company were actually risking their lives that guaranteed its place as a service legend.
When it comes to being a shopper, the owner of the corner general store could usually assess customers at a glance. He or she became very familiar with their customer's buying habits--how often they returned to the store, what kind of purchasing ability they possessed, what their personal and economic situation at any given time might be, and so on. They were friendly, helpful, and knew their products as well as they knew their customers. Our lifetime value was evident to the general storeowner. Customer complaints and nuisance factors mattered more than ever. As a pillar of the community, the corner storeowner gained our trust by respecting our self-worth, needs, and wants.
Customer Service Now
Rarely do we find that kind of service today. Granted our world has changed and grown quite a bit since the 19th century, but patrons wanting satisfaction hasn't changed much.
On average the customer service center representative doesn't know that Jay is anxious because he just lost his job, or that Lorah is exhausted because she just had a baby. That just isn't their concern.
The definition of service has radically changed over the years. Customers have redefined the environment in which businesses now compete. With the rising dominance of the service sector in the global economy, customer service has grown in importance, as its impact on individuals, households, firms, and societies has become widespread.
What Customers Want
If you hold a management position with a retail store, the Better Business Bureau of Baltimore offers two suggestions to help insure a great holiday season. First, thoroughly train your employees. Second, have a policy to treat the customer the way you would like to be treated. Here's a few more tips on how to make the holiday season a successful one:
* Make sure your prices are clearly marked so your customers and employees don't waste their time. If the price marked is wrong, correct it immediately.
* Train your people to treat every customer as an individual. This can be tough in a busy December, but stress the importance of being courteous, greeting shoppers with a smile, and respecting their opinions.
* Are your policies on refunds or returns clearly posted? Are they reasonable? If not, revise them as needed...your competition does.
* Do you have enough staff? Customers who can't find a clerk--or must wait in a long line--will often walk out. You do, right?
* When customers are unhappy, train your front-line people to handle the issue. Try to see the problem as if it were your own. Acknowledge the customer's distress and apologize. Respond quickly and insist that your people follow through on their promises. If possible, empower your people to make routine decisions without waiting for "the manager."
In the End
Delivering customer service begins with understanding what customers want. And this understanding begins with the understanding that they do not always know what they want, or why they want it. Traditional market research, however, assumes that they do. Newer methods recognize that as much as 95% of our decision making is subconscious. Hence all the magazines, candies, tissues, drinks, batteries, etc. lined up at the checkout line.
Time and again, national studies show that most consumers are not happy with their customer service experiences. This research also shows that poor customer service isn't good for American businesses. Eighty-three percent of consumers who had a poor customer experience have negative perceptions of that company. Seventy-seven percent are unlikely to recommend that company to others. Seventy-two percent are so perturbed they are unlikely to buy from that company again.
Any company can outperform rivals only if it can establish a difference that it can preserve. Customer service can be that a difference.
In the end, the customer is ultimately the sole arbitrator of business success. Not costs, not productivity, not shareholder demands, not technology vendor panaceas. These lessons from the past illustrate that customer service success comes from a genuine, unrelenting focus on what is best for the customer. "The customer knows best." Should storeowners today take lessons from the past?
It goes without saying that it costs nothing to treat people well, but the gains are in the storeowner's favor.

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