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Customer Service for the Independent Retailer

Good customer service is the difference between a flourishing store with happy customers and one that is empty and forgotten. Here is a review of what it means to go up against the big box guys and how you can still compete with them by using age old advice, as well as a few new tips perhaps you didn't know.

I consider myself to be a professional buyer.  One who knows how to research like products and compare their value against each other and my needs. This tends to reduce the value a retailer can offer me.

You may be asking yourself “why is he saying this to his clients?”

Well, let me tell you why: I am a product of the poor customer service many of today’s retailers offer.  I can’t trust that I will get accurate information from sales clerks, so I have been forced to fend for myself. 

Poor customer service is so prevalent that just today my wife told me a story that shocked me about a shopping experience her sister had recently: Her sister went to a well known children’s chain, that she shops at regularly, to purchase some clothes for her daughter. 

Toward the end of the point of sale transaction, the sales clerk told her the total, which included some fraction of a dollar. 

She was holding cash in her hand and set it down on the counter to see if she had the exact change.  She did have the exact amount in cash, but when she handed it to the sales person, the sales person became aggravated with her and said that it was too late, that she had already entered the dollar amount. 

The sales clerk then said again in an aggravated way that in order to take the exact change she would have to void out the transaction, which would take a long time. 

My wife’s sister tried to explain to her that she would not have to void the transaction, that she could take the exact amount and still balance her register at the end of the day. 

The sales person was very adamant that she would have to void the transaction and that my wife’s sister would have to wait. 

Well, this didn’t sit well with my sister-in-law and she called for a manager who seemed confused and unable to help out. 

My wife’s sister then gave both people a lecture on customer service and I can tell you one thing for sure: they lost a good customer.

Companies like Costco and Sam’s Club have picked up on these things and built empires because of it.  I have heard over the years that as a smaller independent retailer, they can’t compete with the likes of Costco. 

This is absolutely not true and I am here to tell you not only how to survive as a retailer but how to flourish and prosper.

What is the thing that Costco has done to grow into the giant retailer it is today?  Costco offers a focused, high quality product selection, at excellent pricing and an incredibly easy return policy.  Costco employees don’t know much about the products they sell, therefore Costco buyers rely heavily on product quality and on Costco’s return policy to make up for this deficit. 

Another thing that they do to combat this is to have knowledgeable outside vendors come into the store and set up temporary displays.  Because these outside vendors are highly knowledgeable, a person walks away feeling that Costco offers this level of knowledge when they actually do not.

So what does the independent retailer do?  There are many things a retailer can do to successfully compete with the likes of Costco and Sam’s Club.  Here are a handful of tips you can start doing immediately: 

1)       Know who your target customer(s) are.

2)       Talk with them constantly and find out what they consider to be hot.

3)       Purchase focused merchandise to meet their demand.

4)       Train your sales people on basic customer service and find ways to reward them for this.

5)       Train your sales people on the products carried in the store.

6)       Provide a shopping experience which includes respect, honesty and trust.

Let’s go over these in a bit more detail so you can get a better understanding.  People are busier and with more on their minds today than ever before. 

They want help in reducing the time it takes to figure out what product will best fit their needs, specializing in a particular area helps customers reduce time to purchase. 

Costco is a horizontal retailer; they carry many different product categories with very limited selection. 

You can specialize and really master one or two areas therefore, by being able to provide a much higher level of customer service.  

This equates into a “value add” and people are always willing to pay for value.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Talk to your clients regularly by asking them questions about their needs. 
  • Really listen to this feedback and act on it. 
  • Make sure you are buying the merchandise that addresses their needs. 
  • Keep your purchasing habits more analytical and less emotional.  By listening to your customers and acting on their needs you will provide additional value.

Customer service is more than a friendly face and the old “are you looking for anything in particular today?” 

Customer service requires good old-fashioned communication skills plus a good understanding of the products being sold. 

Customers have grown so accustomed to poor service that they don’t expect good service anymore. And when they do get it, it is so rare that this is probably the single most important change an independent retailer can make to compete successfully with any of the big box retailers out there. 

Teach your sales people to ask intelligent questions about the customers’ needs and then offer a real solution to those needs.  If you don’t have a solution, then be honest and tell that to the customer, they will appreciate the honesty and may come back. 

Good customer service also requires a good understanding of the products being offered. 

This includes what they are designed to do and what makes them unique. 

Help your customers find what they need fast and they will come back.

Respect, honesty and trust are what will make customers tell their friends to shop at your store.  If you sell clothing, have your sales clerk learn the polite way of steering customers to the styles that will make them look their best.  Don’t let a customer walk out of your store with something that can potentially embarrass them when someone asks where they purchased that thing that they are wearing. 

Respect your customers, get to know them and be honest with them and you will earn their trust and loyalty.

In closing, I think independent retailers have to get back to their roots and be known as the “local place” people want to go to get what they need. 

Make a difference to your shoppers by providing answers and solutions to their needs and you will never worry about competing with the big box guys again. 

Good luck!

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I began my professional career when I worked my way through college as a retailer. After graduating from College with a double Bachelors of Science degree in Finance and Marketing, I established my company, One Step Data, in June of 1985. I consulted businesses selling them computer hardware and software that made it easier for them to run their businesses more efficiently. In 1987, after some investigation, I soon recognized that the retail POS/Inventory Control market was a niche yet to be developed for the small to medium sized retailers. I came to the realization that with my passion for retail and my knowledge of computer technology I could help many retailers. Since then my company has grown steadily year after year and has helped thousands of stores be more efficient and more profitable.

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