Fast Talk: Smart Shops

Just in time for the holiday rush, we asked top retailers: Why is the customer experience so lousy? And what can we do to fix it?

Elizabeth Spaulding

Vice president of customer satisfaction, L.L. Bean
Freeport, Maine

Our industry has been squeezing out costs from the service experience. We've taken a different approach by ensuring that customers can shop the way they want: in the store, by catalog, on the phone, or online. We serve our customers the way they want to be served, not in the way we want to serve them. It's been that way since L.L. Bean opened his store above the post office in Freeport. By 1951, it was open 24 hours.

Leon Gorman, our chairman of the board, said, "Serving customers is a day-in, day-out, ongoing, never-ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate kind of activity." Everyone understands what we promise customers. We want the experience to be easy, fun, and entertaining, and we want it to make memories.

It's important that people have an emotional connection to us. During busy times, we all pitch in to answer the phones. It is a regrounding opportunity. It reminds us how wonderful our customers are--like old friends--and how appreciative they are of us. The company's values really come to life, and it all goes back to L.L.'s golden rule: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they'll always come back for more."

Jack Mitchell

Chairman and CEO, Mitchells/Richards clothing stores
Westport, Connecticut

Most stores say they give customer service, but they're really just thinking about product and price. They don't wake up thinking about their top customers. So the experience isn't personal, it's not exciting, it's not warm.

The old paradigm is that people just walk into stores for products. I believe that has changed. The shopping experience should put customers at the center of the universe. From the people who wrap presents to myself, we should all be asking, "Who is this person, and how do we serve him?"

The only way to do that is on a personal level. I call every personal act a "hug," like trying to remember someone's first name. We should know if people prefer Pepsi or Coke, or when they like having alterations done, or what their kids' names are. All those little things are personal. They're what turn customers into friends for life. Don't you want to buy from people who know you?

We need to hire and retain great people who are passionate about serving others. I have four simple hiring criteria. People have to be honest. They have to be self-confident. They have to have a positive attitude: always up, coming to work with a smile. Most important, they must have real passion to listen, learn, and grow to be the best.

Your employees have to hug your customers, and you have to hug employees. If you know their birthdays, if you know what garments they like, then they feel special, and they hug others. It starts at the top. And you know what? It's more fun--and people will want to shop where it's fun. We want to look at customers as an extended family and to have fun with our friends. Every. Single. Visit.

Mitchell is author of Hug Your Customers (Hyperion, 2003).

Mark Vadon

CEO of online diamond retailer Blue Nile
Seattle, Washington

When we look at customer service internally, part of it is about flexibility: giving customers as much or as little help as they want. We are trying to build a system where customers are able to complete a purchase without talking to anyone. But at the same time, we try to be there for the people who need hand-holding.

The second part is consistency. Our business is selling diamonds and other jewelry on the Web. But we aim to deliver the same level of service to customers no matter how they contact us. The bar is set really low in today's world. If you meet your commitments, people are blown away.

We invest in customer service because it has a huge payback. Businesses look at the expense of providing one-to-one customer service, and they don't see a return. But if you can give incredible service, you will build loyalty. I view customer service as integral to building a brand. And part of building customer service is building lasting relationships with customers. It's an investment as a long-term strategic differentiator.

Part of meeting your commitments involves empowering your customer-service agents to make decisions. Often, customers call and speak to people who understand what they say but have no power to help. Salespeople have to be able to make things right. More and more, companies are trying to centralize decision-making, when they should be pushing it out to the front lines.

You also have to be sure that you can back up whatever commitments you make. Part of customer service is letting people know what they will receive and how it will work. Too many people make promises they can't keep.

Bobby Ukrop

President and CEO, Ukrop's Super Markets Inc.
Richmond, Virginia

MY PARENTS BUILT THIS BUSINESS on the golden rule, that you treat others the way you want to be treated. Part of that is about respect for one another. We try to take great care of our customers, and we can't do that until we take care of our associates.

We have four team values: Be honest, safe, helpful, and hardworking. If people who deal with customers every day in stores do these things, then the customer will have superior customer service. Anybody can say these things. Years ago, someone said to my brother, "Your people are so nice, I will go back to my company and tell people to be nice." Well, you can't just tell people to be nice. You have to make sure to deliver on that promise and to do what you say you are going to do.

These days, we have to spend more time helping employees with social skills. It doesn't come natural. It seems that there is less respect in our society for people. So we try to teach the importance of working hard and respecting other people and ourselves. We run a class called Values, which we have taught 427 times in 27 years. I remind people of what they are trying to do and how important they are to what we are doing.

Maybe it's easier for us as a small, private company. We don't have to worry about Wall Street. Don't get me wrong: We need to be profitable. But we also need to take care of our customers.

Pernille Spiers-Lopez

President, North America, IKEA
Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania

We want to be more accessible and more convenient. But we have a dilemma. In some stores, we have 40,000 to 50,000 visitors a week. Of course, that sort of volume is a great thing, but it also makes it tough to deliver what we promise.

If you ask people what frustrates them most about IKEA, they will tell you that they have to stand in line or that we don't have what they came for. Wait time is one of our biggest problems, especially on a busy Saturday. To address it, we have doubled the lane capacity. And at our busy stores, we have a technology called Linebusters--basically, scanners in the returns lines that make the process go faster. Together, they have produced dramatic improvements. At our Elizabeth, New Jersey, store, our highest-volume U.S. store, we cut the wait time by 40%.

We are constantly focusing on the inventory situation, from product development to retail. We now allow customers to check a store's stock online before they come in. We don't want people coming in if we don't have what they want. We have enormous inventory in our stores, and we need to do a better job of steering customers to what's in the store that we have for them to buy.

IKEA is a company about instant gratification. You come into the store and either bring home what you buy or have it delivered overnight on request. It's about being an attractive place to shop and having friendly and knowledgeable people to assist you. That's enough. Our goal is to stay with the simple things that people know us for. To focus on too much will only disappoint people.

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