Customers First Honorable Mention: Nokia Experience Centers

Nokia Experience Centers

On the shady sales scale, cellular salesmen usually fall somewhere between used-car dealers and pawnshop clerks. That might suit the wireless companies fine, but for the phone makers, these guys are the first point of contact for their brand. And even if the sales reps were perfect, the whole system still works against customers having a good shopping experience because when you go to a carrier's store for a new handset, the salesman there is on commission. So he has every incentive to get you to the cash register as quickly as possible so he can move onto the next sale. Besides that, he works for the wireless company, so inevitably the hardware takes a backseat. Plan extras that pad your monthly bill are more important than putting you together with the best phone for you.

The world's largest handset maker has a better way. Nokia has rolled out its own stores over that last year and a half, called Experience Centers. But there's a twist: the 25 Experience Centers around the country don't sell anything. And that means no commission. (The Finnish mobile phone giant is so anti-commission that even at its flagship stores, where it does sell phones, that's not how it compensates employees). Instead the Experience Centers serve as resources for current customers to learn more about the phones already in their pockets—about one-third of the world's buyers last year—and prospective customers to demo and scout before future purchases. "The best way for somebody to really fall in love with the brand is to come in and play," says Winston Wright, the marketing exec in charge of Nokia's retail initiatives.

It's a sentiment that makes a lot of sense after my Experience Center...experience. For instance, at the Garden State Plaza, jewel of Paramus, New Jersey, a rep takes me through most of the product line, briefly explaining pros and cons along the way. Once he's done, I get to fiddle with a store's worth of buttons, cameras, and gadgets. I shoot video with a flip phone-cum-camcorder, the N90, asking basic technical questions along the way: How many mega-pixels is the camera? How much video can it hold? The rep rattles off two and an hour. It may not have been the most challenging queries ever, but it's clear this guy knows his way around the phones. Next, I get frustrated trying to play music on the mp3-player phone and he shows me how in a way that's all patience and ease. Even after I've outstayed multiple waves of browsers, many of whom ask about buying phones there. They're sent to the Cingular and T-Mobile stores just around the corner in the mall. According to Nokia, this happens to a third or more of its visitors.

This is all Nokia's design. "We want the guest to take us where they want to go, then start talking really deeply about the features of that device. It is a little opposite from what you're accustomed to," explains Wright. Although there's no way to determine exactly how effective this method is at moving products without any concrete way to track sales or even referrals, but the company says its carriers are clamoring for even closer referral sources.

To ensure that each of the centers' 1.25 million visitors leave an Experience Center impressed, the company trains employees for two and a half weeks in Dallas. Classroom time is split equally between tech know-how and customer service. The first is challenged with a written exam. The pass/fail rate is a steep 85%. Customer interaction skills get measured with role-play at working stores, in which Nokia employees are invited to throw everything they have at the newbies. Perhaps the most formidable test of all? "We encourage the engineers to drill these guys to death," cracks Wright.

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