Customers: Are they really being served?

For shops to survive, the public must feel they are getting service with a genuine smile

The sitcom Are You Being Served?  was played for laughs, but there really was a time, not so long ago, when a would-be retail worker paid to begin in a shop as an apprentice or trainee.

The sitcom Are You Being Served? was played for laughs, but there really was a time, not so long ago, when a would-be retail worker paid to begin in a shop as an apprentice or trainee.

 

Ever found yourself wandering around an empty shop, looking for a member of staff or even a sign for the payment point? Have you ever tried talking over too-loud music to deliver a complaint or ask a question, only to have the worker look down at his or her feet – or worse, give a fake apology for the fact that the shop neither stocks your size nor will order it in but suggests you go to the website to order it?

If so, you are one of the increasing number of consumers who are being short-changed by our current bricks-and-mortar shopping offer.

“There is a disconnect between the organisation and its customer,” sighs retail consultant Eddie Shanahan. “This ‘computer says no’ approach is designed to serve organisations, not customers.”

The diminishment of a focus on customer service, he says, is partially to do with the development and training of staff. But it is also related to the hours allocated to modern-day gig economy workers: “With a zero-hours contract, why would any member of staff give a monkey’s about customer service if they don’t even know how many hours they’re going to be working next week?”

Contrast this with a time, not so long ago, when a would-be retail worker paid money to go in as an apprentice or as a trainee to learn the ropes on the shop floor, an era that 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served? had a lot of fun with.

“That training is completely missing now,” Shanahan laments. “Now you’re employed because you look good in a sports shirt.”

He calls it a “monkey see, monkey do” situation. “Staff are a product of where they work. If management treats customers as a nuisance, then staff will do likewise if they are not made to feel part of a team or to take pride in their job.”

Simply paying attention, he says, affects your bottom line – in a good way.

“Good retailers put a relentless, uncompromising focus on the customer because that’s where the money is.

The customer may not want to come into the shop, they may research the merchandise online and buy online, but online you can’t smell the perfume or feel the cashmere.”

Investment in customer service makes seriously good commercial sense to hairdressing group Peter Mark. It spends €1 million a year training its 1,700-strong staff and runs four full-time academies to inculcate in its workers in what Cathal Keaveney, its head of professional development, describes as the personal service industry.

Questions delivered in a derogatory fashion, such as “Who cut/coloured your hair last?” are banned, Keaveney says. So too is talking to the client through the mirror. Instead, staff are taught to read the customer, listening with their eyes as well as their ears and sitting down with the client to talk to them face to face.

“Part of the return is a more knowledgeable hairdresser, which will lead to a better spend per client and a greater frequency of visit.” And that will increase turnover.

Peter Mark has also hired motivational speakers, such as footballer-turned-image consultant Billy Dixon, to help staff present a better version of themselves to clients.

In a world where word-of-mouth recommendations, either the old-fashioned verbal kind or the digital version on social media, remain the greatest promotion of a business, you have to build a relationship and a rapport with clients, Keaveney says.

It’s about making the customer feel special, adds Shanahan. They feel it the minute they cross the threshold.

He cites Blarney Woollen Mills original store in Blarney, Co Cork, as a shining example. Its company “personality” was created by founder Christy Kelleher, an old-fashioned gent who used to stand in the car park to personally greet every tour bus and welcome them into his “home”.

“That inherent understanding of hospitality has since evolved into a more sophisticated personality,” Shanahan says, “but it is still very much part of the offer. So much so that if a member of staff there doesn’t know the answer to your question, they will find someone who does.”

It’s all about standards, he stresses. “Building the personality of a brand is the product of a thousand small gestures – you meet customers as friends. Gestures such as these need to be enhanced, not reduced.”

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