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Will Canadian retailers survive?

January 24th, 2011 · 2 Comments · All Posts, Karima-CatherineGoundiam

Motivated employees make a huge difference in service”  says David A. Aaker in his book, Strategic Market Management

Mind the gap

Like many busy moms, I willingly and sometimes, forcefully, take on everyone’s shopping in my family. This year, more than ever before, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the limits of customer service at retailers, more particularly, at Canadian retailers.

This has given me a pretty good insight in their practices and what the end user, the customer deals with. I will use this “experience” to bring you a series on Canadian retailers; the first topic is pretty general as it sets the tone and give you a fair idea of the landscape.

I’ve recently had a few incidents at RW & Co and Tristan stores; I complained about it on Twitter and Facebook; Yes, I was really mad. I am not talking about stellar customer service, even the basic politeness had not even been displayed; The general attitude has been cold and unhelpful on each of my several visits. A few of the gems I can vividly remember:

- I was dismissed by sales staff when I asked to help me find specific size for an item; she said there was only extra small left; I skimmed through the rack one more time and found all the sizes; Note: I am really persistent otherwise, they would have lost a sale opportunity.

- On one occasion, I said I would call head office in order to weigh in with them for a return policy issue and before I exited the store, the manager started to shout: “where is the phone? Where is the phone, need to call head office now.”  NoteThis lady totally did not see the iphone in my hand? I can dial faster than my shadow.

While I received no word from Tristan – which doesn’t come as a surprise, RW & Co, on the other hand, reached out to me on Twitter and by email – I figure 2 different teams are handling  online monitoring as both, customer service and sales asked me for my phone number;  2 weeks later, they haven’t called me back.

Social media, so what?

I’ve looked at several retailers’ online assets and find a deep disconnect between the company’s statement and the reality of the brand.  Is the gap in the definition of the company’s mission, in the implementation of the mission, in the communication within the organization, in the operational steps such as HR, sales, training, or could it be in the strategic planning.

Social media will not help any company if internal processes to handle a social media program are not in place. Social media will only showcase the organization is unorganized, at best.  One of the biggest challenges retailers face today is the disparity in service delivery from one location to the next and from one sales associate to the next; However, a retailer needs to be able to serve their customers with consistency. Today’s shopper knows more about the industry as most staff members; customers are aware of what’s being said about retailers thanks to platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare, and Google. Smartphone penetration, with over 7 millions subscribers, allows customers to update their social profiles from anywhere, including  while in stores if they are not happy with service.

For most businesses, using social media seems to be just another place to market to their consumers, a means to an end, an expedient purpose. Business doesn’t start nor end with social media. Social media should be part of how organizations conduct business. Social should allow them to better serve their customers.  Displaying a Twitter icon is not doing social media; it’s just adding another widget to the plethora of social tools out there. What makes the difference is what efforts and initiatives businesses put together towards truly making the customer’s experience a * WoW*

Customers DO care

Most clients don’t complain as they don’t deem it worth their time and effort; a customer that complains is a huge opportunity for businesses.  I am one demanding customer; my expectations are high as I expect the service that goes with the money I pay for my purchase.  When I complain, I can be tough because I feel the business did not fulfill their promise. However, on the flipside, I never fail to shower with compliments those that are good. Today’s norm is to be mediocre, so anyone who does a little better will get my attention.

Chasing customers through social media will not do it. KLM has demonstrated avant-garde thinking with their latest campaign.

Businesses don’t need to chase customers across social networks; Initiating contact on social media is great when it is a premise for the business to show they have the internal processes and internal culture to follow-up on their social promise. In a time where customers are craving for connections, businesses have to revive the human in their business practice.

To be successful, retailers must deliver consistently on their promise. Also, for brick and mortar retailers, their success or failure may just depend on its manager – choosing the right person as well as training and empowering them are crucial steps to diffusing good customer service in-store.

The organisation’s culture ought to be geared towards serving the customer.  This includes management shaping the culture and supporting it throughout the organization, empowering its people, and focusing on the customer. This way, all processes will be put in place and excecuted in a consistent manner.

As for front-line staff, I have 1 word and a few tips : Human 101

  • Customers want to spend money.  Staff should be welcoming. Smiles are not optional
  • Staff should be empowered to take decisions without having to call head office
  • Return policies are great in the back of a receipt but a customer has specifics that sometimes go beyond the policy. You know, like in real life. things that cost nothing to do keep him happy
  • Don’t suspiciously look at every customer as if they were thieves trying to rip you off a $20 shirt
  • Be consistent!  (This one is tricky because some brands have consistently bad service across all their stores)

Canadians only?

Of course, this post is solely based on my experience and research; my focus on Canadian retailers is both logical and inherent to the actual landscape.  There are exceptions, such as Lululemon, who use social media as an extension of their business strategy and manage to create a very active and engaging community online as well as offline.

Canadian retailers are terribly disappointing in term of how customers are cared for, whether offline or online. Social media is an amplifier of their weaknesses or strengths. They have to fix their processes first before going out loud in social media. They must be willing to look internally how they can improve the overall customer experience, it has to be their prime responsibility.

In upcoming posts, I will continue to look at the Canadian retail landscape, especially how the industry is being shaped by technology penetration. I will also look at how today’s customer is truly expecting a contemporary experience.

Karima-Catherine Goundiam

Update: As I am finalizing this post, the sales director at RW & co called me in order to have more information about my Twitter post and the service I received at their stores.  She came out very professional and willing to make changes. She offered a gift card to compensate for my inconvenience but I declined, as this post was already written and I preferred to keep an unbiased and independent editorial line.

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  • Mark Orlan

    Wow! What a post! This just sums it all up. Great job, KC! And it obviously applies to US companies as well, but being Canadian, and having shopped on both sides of the border, one has to wonder if Canadian Retailers really get it.

    Coming from the world of Customer Experience Management, I can vouch that companies didn’t get it before Social came on the scene. They figured that they could run these online POS surveys and they would catch all the problems at their stores. Few companies have taken a holistic, integrated, silo breaking view of their customer – there’s still a lot of lip service out there; even today, when CEM is supposed to be such a hot topic.

    Now we add Social to the mix. The Executive team doesn’t get it. Especially in retail. They just bundle it all under the heading “Facebook – something that my kids use. It’s a waste of time.” The Executive team needs to be educated. They need to include Social into the overall business strategy.

    And I like your tips for the front-line staff. Problem is, many of them are un-motivated, underpaid, and not overly-engaged in a positive culture. It all comes across in how they end up servicing the customer, both at the store level, and even from head office – the people that manage the Twitter, Facebook, and customer service email accounts of the company, just aren’t working as a team to delight the customer.