Exceptional Customer Service

Couple at furniture store

There’s a reason customers show up at your store. They want something they can’t get from their phone.

Remember last year when Ralph Lauren announced it was closing its flagship Polo store in New York City as part of a drive to gain footing in a rapidly changing retail world? At the time, The Detroit News said it was “a symbol of old-fashioned luxury that no longer resonates with today’s shoppers.”

I never saw their problem being the clothes or the luxury brands. I mean … Have you shopped in a Ralph Lauren store lately? The customer service level is anything but exceptional. And without exceptional service, exceptional merchandise sits. Even Ralph Lauren’s.

It doesn’t matter how many furniture stores you have; closing one or more of them doesn’t make you great. You can’t shrink your stores to greatness.
And Ralph Lauren isn’t the only brand closing a store. More than 4,000 stores — either big chains like Walmart or small mom-and-pop businesses — closed last year.

Have you shopped in a Nordstrom lately? I have.

Anything but exceptional. The thing is, Ralph Lauren and Nordstrom both know their customer experience is lacking and said they could fix it on their own.

Right. If you could’ve fixed it yourself, you would have already. But the retail world is on fire right now. And not in a good way.

Rue21, Toys R Us and (very soon) Sears are on the brink of shuttering forever.

Other retailers, mired in red ink, can’t throw off enough cash to service their hedge fund owners’ debts.

Because of weak demand and falling traffic levels, bean counters have reduced budgets for workforce. That means consumers get even less help on the sales floor.

As malls lose tenants, the stores that remain worry if there is a minimum viable level of stores to offset their higher rents.

At the same time, we’re hearing the future is online where no one needs or wants help. We’re being told that all buying decisions can and will be made on our smartphones. The experts are half right. All buying decisions can be made on our phones, but they don’t have to be.

Your brand — your store — has got to have a branded service level that you will consistently over-deliver. The only way to rebuild or fend off the chorus of retail closures is to proactively rebuild your business from the bottom up through the lens of the customer.

No, I don’t believe it is adding a kiosk on the floor, a robot that can play YouTube videos, or virtual reality headsets that you must persuade customers to strap on their heads.

All those shiny objects help with your customer experience, but they are simply not enough to move the sales needle. In reality, they’re just distractions. Albeit cool distractions.

Brick-and-mortar retail has one advantage most other businesses don’t that should make you hopeful: You can start over with the very next customer. The experience people have while shopping is more important to them than the actual products or luxury brands that you carry.

But I get it. It’s hard work to manage authenticity in your staff. It’s hard to get employees to open their hearts to another individual. It’s hard to get customers to go beyond browsing and to consider something new.
But that’s the job.

Take ownership of the fact that the experience you provide is average at best. Understand that the pride you take in your customer service might reflect your perspective, not your customers’. Realize that your achievement of having employees who’ve been with you 15 or 20 years could very well be your Achilles heel because they haven’t been forced to change — and neither have you.

Listen to me closely: It is not a foregone conclusion that your store will close. You could be far from that point. But there’s a catch, of course. You must work to make sure of that you are relevant in 2019 and beyond. It takes the hard work of hiring people who aren’t complacent.

It takes the hard work of managing long-time employees who feel their entitled position is safe. It takes the hard work of training new employees on how to engage shoppers, or even “wow” them, when they visit your store. It takes the hard work of creating an energized workforce who understand their roles and are up for the fight. When you do that, you get a story like this:

I was walking around Los Angeles with a buddy, and we stopped in artist Karen Bystedt’s pop-up store that features her images of Andy Warhol. I know this is not furniture but bear with me. Within a few moments, a nice young guy welcomed us and then left us alone. After a few minutes, he approached again and asked where we were from. My buddy said New York and mentioned that he’d been at New York University when Warhol was alive. The employee noted that Karen was a student at NYU when she called up Warhol’s office on a whim. He answered, and she asked if she could photograph him.

He agreed, and she did a photo shoot but set the photographs aside. Twenty years later, she found them and created her own art from them.

The artwork was priced from $10,000 to $20,000, and while it was very LA, it was not something I was ready to purchase. We were preparing to leave when the employee introduced himself and pointed to a display case. “These are wallets Karen made as limited editions of one-of-a-kinds,” he said. “They only run $40 and once they’re gone, they’re gone.” We each purchased one.

Imagine how many times this young guy did that in a day!

That’s how you compete. One person at a time finding some way to engage a stranger. And beyond that to make the sale. Contrast that to the timid souls running other galleries or designer boutiques — or maybe even roaming your furniture showroom. Forget they don’t know anything about closing a sale; most can’t even start a conversation!

Why does so much of retail’s customer experience go off the rails at Nordstrom or Ralph Lauren?

Because these brands still think we come into a store looking for a particular item. Most of the time, we don’t. We come into a store for a variety of reasons, only a few of which are even conscious.

When you allow your employees to sit on sofas or hang behind counters on their smartphones, you aren’t minding the store. Store associates know when a business is in trouble. They see lower demand. They hear about locations closing.

A New York Times article had a cynical quote from Simeon Siegel of Nomura, a financial services group based in Japan. “There is a self-help mentality now,” Siegel said. “People walk around with their phones in their hand to tell them the best model and the best price. You don’t need as many people walking around trying to convince you to buy a sweater.”

I don’t agree. Let’s be clear: When people walk into your furniture store, it is a sign they are coming to buy. They took time out of their day to go to your store. They hoped for something other than a mobile experience.
How else do you explain it? If they truly loved no interaction, they wouldn’t be there. But they are.

I maintain those shoppers want a feeling. They want a conversation. They want a connection.

If you believe my view, then why don’t you train your employees accordingly?

Look, there’s no magic bullet out there to save you from the Borg of retail right now — that everyone will be assimilated and resistance is futile. It will be a series of small steps.

If you’re a major brand like Ralph Lauren or Nordstrom in your community, you can’t just believe your own PR that you’re the best example of premium service. There have been countless brands before you who fell prey to that belief and are now gone.

Even a stopped clock is right time twice a day, but in the end, it is still broken. We’re in a seismic shift in shopping. Do what you can and put a laser focus on your customer in a human way. Remember, you can’t close your doors to become successful.

About the Author

Bob Phibbs
Bob Phibbs, aka the Retail Doctor, is a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Your Business. He has been featured in Entrepreneur magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He can be reached at Bob@retaildoc.com.