Be Our Guest

Deliver customer service that goes beyond the ordinary to extraordinary.
by : 

Kim Perkins

August 1, 2013
Be Our Guest

We all have heard business gurus say great customer service is the key to success. This is true in any type of business, especially our niche of small, specialty retail stores. We know we can’t compete with the “big guys” on price. Our edge is in offering the best possible shopping experience, in which customers are valued and assisted by intelligent, knowledgeable staff. Studies have shown customers will drive twice as far and pay more to visit a store where they feel respected and important.

How do we create an extraordinary shopping experience so customers feel great, recommend us to their friends, and want to visit our store again and again? Start with a clean, inviting space with products of good quality and value for the price, add a mix of attractive displays and good signage, and we have a successful store, right? Not quite yet. We still need two key ingredients: a sense of welcome and an incredible staff who offer a concierge level of customer service.

The consummate concierge

When we think of the term “concierge,” hotels and service businesses often come to mind. A first-class concierge has confidence, poise, style, efficiency, grace, and amazing attention to detail. The best concierge takes pride in providing memorable experiences for their guests. Can you think of a reason we wouldn’t want every employee in our store to have this mindset? As long as we have customers, we are in a service business, selling an experience as well as a product.

So, what are the key components of great customer service? It may sound silly but it all starts with very basic principles. Truly, great customer service is a mixture of being kind and respectful, listening attentively, and having good manners.

Many years ago, I started an elder-care nursing agency because I saw a need for care givers who could provide quality nursing care but also attend to patients’ more subtle needs, such as a low noise level, patience for their slower pace, and the courtesy of being asked, not dictated to. I quickly learned that seeing the need for a better level of customer service versus being able to train others in exactly what that means are two different animals. I could not be present in every household to observe or lead by example, so I had to create an effective training program for my employees.

A gold standard of customer service

I wanted to emulate the best, and two companies that have great customer service down to a science are the Walt Disney Company and Hilton Hotels and Resorts. Lucky for me, friends in both organizations were willing to share their experiences with the employee-training programs at Disney and Hilton.

Walt Disney had a vision to deliver a seamless, “magical” experience to guests of all Disney operations. He wanted to take away the worries and stresses of everyday life and allow families to experience a world of joy, laughter, and wonder in a clean, upbeat environment. This vision and mission is taught to each employee and remains a consistent thread in every area of the Disney empire, from theme parks and hotels to restaurants, retail stores, and more. What Walt Disney envisioned and brought to life was a strong brand that exists to this day.

Hilton Hotels and Resorts also maintains a brand known for excellence and innovation envisioned by its founder Conrad Hilton (“Connie,” to all you Mad Men fans out there) that has endured for nearly a century. Their in-house, employee training program is entirely focused on ensuring the highest level of service for their guests. Concierge training is at the pinnacle, with all employees asked to give 120 percent to every customer.

At most hotels, if someone asks for directions, it is accepted—and even considered good customer service—if the desk clerk hands them a complimentary map. At Hilton, the minimum expectation for the concierge is to print out a personalized map and directions, pinpoint the hotel on the map, trace the route to their specific destination, and make sure to ask the guest if they have additional questions. Clearly, going above and beyond is expected and encouraged!

Exceed expectations

Going above and beyond can definitely set a company apart and doesn’t have to be difficult or require a lot of effort. Once, while shopping at a hardware store, I noticed a customer ask an employee stocking shelves where to find screen clips. The employee walked the customer over to the aisle and asked if he could do anything more to help. The customer needed assistance determining which screen clips would fit her needs, and the employee stayed with her until she was satisfied she had found the right thing. The employee then returned to stocking shelves.

I am pretty sure the employee’s main job was shelf stocking, not sales, yet he was attentive and helpful. The customer was so delighted she made a point of telling the store manager about the excellent and helpful store employee. Again, this may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a department store and asked the location of an item, only to have the employee (if I could find one) point in a general direction a few aisles over and return to straightening shelves! Evidently, the concept of going above and beyond is not obvious to everyone.

Exceeding expectations is a way to make a lasting, positive impression. To accomplish this, you have to empower your employees to offer positive solutions and outstanding service to your customers. Encourage employees to trust their intuition and judgment, and let them know that while you may not always agree, you will support the decisions they make about what to offer a customer. After the fact, you can make your preference and suggestions known, but let them follow their own guidance when they are on the front line.

Communicate!

The insights of my friends at Disney and Hilton helped me implement an excellent customer service platform at my nursing agency and later at the retail store I co-own, allowing both businesses to be both distinctive and successful. It is a platform built on communication.

Large, successful companies, including Disney and Hilton, acknowledge the importance of communicating exactly what is expected of employees. You can convey your expectations during the hiring process through a written list, a letter from the owner in an employee handbook, a video training message, or verbally—whatever works best for you. The key is to make sure all employees receive the information and take it to heart. If they understand the reasons behind the rules, it is much easier to accept and adhere to them.

Put your service to the test

A few years ago during the rush of Christmas, a customer called to complain that when we gift-wrapped her purchases, we mistakenly left one out of her shopping bag, which she didn’t realize until she arrived home. She lived a few miles away and didn’t want to venture out in the rain to retrieve it, so I offered to deliver it after the store closed that evening. Many of her friends—and friends of her friends—have shopped at our store because they were so impressed by her story. Doing what I considered to be the right thing to do inadvertently turned into a great marketing tool as well!

Another guideline that will create goodwill is being ready to offer an option or alternative if you have to say “no.” When a customer asks if you carry a certain item that is not in stock, instead of a simple reply of, “No, we don’t have it,” you can easily add, “but we can order it for you.” Or, if a customer wishes to return an item but doesn’t have a receipt and wants a refund in cash, instead of saying, “No, we don’t give cash back without a receipt,” and watching them walk away upset, you can turn it around and say, “I can give you the full cash value in the form of a gift card you can spend on anything in the store.” It may not be their first choice, but they will be much happier than if they leave without another option.

What about those pesky customers who are not nice when they don’t get what they want? A quote I love by philosopher-poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol sums it up: “The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones.” It’s easy to maintain a smile and a good attitude when people are nice. The challenge is to be able to do the same when they are not. That is the mark of excellent service.

What about customers who are pushy or demanding? Is the customer really always right? Of course not! Sometimes they are just plain rude and wrong. The solution when this happens (hopefully rarely) is to remember that who is wrong or right is not important. Our job is to rise above the situation and continue to act with kindness and respect, even—and especially—when the customer does not. That is exemplary customer service!

Your most valuable asset (your employees)

Most companies that enjoy success and longevity realize two truths: They need to communicate their vision effectively if they want it to be followed, and their front-line staff is their most valuable asset. You cannot be too specific or simplistic when conveying your vision for your company. What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so don’t be afraid to spell it out, give examples, and cover the essence of what you envision on a regular basis. As for your sales staff being your most valuable asset, as retailers you and I know how true this is!

Your initial interview of potential sales staff is of utmost importance in this regard, so know what specific requirements are needed and structure your hiring decisions based on attitude, aptitude, and enthusiasm. Look for traits such as a nice smile, appropriate eye contact, good posture, saying “please” and “thank you,” being prompt, professional dress, attentive listening, and an eagerness to learn. In my book, having prior retail experience is secondary to a great attitude and a genuine love of people.

Being a salesperson is not always a glamorous job. It takes long hours on your feet and the ability to smile and connect with people even if you may not be at your best. For the right person, the rewards can be vast and the action of helping others most satisfying. Finding sales people who are sincere and excel at what they do is like discovering gold, and those contributions need to be continually acknowledged and celebrated!

Offering extraordinary customer service can ensure you continue to cultivate loyal customers who will visit your store often and bring their friends. That is the best kind of lasting competitive edge we can ask for!


Raise the bar

Sometimes it’s the small, simple things that make all the difference in taking good customer service to a level of greatness. Here are a few clues and rules to keep in mind:

  • Remember to smile. A genuine smile carries with it a message of acceptance. It can even be “heard” over phone lines! Smiling sends a universal message of love.
  • Be kind. Always treat others well, even if they do not return the favor. Your kindheartedness will be remembered long after the customer leaves the store.
  • Listen attentively. Be present and focused. When you are engaging with a customer, give them your full attention. It is the best way to show respect for another human being.
  • Have a professional image. That doesn’t mean your employees have to dress up, but their attire should be clean, pressed, and fashionable. They represent you, and how they look and act is the impression your customers will hold about your store.
  • Maintain good posture. Silly? Maybe, but good posture conveys a positive attitude and slouching expresses disinterest and depression.
  • Keep the sales area tidy. Don’t eat or drink on the sales floor, and leave cell phones and purses in the back.
  • Keep chat to a minimum. It’s disrespectful to carry on a conversation with a co-worker when customers are present. Often customers will not interrupt and sales are lost. If a customer is present, they deserve your complete attention.
  • Let customers talk about themselves. Keep your personal sharing to a minimum. Let the focus be on them.
  • Don’t take it personally. There are a million reasons why customers might be irritable or cranky. Rather than react in any way, know it is not about you and let it go.
  • Exceed expectations. Make it a point to go above and beyond whenever the opportunity arises.

Kim Perkins is co-owner of Elysian Fields Books & Gifts for Conscious Living (www.elysianfieldsonline.com), an award-winning store in Sarasota, Fla.