Quality customer service gives small firms an edge

Knowledge of inventory, personal approach trump big-box sellers’ shtick

vbridges@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2012 

  • Customer service by the numbers •  86 percent of consumers will pay more for a better customer-service experience. •  89 percent of consumers began doing business with a competitor following a poor customer experience. •  36 percent of consumers want a personalized experience. •  26 percent of consumers posted a negative comment on a social networking site after a poor customer experience. Source: 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report, based on a survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

Mary Richardson wanted her dream kitchen but didn’t know where to find it.

The 65-year-old retired banker of Raleigh planned to spend thousands of dollars on quality appliances, including a stove, refrigerator, microwave and dishwasher, that she hoped would last her the rest of her life.

She needed the help of a knowledgeable salesperson who didn’t make her feel like a stepping stone to the next commission check and a company that would stand behind its products.

Richardson visited five big-box stores and two local kitchen and bath businesses.

Some places didn’t carry the products she wanted; others failed to win her confidence.

“I would ask questions specifically that I knew the answer to, to see what kind of answer I would get,” Richardson said. “A lot of times it was so far off-base it wasn’t even funny.”

Her search ended at Garner TV & Appliance, a family-owned store that has functioning kitchens where customers can test appliances by baking cookies, running dishwashers and doing laundry.

Plus, employees were friendly, knowledgeable and attentive to her needs, Richardson said.

“I decided almost immediately,” Richardson said. “I cannot say enough good about them.”

A national service crisis

Richardson’s experience represents an opportunity that many businesses miss, according to American’s Research Group, which interviews up to 15,000 consumers a week for retail clients.

“If you ask people ‘Where have you had an exceptional customer service experience?’ 81 percent say ‘nowhere,’ ” said Britt Beemer, CEO and founder of the South Carolina-based research group.

Across the nation, poor customer service results in an estimated $83 billion annual loss by companies due to defections and abandoned purchases, while efforts such as staff competency and proactivity, convenience and personalization lead to customer satisfaction, according to a 2009 study by Genesys, a California-based customer service software company.

“This concept of service and relationship is expanding, and I think it has a lot of businesses really scrambling to put their hands around it,” said Olalah Njenga, CEO and founder of the YellowWood Group, a Raleigh-based marketing and management firm. “If we move the dialogue from customer service to customer experience, then I think that it demands that they look at the relationship with their customers in a more comprehensive manner.”

There is a lot at stake for retailers as customers share their negative experiences on social websites, and small businesses are competing with big-box and online stores for customers with varying expectations.

A winning strategy, Njenga said, begins with owners figuring out who their customers are and how they want to be managed.

“They have to deal with those expectations based on what that generation expects, and I don’t think a lot of retailers do a super job with that,” Njenga said.

Businesses need to identify touch point opportunities with customers such as thank you cards, shopping incentives and interaction on social media.

Beemer said a post-purchase follow up often gives consumers that excellent experience perception.

“Call and thank them for making a purchase,” Beemer said. “Anything that gives you that personal touch is a great customer service experience.”

Triangle customer service varies

To appeal to customers, The Raleigh Wine Shop, which opened downtown in 2011, offers a welcoming space, a knowledgeable staff that includes the owners, a loading zone, free weekend tastings and delivery inside the 540 Outer Beltline, said co-owner Seth Hoffman. For the Regulator Bookshop, on Durham’s Ninth Street, the customer experience is subtle. The store’s employees will hunt down customer requests, and the shop features an expanded children’s section where parents can read to kids, unique background music and books selected specifically for the customers who shop there, said co-owner Tom Campbell.

“I think our strength is that we are a real place,” Campbell said.

A customer might find a book he didn’t know you wanted, or run into a neighbor he hasn’t seen for a while, Campbell said. “You can’t get those kinds of experiences clicking on a ‘buy now’ button.”

At Burke Brothers Hardware on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street, customers are greeted with popcorn and an experienced staff that offers assistance in finding items. The employees are also knowledgeable on product history and project problem solving.

“They are outstanding,” said customer Brian Harbor.

Harbor, who owns Maytag Coin Laundry, said he knows he can easily find what he’s looking for at Burke Brothers, as opposed to hunting around a big-box store for a knowledgeable staff member or a specific item.

“Often times you spend a lot of time searching for things [in a big-box store],” Harbor said. Mones Saad, who opened Garner TV & Appliance 35 years ago, established a positive customer experience from the beginning.

He used to let customers test out products at home before taking payment, said Rita Hines, Saad’s daughter and one of three family members who now run the stores, located on U.S. 70 West in Garner and on Plantation Center Drive in North Raleigh.

Now, customers come to the stores to try out products.

“If they tell me the list of ingredients, I will try to get it provided and then we will cook it in here,” Hines said.

Employees receive training every Friday, said Amgad Saad, vice president and co-owner. And they will come to a customer’s house to show them how the products work. .

“You don’t have to call an eight hundred number and sit and hold,” Hines said. “You call us, and we have a customer service rep in our store and all she does is get you help.”

Richardson is using her new oven, but she still has a lot of questions, so Amgad Saad and Hines plan to come out and cook with her, Richardson said.

“I have a manual and I am experimenting and making a list of questions,” Richardson said. “I want to know all the features and the benefits.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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