Physical retail: it’s still all about service, and it always will be…

I’ve written a blog piece for Retailer Solutions, reflecting on some timeless truths around customer service.  You can read it here.

I’ve been working in retailing for many years, and throughout the time, commentators, trainers, coaches and indeed CEOs have continued to return to the importance of customer service.  And yet, still, as a nation, we really aren’t very good at it.  On a day-to-day basis, the apparent “cost” of providing good, one-on-one service – in terms of people, time and training – still doesn’t appear to be worth the bother, for operators in big chains, and for owner-managers too.

The high street renaissance may be dependent on rebalancing the landlord/tenant relationship, weaning councils off their addiction to critical parking charges, or making the business rates regime fairer.  But if customer service is still poor, then sayonara, shopkeepers – and the retailers will only have themselves to blame.

Retailer Solutions is an initiative driven by Enterprise Ireland, the organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises across the world. Enterprise Ireland is a champion of innovation, and can provide retailers with access to emerging technologies from Irish companies with world class solutions for retail. 

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Missing the point – a customer service fable

Here’s a lovely true story I heard from a friend last week.  He’d been shopping in one of the West End’s spiffier gents’ outfitters, and (the retail climate being what it is) things were a bit quiet instore.  Indeed, he was the only customer in the shop.

He went unacknowledged at the front of the store, and headed off to another area to look at some jackets.  He had a few hundred quid burning a hole in his pocket.

There was a clutch of staff behind the basement counter, but no one came forward, for they were all too busy.  Busy discussing… the Mary Portas show they’d all watched on TV last night, and the extent to which they agreed (or disagreed) with her conclusions on the importance of good customer service.

My friend listened to their animated debate for a little while and then, feeling himself to be a supernumerary, cleared off to spend his cash elsewhere.

There’s a moral here somewhere…



The Dog It Was That Died

Yesterday, I bought a pop CD.

Once upon a time, this would have been as unremarkable a statement as “yesterday I brushed my teeth”.

But these days, I’m getting older, and iTunes is so very easy – I want it, I’ve got it, I’ve forgotten about it, I want something else.  So I’ve just bought what I think is my first pop CD since the Beatles mono box set, back in the autumn of 2009.

I bought my new CD to provide a bit of inoffensive road music for a family trip – it’s one of those folky-boppy A303 albums made by expensively educated and well-spoken young men.  It doesn’t really stand comparison with the stuff I was ingesting when pop really mattered, but for old times’ sake, I shelled out my £7.

Now, I don’t buy CDs or books online, or from supermarkets.  My nearest indie record store is, frankly, a little scary, so my disc-buying choice is down to H, M, or V.

The store was on a big railway station concourse, and jammed behind a counter the size of a bus driver’s cab were three strapping blokes, all keenly engaged in busy-work that prevented them from noticing customers.  I tried the one who seemed closest to facing forward, and he caught me out of the corner of his eye – and asked his colleague to ring through the sale.

“Can you do this sale?” he said – words that imply a transaction without the need to acknowledge a customer.  The colleague did as he was bidden.  Now, he could have said “hi”, he could have said “thanks”, he could have made some comment on Jonah and the Ark, but he didn’t.  I paid up, and left.

I’ve worked in stations, airports, department store concessions and ill-equipped little shops (Our Price Finchley Road, anyone?), and I know that railway stations, cramped and squalid, are the worst of the lot.  But – fellas – YOUR COMPANY IS ON ITS KNEES.  You’ll find – trust me, this is true – that if you’re pleasant, if you’re quickly and efficiently welcoming and appreciative, that your job is a little bit better, and your customers might come back.

Perhaps that’s it, and I’ve bought my last pop disc, the last of thousands.  Perhaps the game is simply no longer worth a candle.  There’s clearly no desire to woo me (remember the £50 man?) any more.