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Guest Times: Customers will never forget how you made them feel

Praveen Nijhara, Senior Executive Director, Kantar IMRB, writes how soft skills play the biggest role in customer experience and have a greater chance of sales conversion

A customer walks into a large and leading apparel store with nothing particularly in mind to buy. Which also means that his purchases, if any, would be impulse purchases.

As he goes around the store looking at the merchandise available, he remembers he had wanted to buy a pair of shoes for the rains.

One thing that strikes him straightaway is the quality of staff in the store. It being around lunchtime, the crowds are less and the staff is busy chatting away among themselves. Little do they realise (or care!) about the odd customer who walks past them looking at the merchandise on display. He approaches one of them asking for a pair of casual shoes he could buy for the monsoon. The immediate response from the staff is that they do not have any such shoes in the store. That seems odd to the customer, given that it is the monsoon season and surely, a store of this size ought to keep some shoes that can be worn in the monsoon.

He walks away from that section to another section selling shoes. And there he sees a few pairs meant for the rains. While he doesn’t like any of the pairs available, it makes him wonder why the staff he spoke to earlier did not tell him about the availability of shoes elsewhere in the store.

When he finally leaves the store an hour later, he purchased nothing. And he is left disappointed with his interactions at the store. The staff was inattentive when he needed something. They were not knowledgeable about the store. If the salesperson did not have a pair of shoes to offer him, he should have known if it was available elsewhere in the store. And the staff just seemed busy either among themselves or some of them were too occupied in stock-taking in their respective sections. It was clearly a poor experience.

Another customer visits a store of a leading denim brand. Again, it is a casual visit with browsing being the only immediate intention of walking into the store. The salesperson is so eager to sell that the customer ends up buying a pair of jeans, which he initially had no intention of buying. The salesman is keen to ensure that each time the customer rejects a pair of jeans, he is offered another pair that meets his requirements. In doing so, the customer is eventually convinced to buy the pair of jeans he initially had no intention of buying. It is such a fantastic display of selling ability that the customer is almost pushed into buying without really feeling that he has been forced. As he walks out, he writes a message in the ‘visitor’s book’, complimenting the sales person’s efforts.

What aspects of the staff interaction create the difference between good versus average experience in a store?

  1. Attentive staff – at a very basic level.
  2. Understanding your need. Now, there is a basic problem I see here. You have a certain requirement. A sales person offers something that partly meets the requirement. Either he hasn’t entirely understood what you want or he is trying to push on to you what he has and not necessarily what you want despite understanding what you want.
  3. Sales persons who give the impression that they are interested in meeting your requirements and not ‘just doing a job’.
  4. Knowledgeable about the merchandise in the store.

Aspects such as knowledge of the merchandise, politeness, etc., are hygiene, but will not necessarily ensure sales. However, as shown in the two examples above, soft skills play the biggest role in customer experience and have a greater chance of sales conversion.

From all the research we have done in the retail sector we have seen time and again that the staff makes a big difference and is often the only differentiator between two similar stores? Why would companies want to compromise on this aspect? Agree, staff costs are one of the highest cost heads. But does that warrant taking the risk of poor experience for the customer? Is the cost of employing good quality staff higher than the returns from customer experience?

In a study for one of the leading financial services organisations, we found that customers who found the need to interact with the staff for any reason had significantly lower levels of satisfaction than those who didn’t need to. Those who got their work done through the website or other ‘technology’ channels were much more satisfied than those who had a human interaction even for routine transactions. The difference in satisfaction levels was by more than 15 percentage points.

Similarly, in the case of a travel website, those who booked their air tickets online were much more satisfied than those who took the help of the contact centre staff. Many customers still tend to take the help of the contact centre in ticket booking even at times when they do not face a problem on the website. It’s just more re-assuring to speak to somebody when booking. But their satisfaction levels are much lower because the staff is not entirely knowledgeable either about the process, the deals available or is unable to understand the needs of the customer quickly.

More and more organisations are trying to move customers away from staff interaction and on to self-service modes (website, mobile, etc). This is a positive move as not only is it more economical for companies, there is research to prove that in many routine transactions, customers themselves prefer to transact through self-service channels. However, in situations where customers are not comfortable with using self-service channels or they are not simple, interacting with the staff becomes the only other available alternative.

What does this tell us? Companies must improve the quality of their staff and training to differentiate from the rest and increase customer satisfaction. The fact that customers who don’t interact with a staff member are more satisfied than those who do, shows that there is scope for satisfaction levels to go up further, if interactions are improved.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BestMediaInfo.com and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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