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The Customer-Centric Approach: What it Really Means

May 2008 By Joel R. Evans
We are now in an era where the marketplace is so cluttered that it is more difficult than ever for any one retailer to stand out from the competition — or even be recognized. As a result, a customer-centric approach is imperative.

Most retailers promote as fact that they are customer-centric. Many even believe they are. But, one of the most abused terms in business is customer-centric. Here are three true examples to illustrate the point: (1) A leading department store branch is busy. In the women’s apparel section, the checkout line is long. In the shoe department (which is not leased), no one is waiting on line. The sales clerk refuses to ring up any apparel sales. The department store prides itself on outstanding customer service. (2) A customer buys a $100 gift card from a leading consumer electronics chain. The gift recipient spends $90 at the chain and asks for the balance to be remitted in cash. The request is refused. The chain prides itself on outstanding customer service. (3) A local bookstore promotes a policy to “beat any prices.” The policy is good for only three days after a purchase. The bookstore prides itself on outstanding customer service.

There are several things that retailers of any type or size can do to truly be customer centric. Here are 10 ways to facilitate the process.

• Be your own customer. Interact with salespeople. Visit all your facilities. “Think like a customer.”

• Be proactive. Use mystery shoppers to engage your employees in various types of situations. Do customer surveys. Adjust practices as necessary.

• Encourage employee empowerment. A number of firms have cut back on employee flexibility in “bending the rules” for fear of hurting profitability. Yet, research shows that customers are more loyal when they feel the company listens to them.

• Small gestures can be big. Take a look at www.stservicemovie.com and see how.

• Be as honest and informative as humanly possible. Don’t run a full-page ad with the word “SALE” if not all the items in the ad are actually on sale.

• Every retailer should offer a meaningful loyalty program. There’s no better way to be customer-centric than to reward continued patronage.

• Match your sales staff requirements to your positioning. It is okay for Wal-Mart to have a limited number of sales workers on the floor because of its low-price, self-service approach. Likewise, it is proper for Best Buy to have a lot of staff on the floor since it promotes more personal service.

• Utilize customer-friendly signage. I once addressed a group of supermarket executives and made what I thought was a rather non-provocative suggestion: Have a large sign at the entrance depicting the full layout of the items in the store. My reasoning: With more men starting to shop in supermarkets, better signage was needed. The intense negative reaction to this suggestion was stunning. The supermarket executives thought this would cut down on impulse shopping. My response: If shoppers feel comfortable and knowledgeable, there will be more impulse shopping — not less. I lost that battle. Supermarkets (and many others), for the most part, still do not have enough customer-friendly signage.

• Run special-themed promotions throughout the year that are NOT price-oriented. Too often, retailers view promotions only as “sales,” and run them frequently. However, promotions do not have to just focus on price. (Such tactics typically encourage customers to wait for the inevitable sale and not buy on full price). Examples of good promotions: Contests don’t only have to coincide with special events, such as the Super Bowl. Similar activities can be done at other times. Be creative!

• Encourage employees to be more customer-centric. All those who personally interact with customers should have name tags — from the sales staff to senior executives. Every person who answers the phone (or makes calls) should state his or her name. Employee photos should be prominently placed. Recognition of good employee performance should be posted. One nice thing that I always observe is when a company has a parking space designated “employee of the month.” This is a signal to me that the company cares about people.

Joel R. Evans, Ph. D., is a RMI Distinguished Professor of Business, Hofstra University. This article first appeared in PromoMagazine.com and appears with permission in this issue of Picture Business.
 

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