Supermarkets Have An Advantage When It Comes To Customer Service

I too dislike questionnaires, every time you buy something on-line, finish a support call, or upon returning from a trip to the shops, local coffee shop or restaurant. The ‘ping’ on our phone denotes the arrival of the email or text, and leaves us with a sinking feeling, as we read “Please help us improve our service by just answering a few questions”.  Surely there’s another way to understand what we, consumers, want from a retailer?  In my mind, supermarkets have an advantage when it comes to customer service! 

We’ve all been there, and told with confidence how it should (‘should’ being the operative word) not take more than 10 minutes to complete. Once you have fallen for the evil pitch, you are then captured, only too polite to hang-up or not finish this on-line request; 30 minutes later, having lost most of the will to live, then comes the final question box stating; “please explain why you have answered the questions in the way you have”. 

There is a stock answer, but I am too good-mannered to write it here. So let’s settle with “pay me my hourly rate and I will then consider providing you with the consultancy you are after”. 

The final straw is that, should you actually respond to their request they bombard you with, even more emails arrive, with products and services that you have been “specially selected for” (of course they have; you and half of the rest of the world)! 

Using your data 

But in all seriousness, quantifiable information is key in getting businesses in the right shape for the market they are serving. All these after sales/service requests are there to either get you hooked on to some new product, gizmo or service, or simply to minimise damage done by the last experience (not always bad, but could of been better) and then, hopefully, identify where improvements can be made. But where they all fail is consistency i.e. what some people might consider a bad experience might be considered acceptable to another; so consistency and then continuity. 

So where does this leave the major supermarket retailers? 

It is more difficult for them to continually ask for information as many of the customers are returning week after week, and these customers will not accept these continuous requests for information.  In point of fact, it will only drive them away. Yet, like all businesses, they need to keep monitoring how they are performing (and the occasional mystery shopper is not enough, not even close). 

Innovations in technologies really have begun to help, because it is now possible to cover some of the thorny issues about customer service by applying some sensible rules and associated Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Whilst not all aspects can be covered, many can and are. 

Understanding checkouts 

For example, let us look at queuing at the checkouts, an area of which I have spent the last 10 years understanding incremental change and using technology to understand the problems, the causes and the solutions that surround it. 

If customers have to wait too long they obviously get upset, (perception of wait time is typically much longer than actual, 2 minutes feels like 10): especially if they see checkouts that can be opened and staff nearby that are in idle conversations i.e not productive. 

It is possible with today’s technology to record these long wait times and report them to management (retrospectively), or if the company really wants to deliver the correct levels of service, raise an alert to allow checkouts to be opened immediately to meet the current demand, or closed if not required. 

From a Senior Management point of view every bad customer experience is potentially a lost customer. So, there is a need to identify how many customers have been potentially lost to another retailer and, where possible, understand the cause. This is where different areas of the store environment need to be looked at, both individually and holistically i.e. what happened in the store on the last customer visit. 

Mapping customer behaviour 

For example, the retailer has the technology to recognise a returning customer, not as “John Smith” but by the phone they carry. The signal that the phone pings out looking for a connection or Wi-Fi point provides a unique identifier (MAC address) each time they enter the store, where they go within the store and when they leave. It should not be, therefore, too difficult to eliminate staff members and infrequent shoppers and get to the core repeat customers (as I said by a reference number and not by their name, for reasons of data protection/privacy). Patterns will evolve for each customer as to how many times they shop and how long they spend in the store: “are they loyal to this store only or even to the brand”. Should the customer stop shopping at this location or this brand as a whole: “what is the driver or event that typically would have occurred on their last visit or a news item that has affected their choice”. 

So, on the time of day when they last shopped what were the key events that impacted all customers and how many have voted with their feet and not returned. This information can be applied to ascertain the full store loss on that day and what it meant in revenue terms in the short and long term. It could even go a stage further and identify all customers that used some form of loyalty card, and provide them with an incentive to return to the store when hopefully whatever went wrong earlier has been fixed. 

The examples above show how technology can be used to recognise the customer service experience and how the business can make a proactive response to not only poor service but also good service. But this is only a small part of what can be done with the data that can now be gleaned from video analytical cameras and mobile phone/Wi-Fi/bluetooth information. The retailer does not necessarily have to invest in blanket coverage of equipment in the store, but cover just the key service points i.e checkouts, entrances, exits, customer service desks, counters etc. In fact, it is even possible today, with the right supplier, just to pay for the data and leave the technical side to them. 

“But why make the investment?” You may ask, as the Bricks and Mortar supermarket shopping experience is getting squeezed by on-line stores and discount retailers, and maybe the money could be spent elsewhere. No longer does the customer make one big shop every week. Now these shopping trips are more frequent and split between different retailers. It is because of this increased competition that retailers have to make sure that they serve their customers in a way that makes the experience pleasurable, so that buying from the shop is their preference rather than their goods just turning up on the door step. It is about that human interaction, the ability to ask ad hoc questions, the confidence that the food products are fresh, the clothes fit, the quality is there and it was a seamless process between selecting and paying for the goods. 

Improving the experience without intervention 

So, you can see why all of the on-line retailers have their irritating questionnaires, since customer experience is paramount to getting customers back to their on-line store. The major retailers, then, have to use the customer data already at their disposal (in systems etc.), and without customer intervention, to ensure they avoid customers experiencing these familiar pain-points: 

  • Waiting too long at checkouts; 
  • Having staff in the wrong place at the wrong time (which also can have benefits to the retailer in productivity terms); 
  • Skill shortages; 
  • Customer Service Points unmanned; 
  • Not having the right quantity of checkouts, and the right type (noting that for some stores they no longer need long belted checkouts due to the reduction in basket sizes); 
  • Customers confused as to the layout of the store; 
  • Rushing or herding customers to suit the store staff. 

If the customer has to experience the long wait, the surly assistant or a general lack of consideration while shopping, they will turn to the competition. Getting the in-store experience right is very important, and, fortunately, the tools are out there! 


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