Report: Why Retail Customer Service is Dropping

A new report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index shows a drop in retail customer satisfaction. From department stores like Nordstrom to specialty stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, customers are less happy than they were a year ago.

How can this be possible in an era where customers are bombarded with survey requests and access to big data is at an all-time high?

The answers have to do with people. How people are staffed, managed, and the duties they are asked to perform all have an impact on customer satisfaction.

You can access the full report or read below to see the highlights and analysis. To kick things off, the chart below shows a comparison in overall satisfaction between 2017 and 2018 on a 100-point scale:

Retail customer satisfaction declined from 2017 to 2018.

Retail customer satisfaction declined from 2017 to 2018.

Trend #1: Courtesy and Helpfulness of Staff

This one is down across the board.

Courtesy and helpfulness from retail employees has declined.

Courtesy and helpfulness from retail employees has declined.

Staffing levels have a big impact on this category. Retailers routinely understaff stores in an effort to save money, but this leaves the few available employees running ragged trying to serve multiple customers and complete tasks like restocking and merchandising.

Another issue is the surveys that seemingly appear on every retail receipt. These should help retailers detect problems like unfriendly employees. But the dirty secret is many retailers don't actually use those surveys to improve. And many even manipulate the surveys to make the scores look better than they really are.

A 2016 report from Interaction Metrics found that 68 percent of retail customer satisfaction surveys were "total garbage."


Trend #2: Layout and Cleanliness of Store

There's a slight dip in this area.

Stores need to improve the cleanliness and layout.

Stores need to improve the cleanliness and layout.

Part of the challenge is staffing (see Trend #1). Stores struggle to stay clean and organized when there aren't enough employees to do the work.

Another is command structure. Many retail chains make store layout decisions at the corporate level, and don't do enough field testing to ensure the designs actually make sense. Last year, I did a comparison of my local Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS and noted important differences in the layout of each store.


Trend #3: Speed of Checkout Process

The checkout process was another area where satisfaction dropped across the board.

Checking out is too slow at retail stores.

Checking out is too slow at retail stores.

Here again staffing plays a role. We've probably all wasted time wandering around a department store, searching for someone to ring us up. And that's precisely why so many people would rather shop online—it's much easier.

Customer satisfaction with speed isn't just about the actual amount of time it takes. People are heavily influenced by perception. So a pleasant experience with a friendly cashier that takes five minutes will feel like a breeze, while an unpleasant experience that also takes five minutes will feel like an eternity.

Retailers could help themselves by studying these factors that influence wait time perception.

Take Action

There are three easy ways retailers can check these trends in their own stores.

Talk to employees. I have no idea why managers don't spend more time doing this. Employees will almost always be forthcoming about the challenges they face if you ask them sincerely.

Walk your stores. Spend time walking through your stores like a customer. You'll often discover unexpected problems that your customers encounter every day.

Use surveys wisely. Customer feedback surveys can be valuable tools, but you should use them wisely or not use them at all. This short video will help you decide why you want to run a survey program.

How To Build Your Customer Listening Skills

Advertising disclosure: This blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

I've got good news and bad news.

The bad news is something you already know. Customer service employees struggle with listening. They misunderstand customer needs, miss important service cues, and often fail to make an upset customer feel "heard."

Now the good news.

Listening skills are easy to train. This short post will share some straightforward training exercises you can use to improve your customer listening, or help the people on your team.

And these skills work whether you're communicating with a customer face-to-face, over the phone, or via written communication like email or chat.

Person listening intently to a colleague in a business meeting.

Why We Don't Listen

In my experience as a customer service trainer, most employees have solid listening skills. The challenge they face is their work environment actively discourages listening.

My book, Getting Service Right, explores a number of obstacles that customer service employees face when trying to understand their customer's needs:

  • Time pressure: employees are urged to work quickly.

  • Distractions: our work environments are filled with distractions.

  • Customers: customers themselves aren't always great at telling their story.

One of the more surprising obstacles is experience. The more experience you have, the harder it becomes to listen. 

The reason is our brains have an instinctive pattern-recognition feature. When we sense a familiar pattern, we automatically shut off listening and jump to a conclusion. So an experienced employee who hears a customer describing a problem they've heard a thousand times before will quickly assume they know the answer.

The trouble with this is our instincts sometimes jump to the wrong conclusion.

I recently went around in circles with a customer service rep who was trying to figure out what caused a problem. “That’s great,” I kept saying. “But what I really need right now is to solve the problem. I only have five more minutes to spend on this issue.” I ended up having to disconnect the conversation and call back again later when I had more time because the rep’s poor listening skills made the interaction take three times as long as it should have.

So if you want to be a better listener, start by making it easier to listen. Try to remove time pressure and other distractions from the environment, or at least become aware of situations where they discourage you from listening.


Listening Skills Training

Here are a few exercises that can help you take your listening skills to the next level.


Tell a Story

This exercise proves you already have good listening skills, you just need to remember to use them on a regular basis. 

  1. Find a partner.

  2. Have your partner briefly tell you about a recent customer service experience.

  3. Give your partner a brief re-cap of what you heard.

  4. Discuss the specific skills you used to listen to the story.

The discussion at the end will help you identify some of the listening skills that you naturally use. Your challenge now is to be more intentional about using them with customers, even if you feel time pressure, encounter distractions, or the customer tells a lousy story.

Customer Listening Checklist

Start by watching this short video and observe the listening skills an employee, Janice, uses to listen to an internal customer.

Next, take a brief moment after your next five customer service interactions to self-evaluate whether you used the same listening skills Janice demonstrated in the video:

  • Concentrate on your customer

  • Attending body language

  • Clarifying questions

  • Listen for emotions

  • Paraphrase to confirm

You can take this exercise to the next level by getting your coworkers to participate. Spend a few moments at the end of the day discussing what worked well, and which skills you need to use more often.

Bonus Resource

Many of these techniques apply to written communication, but serving customers via email, chat, or social media does provide some unique challenges. This on-demand webinar with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan provides some practical activities to help improve your skills.

Culture Report Reveals Executives Disconnected From Reality

There's a scene in the movie, Office Space, that gets me every time. 

Bill Lumbergh, the clueless executive, announces a new culture initiative in an all-hands meeting. "So you should ask yourself, with every decision you make, is this good for the company?" A banner hangs overhead that reads "Is this good for the company?"

It was the beginning, middle, and end of the initiative. 

A new report from the consulting firm PwC shows this type of executive disconnect from corporate culture initiatives is real. A 2018 survey of 2,000 people in 50 countries found large gaps between what executives and employees felt about corporate culture.

You can read some stunning conclusions below or read the entire report here.

The words “company culture” written on a clipboard.

Consistency

Companies often create a mission, vision, or value statements to help define the culture. Yet the true culture is how people think and act. 

The report revealed a disconnect in how consistently the cultural statements were followed:

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 8.12.28 AM.png

At just 63 percent, even leaders sense there's a huge gap between the culture message and what people are actually doing. The perception is far worse among employees.

There are two causes that I frequently see.

The first is executives try to define the culture all by themselves. They sequester themselves in a conference room or hold a retreat, and dream up what they think the culture should be. 

I've called leaving your employees out of the process the worst mistake in building a service culture. That's because you need everyone represented to come up with an authentic description of how people should think and act.

The second leading cause of the consistency gap is too many culture initiatives are like the banner in Office Space. They're symbolic, with no real commitment behind them. 

So how should you define your culture? I recommend this proven process.

Priority

Employees don't always believe culture is a priority for senior leaders. This graphic is telling:

“culture is an important senior leadership agenda item.”

The root cause is often tied to how culture initiatives play out. The executive team dreams it up behind closed doors, an announcement is made, and employees see little else. 

There may be a culture committee or task force doing some work, but frontline employees don't see that and usually aren't involved. They just see their daily work continue as usual.

The customer-focused companies I researched for The Service Culture Handbook took a very different approach. Leaders in these organizations involved employees every step of the way. For example, a customer service leader at Cars.com shared customer feedback with her team on a daily basis, and solicited employees' ideas on how to fix issues.

Pride

Customer-obsessed employees take a lot of pride in the companies they work for. They love their products and services, believe in the mission, and are often customers themselves.

The PwC report revealed a big gap in company pride between executives and employees:

“I’m proud to be part of my organization.”

I interviewed psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts for my latest book, Getting Service Right, to get a better understanding of the executive disconnect. She shared some interesting insight:

"Challenging your perception of business performance (which you are responsible for leading) can lead you to challenging your own performance, which can be painful for your ego and damaging for your confidence. In this scenario, sometimes executives choose not to acknowledge facts or consider them irrelevant, which is a self-protection strategy."

In other words, executives are human just like the rest of us. Our egos try to protect us from our personal failings, such as creating a miserable work culture.

Take Action

The PwC report revealed that 80 percent of respondents felt their organizational culture must change in the next five years.

If that's you, what are you going to do about it?

My suggestion is to start by defining the culture you want to have with a simple statement called a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page.

You can use this step-by-step guide to help you create it. I've assembled some additional culture change resources here.


Lessons Learned from Writing My First Customer Service Book

Note: The following is the preface from my new book, Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service. It's the second edition of a book called Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It.

The author, Jeff Toister, holding up his first book,  Service Failure .

The original book was published in 2012 and went out of print in 2016. It was my first as an author, and it provided valuable and unexpected customer service lessons that I've since applied to other books I've written, including The Service Culture Handbook and Customer Service Tip of the Week

One lesson was the title itself. 

I wrote the book to help customer service leaders solve a vexing challenge: helping their employees to consistently deliver outstanding service. I imagined a title like Service Failure would instantly resonate with those leaders, and to a large extent, it did. The book sold reasonably well over the four years it was in print and received many positive reviews.

Yet I overlooked something pretty big—my primary customer. Service Failure taught me that the most important customer for a business book is an influencer who shares the book with others. It might be someone who recommends the book to a colleague or uses it to start a book club at work. Or it could be a leader who buys multiple copies and hands them out to their team so everyone can read it and work on the concepts together. 

I soon heard the same feedback again and again: "It's a great read, but there's no way I'm giving someone a book called Service Failure!"

The title that I thought was so catchy actually hurt sales! The experience reminded me that, in customer service, we can't fall too in love with our own ideas. We have to realize that our customers may view things differently, and we need to understand them as best as we can if we want to serve them successfully.

Which brings me to another lesson. 

The original book was literally a service failure. It had a binding problem that caused the pages to fall out as soon as the reader got to page 12! 

I discovered the issue when I received my author's copies from the publisher about six weeks before the official publication date. I quickly alerted my editor, but by then, defective books had already been shipped to retailers. The publisher reprinted the books it still had on hand but decided not to recall the books that had already been distributed. I distinctly remember my publisher saying, "Do you know how much that would cost?!" when he defended the decision not to be more proactive.

The publisher did agree to replace damaged books at no cost if readers contacted the publisher's customer service team directly, but that required the reader to be aware of the offer. So I shared the news as best as I could via my blog, through social media, and with friends and family. My mother-in-law was one of the first people to contact the publisher in an attempt to get a defective book replaced, and she promptly got the run-around from a misinformed customer service representative.

A reader might try to return the book to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but there was a good chance the replacement book would also be defective. I once ordered ten copies of Service Failure from Amazon, and five out of ten were damaged. Amazon promptly sent a replacement order, and three of the five replacements were also defective! These types of repeated problems were a sad irony that made the service failure even worse. 

The situation left me feeling powerless and angry. I know many people decided it just wasn't worth their time to fix the problem. Meanwhile, it was my name, not the publisher's, on the front of the book. I'm sure that created a negative impression for some readers, even though I had no control over the book's printing or distribution.

The experience helped me empathize with what frontline customer service employees go through every day. These employees usually aren't the ones who make defective products, fail to deliver services, or intentionally decide to skimp on quality in an effort to save money. Often under-empowered and under-appreciated, these professionals face their customers' anger and try to make amends.

Getting Service Right represents a second chance to get it right. The new title is more positive, the book-binding issue has been resolved, and I've added new research and insights I discovered after completing the first edition. 

It's often said we never get a second chance to make a first impression. While that's true, we can try to recover from a service failure. And we can learn from each experience, so we can make a great first impression with the next customer we serve. So whether you read the original book and had the pages fall out, or you are discovering this book for the first time, I hope this edition is helpful to you.

The new book, Getting Service Right, is available on Amazon and 800-CEO-READ.