Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customer service must be better than good

Fifteen years ago, large corporate chains stepped into the natural products scene with economies of scale behind their pricing. Smaller independent retailers, forced to compete, believed good customer service would be their fallback strategy. Price and product mix aside, offer good customer service and "they will come."

Now, "good" is where you start: clean restrooms, shelves that are neatly faced, and clear aisles. If you hope to compete in this aggressive marketplace, extraordinary customer service must be your goal.

A few years ago, Cheryl Dicks, with the Healthways Natural Foods chain in Virginia, told me that when she wanted to train her staff in customer service, she took them to one of the two Good Foods Grocery stores in Richmond, Va. Susan Daniel, who manages Good Foods, knows that the difference between good and extraordinary customer service comes down to three words: listen, respect and trust.

Extraordinary customer service is based on problem solving. Listening carefully to your customers and asking meaningful questions will lead you to what your customers really need. Listen well and understand that your customers often come to you feeling confused and discomfited.

  • Greet, welcome and engage customers. In the nutrition department at Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater, Fla., Faith Connelly and her staff will take as much time as necessary to ensure that every customer's needs are treated with respect. Stores with the "two-minute rule" would probably describe the policy at Nature's Food Patch as cost-ineffective. Faith knows that it keeps her customers coming back.
  • Build trust. Your customers come back, regardless of what the competition throws at them, because they trust you. You have listened and shown them respect. In the world of retail today, having the trust of your customers is no small accomplishment.
  • Go the extra mile. You probably define your customer service by your special orders. Everyone does special orders. How hard will you dig for your customers? If your stock response is, "It's not carried by our distributor," you've missed the boat.

    Define your mission: "At Good Foods Grocery, we provide exceptional and memorable customer service." Many stores put it on their shopping bags and in other store literature. Imprinting your mission of extraordinary customer service has little impact on customer shopping decisions; experiencing that quality of customer service does.

  • Make the mission an integral part of staff trainings and the heart and soul of staff meetings. Well-run staff meetings are where new ideas for customer service catalyze and abstractions become concrete. Take your staff beyond good to extraordinary by creating an atmosphere that facilitates out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Live your values throughout the store. I recently found myself in the restroom of a naturals supermarket, where the only soap was an industrial-strength antibacterial. This store sells soap that is gentle on the skin and respectful of the environment. Why was it providing for customer use a product that it didn't sell? I later found out that the antibacterial soap was a health requirement for foodservice, but an average customer wouldn't know that. Do customers see you living the values in your mission statement?

Just a few years ago, mass-market superstores would never have considered selling the products you stock on your shelves. As you read this column, they are making deals with your vendors. Your customers may soon be greeted at the threshold of another natural products retailer by a staff person, wearing one of those little red vests, whose only job is to stand there all day and greet people. What is called for in today's marketplace goes well beyond good customer service. We have to think outside the box and redefine extraordinary customer service.

Former NNFA-East executive director Peter Farber is principal of Loyal Customer, a marketing and merchandising program for retailers. He may be reached at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 19

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