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John Larson

Timely service is essential to develop customer loyalty

Create good customer service, satisfaction and loyalty by having helpful, attentive staff available to your customers while they are still shopping, and before they head to the checkout line.

Last week, I went to my local Trader Joe’s and bought an inexpensive bottle of Chilean wine. When I went to pay for the wine, the register operator complemented me on my selection and said, “Several of my customers have purchased this wine and they all really liked it.” I left the store with a smile on my face thinking how smart I was to have made such an enlightened purchase. My next stop was at our local “high-end” supermarket. I purchased some salmon and asparagus for dinner. I also wanted some dried chervil, but could not find it. When I went to check out the first question the register operator asked me was, “Did you find everything you wanted today?” I answered, “No. I could not find the dried chervil.” I looked the cashier right in the eye when I said this. She looked me right back and, without even acknowledging that I could not find something I wanted, she replied, “That will be $26.50.”

In the first case, I walked out of Trader Joe’s with a smile on my face thinking about the wonderful wine I had just purchased. In the second case, I left the market completely oblivious to the nice salmon and asparagus I had purchased. All that was on my mind was the $5.00 container of dried chervil I could not find.

Is this really the impression that this grocer wanted me to have when I left their store? I think not.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that inquiring if the customer has found everything he or she needed is not a good thing to do. It certainly is, but not at the cash register. If this question is asked at the register, all the options are bad, regardless of the intent of the register operator. There are two basic outcomes at this point.

1. Most likely, I will respond that I have found everything I wanted even though I have not. After all, at this point I’ve finished my shopping and accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to buy the chervil. The last thing I want is to be sent back out looking for it again.

2. Worse still, I could mention that I did not find the dried chervil and, as happened in this example, the register operator could completely ignore my response. Or, she might hold up the line while finding someone to go look for the item—inconveniencing everyone else in line and negatively impacting their shopping experiences.

In either case, I walk out of the store with a bad feeling in my stomach.

The time to ask this question is when something can be done about it, which is while the customer is still shopping and before they get to the register. In my 30 years of experience working to improve customer loyalty across a variety of industries, I have consistently found that assigning employees to walk the floor and help customers find the items they need (and suggesting other items to complement what they have just purchased) will more than pay for the incremental cost in terms of higher ticket average, greater customer satisfaction and visit frequency.

Employees don’t need to hover or preempt a customer’s shopping experience to inquire about their needs. Instead, the key is to have employees readily visible, approachable and knowledgeable enough to sense when and where to step in and provide assistance.

The value of timely service extends well beyond the everyday grocery example presented here. Timely support will result in greater sales and profit growth in virtually every retail business from consumer electronics, to office products, to high-end cosmetics and the list goes on. The approach can vary from business to business, but well-timed service is always central to an organization’s customer loyalty and growth strategy.

John Larson is the senior partner at John Larson & Company, a pioneer in the field of customer loyalty, and the co-author of Capturing Loyalty along with Bennett McClellan. 

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