Forgetting the Customer in Customer Service.

By Tom Demerly.

Slow checkouts and invasive information gathering keep customers from their most important activity; buying.

“No, I don’t want a membership card, I don’t want to be in your buying club, I’m not giving you my name, you can’t have my e-mail, I’m not interested in earning points. I just want to buy something. And I don’t want to stand at the register more than 120 seconds. “

During  the last three decades buying at stores has become a hassle. Checkout takes longer. Retailers collect personal information with invasive questions. Add marginal Point of Sale software with frequent errors creating more delays and the “service” in customer service is largely forgotten.  It’s a missed opportunity for retailers.

To understand the problem I timed my checkouts at retailers for over a year. The better retailers, usually grocers, chains and small specialties, had me out in under two minutes regardless of how many items. The bad ones took up to eight minutes to process a straightforward sale.

Interaction at the point of purchase is often the only interface a retailer has with a customer. The customers’ opinion relies on that experience. It’s an opportunity to win fans but more often a reason for people to use Amazon 1-Click. It’s also why Walmart is experimenting with iPhone based “Scan & Go” in Rogers, Arkansas. This is a movement to the opposite extreme at Point of Purchase; from too much to too little. The best experience is somewhere in the middle.

How valuable is quick check out? Amazon has a patent on their “1-Click” checkout technology and there is a $10,000 bounty to contest it. No one has.

We develop systems before we create the social conventions for using them. Gadgets before manners. Point of Purchase routines are rarely tested with live customers. Few retailers take the time to adequately train their staff before they have contact with a customer. It shows in the number of “excuse me’s” and “I’m sorry, this will just take a second” at the register.

There are retailers who get it right. Summit Hut in Tucson, Arizona is a specialty outdoor retailer with an online sales component. Checking out in their stores is quick and dignified.  More importantly for the retailer, Summit Hut staff frequently add to the sale during checkout. It’s good, old fashioned customer service; respectful of the customer’s time and attendant to the sales motive without being too invasive. Key components to Summit Hut’s efficiency are a large, uncluttered cash wrap area, employees who know what they sell and sensitivity to the customer’s time and buying behavior. The store isn’t reliant on cookie-cutter systems for good customer service. They use good employees instead. The challenge for retailers is reproducing this behavior.

Summit Hut competes directly with the largest chain of outdoor retailers in the U.S. in Tucson. That chain sells memberships that return a dividend and provide member pricing. Summit Hut still competes because not every consumer wants a membership shopping experience. A component of membership shopping is non-members are penalized and even alienated at the register when the sales associate asks, “Are you a member?” and tells them, “You would have saved $XX today if you were a member.” Data suggests strongly that customer memberships do foster repeat purchases, but they also alienate non-members when skilled customer service can achieve the same loyalty without the negative reinforcement to non-members and the costs and delays associated with membership buying.

The principles of great customer service were born with the earliest retailers and haven’t changed even with new technology.

Key components to a great customer experience at checkout include streamlined, proven POS software, absolute proficiency of the checkout person, respect for private information, the ability to interact sincerely with the customer, expert product knowledge, strong sales motive, separate return and exchange facilities and a well designed check out area. One at a time:

1. Point of Sale software needs to work perfectly. Customers should not be penalized with longer waits if it fails. There is only one remedy for a defect during checkout. Give whatever the customer is buying to them free or cheap and quickly move on with a sincere apology. After a store gives away enough stuff they’ll get this right. There are laws governing errors at checkout with bar-coding. One set of widely drafted state statutes “requires sellers using UPC’s [barcodes] to mark each item with its price” (CGS § 21a-79(b)(4)) as a back-up to software. If a retailer’s  price scanning doesn’t work instantly at checkout it isn’t the customer’s problem.

2. Checkout staff should be highly proficient in the process. Checkout is often the only live contact a customer has with a brand. A few retailers respect this enough to train and test their employees up to six months before they service a live customer. Some retailers separate customer service staff with checkout specialists. The key things with the checkout are expedience, respect, gratitude and service through sales. Retailers should respect the customer’s time by getting it right and moving quickly.

3. No inquiries for contact info. Retailers have confused checkout with an opportunity to gather marketing data. It isn’t. It takes additional time and has no place at the cash wrap. Collecting personal information at the checkout is awkward because of privacy concerns and delays. Customers are sensitive about revealing e-mails and phone numbers or showing ID’s with other customers close by and to a store employee they don’t know. It isn’t appropriate to ask for personal information at the checkout. An alternative is providing customers with a kiosk separate from the cash wrap where they can share that marketing data if they desire in exchange for a one-time gift certificate (but not a percentage discount).

4. People at checkout should have a personality. This requires judgment since not every customer wants to chat. A good customer service person can sense what level of interaction is right. The best customer service people use their proficiency in the sales systems to move quickly and make the customer feel good about their choices. This is an opportunity for add-on sales if the interaction feels right. It requires training, experience and judgment.  It is difficult to quickly process a sale and assess the right kind of interaction with the customer but this talent is what keeps people coming back- and buying.

5. Expert product knowledge keeps customers. At the checkout it can avoid mistakes and add to the sale. It’s takes time and genuine interest to develop, but it’s a strong asset when combined with good judgment. The axiom “shut up and sell” applies as does the motive to move quickly, but a good catch from a checkout person on a sizing issue, product compatibility or other technical point reinforces why a customer should come back and can add to the sale.

6. The best reason to move quickly at checkout is to sell more. The longer it takes to process a customer at the cash wrap the less time is available to sell on the floor. Staff that are incentivized with attainable sales bonuses learn this quickly. They use their time wisely, respect the customers’ time and focus on sales and service.

7. Separate return area. You don’t want buying customers interacting with returning customers. They need to be separated for logistical and sales reasons. A buying customer should never be delayed by anything, worst of all a potentially unhappy customer with a return. Customer service staff should be proficient and expedient in returns processing, remembering it is another opportunity to win or retain customers and even to provide sales ideas. People working in the returns area should have the authority to grant refunds and adjustments without delays or assistance.

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