Customer relations and service depend heavily on what retailers communicate to the people who buy their products. And ways, methods, and channels of communication have radically changed in recent years.
As a result, the relationship between a business and its customers doesn’t look the same today as it did even 10 years ago. That means the way you deliver your customer service shouldn’t look the same today as it did in the past, either.
Serving your customers in unique, fresh ways can boost brand loyalty and encourage new, inquisitive customers to experience what you offer for themselves. It can become part of your differentiator, setting you apart from your competitors.
In the digital age, good customer service can even go viral, spreading your message far beyond your normal audience. Taking good care of consumers can even double as effective marketing for your retail store, whether you use it in a campaign or it turns into excellent public relations fodder for media to run with.
Not sure how to get started? Take some customer service tips from these seven retailers who embrace new ways to do business — and serve the people who help their companies make profits.
Nike: Use Social Media to Stay Accessible and Responsive
Social media can provide you with an amazing way to connect directly with customers you may otherwise never get a chance to know. But if you’re not careful, your efforts to communicate and connect here can seriously backfire.
That means retailers need to tread a fine line. Getting social gives customers an audience beyond just one of your employees.
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Every day might start feeling like a nightmare when consumers use this as a platform for airing of grievances with your company, and negative tweets, posts, and comments can damage a brand’s reputation if they’re not handled well.
But if you want to provide modern customer service, social media gives you an excellent tool to use to implement that. Done well, it can help your company stand out (in a good way) and foster brand loyalty.
Successfully handling customer service via social media means an exponentially larger pool of potential customers gets to see how you treat and serve existing customers. In this way, you can leverage customer complaints and problems into sales opportunities and a chance to gain new patrons.
So, how do you pull off social media customer service?
Look to Nike as a case study. The retailer maintains regular profiles on social media — but also has accounts dedicated just to customer service.
This allows Nike to maintain the content and marketing campaigns that they deliberately and proactively create on their main handles and accounts. Customer service inquires go somewhere else entirely, meaning they don’t distract from the carefully crafted social media strategy Nike wants to deploy.
On Twitter, you can go to @NikeSupport where a dedicated team works to help customers, address issues, and provide information. The proof of their willingness to engage and interact with customers directly on social media platforms is in the numbers.
Wait to sync as we improve Nike+. Your device looks hungry for a workout, though. Feed it. | http://t.co/ChCJWt05bi— Nike Support (@NikeSupport) October 31, 2014
The main Nike account has tweeted nearly 30,000 times. But the account dedicated to customer support? They’ve sent 493,000 tweets — over 16 times as many.
They also clearly state their availability (which is seven days a week), and explain the languages they can assist people in (six in total: English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, and German).
Here’s what Nike’s customer service team gets right on social media:
- They’re available and accessible to help the brand’s customers, where those customers are. (Even though the company is based in the U.S., they recognize they’re a global brand and staff people who can communicate in customers’ preferred languages.)
- They provide updates when problems arise to keep customers informed. They’re clear and concise with information, but also friendly. During this particular exchange, Nike gave the information the customer was looking for an invited the customer to ask additional questions as they came up.When the customer had another question — over a month later — they responded just as promptly while keeping things friendly. Here’s another example of Nike’s friendly, approachable manner in handling customer interactions. Their customer service team stays personable and collaborative.
- They’re responsive, too, when tracking down information and sending answers in less than a half hour of receiving requests.
Make a Big Impact with Little Touches: Costco and IKEA
Costco is known as a retailer who provides great service to shoppers for a number of reasons. But it’s one of the smallest, simplest things they do that makes a big impacts on the brand’s reputation.
The company’s warehouses are stuffed full of just about any product you could want or need. And because shopping with Costco can turn into an hours-long affair, every location sells fast food items to satiate hungry customers.
Shoppers can swing by and place an order for a hot dog and soda for just $1.50 (which is the same price Costco sold the combo for 30 years ago). Three scoops of ice cream in a waffle cone with double the price of the order for a total of $3.
IKEA is another retailer with what can be a tedious shopping experience within its vast warehouses full of inventory. They too offer a food court that serves up plates like breakfast platters for as little as 99 cents. IKEA will even give away free meals on long holiday weekends.
The profits from the sales of regular items more than make up for the absence of margin on the fast food — which allows these companies to literally take care of customers dealing with the pressing problem of hunger. Readily available food keeps customers in their stores longer, helping to boost sales.
You may not be able to install food courts or a miniature fast food eatery in your store. But you can use Costco and IKEA as inspiration for your own customer service that attempts to proactively delight customers.
CostPlus World Market, for example, sells a few food items in a section of its store. They often put out coffee urns complete with small sample cups and even flavored syrups for customers to use and enjoy while they shop.
Think of your customers and the needs they have when in your store. How can you proactively serve them and deliver a more satisfying shopping experience?
And more importantly, how can you do so in a way that’s inexpensive easy for you as the retailer? It may be as simple as offering a small, refreshing drink or bite-sized snack once customers get in the door -- or it could be even easier, like greeting them with a smile and friendly “hello” when they arrive.
Today more than ever, these small but thoughtful touches make a difference and can help you stand out as a retailer who cares about customers (not just profits).
L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, and REI: Stand Behind the Product You Sell
In the past, most retailers maintained strict return policies to prevent fraud and a loss of profits due to returned items that couldn’t be resold. Many still keep these policies in place, even when customers make reasonable requests for returns.
Express, for example, sells many of its women’s dresses with an extra tag that states the item cannot be returned if the tag is unattached. There are no exceptions made, which can hurt customers who genuinely just want to return or exchange the item and accidentally removed the tag (or worse, unfairly punish customers who unknowingly bought a specific garment where the tag might have become damaged or missing before purchase).
L.L. Bean stands out in the world of retail customer service for accepting any and all returns — for life, and even without a receipt. The customer simply needs to explain why they’re dissatisfied, and they can receive a refund or replacement of the product.
But before you jump whole hog into unlimited, no-questions-asked returns, know that this approach to customer service doesn’t come without consequences.
L.L. Bean is actually considering cutting its generous return policy and nixing its 100% free shipping. The company says that the majority of customers don’t abuse the system, but admits fraudulent returns raise costs — a big problem when growth is slow.
The company remains a good example of how you can learn a few customer service tips, but also a reminder that you don’t need to go to extremes to serve consumers well.
Nordstrom advertises free shipping and returns for products purchased on their website. But that policy doesn’t extend to every item listed, and Nordstrom customer service operators admit that they can’t always honor every return.
REI once offered a no-questions-asked type return policy, too. But they rescinded the offer, citing a small percentage of customers who took advantage as the reason for changing the rules.
The retailer now allows customers to return items for a replacement or a refund within 1 year of their purchase. That’s still very generous to customers, but helps cut back on abuse of the policy.
So while you don’t need to take back every single item a customer may bring in, it is worth it to consider a flexible return and exchange policy.
Zappos: It’s Not About Customer Service Tips, Because Service Is Part of the Business Model
No conversation on modern customer service tips is complete without talking about online retailer Zappos. The company is well-known for going to extreme lengths to take care of customers — even those who don’t necessarily have a problem or who didn’t lodge a complaint to resolve.
Here are some quick lessons you can take from the way Zappos does modern customer service, and how you can implement them in your own retail business:
Let employees handling customer service make their own judgment calls
Zappos service reps don’t read from scripts and they’re not bound to hard-and-fast rules about what they’re authorized to do for consumers.
The company hires people who believe in and reflect the organization’s values, then empowers them to make their own decisions about the right move to make on a case by case basis.
You can do the same to empower your team — which also takes the burden off you, as they’ll need less supervision and management. You can also free up time from senior team members, as they won’t need to be called away from what they’re doing to handle a customer service issue.
To successfully execute this kind of modern customer service, you need to start all the way at the beginning: your hiring process. Bring on employees who not only understand your brand’s values, but believe in them and want to embody them as a team member.
Set your customer service team up for success
Zappos doesn’t just hire who they think will end up being nice, decent people on the phone. They send new hires through four weeks of training before allowing them to work in call centers.
Give your team the education and resources they need to work independently to serve customers and help them resolve problems. You can create guidelines or frameworks for them to work within, too.
For example, you may not be okay with refunding a purchase under a specific set of circumstances. You can give limits to your employees, but allow them to use their best judgment within a set of parameters.
Build modern customer service into your business model
At the end of the day, customer service is a long-term investment into consumer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
Zappos anticipates returns and they even encourage customers to order the same products in multiple sizes so they can keep what fits and send back the rest. (The site does feature customer reviews, and it makes sense that this generates better reviews of products since customers are more likely to get exactly what they wanted).
Exceptional service can even be used as a marketing tool, as Zappos frequently does with specific campaigns.
Recently, Zappos surprised residents of Hanover, New Hampshire — a town with a high concentration of customers, apparently — with 1,900 packages full of goodies. They also ran a campaign promising to accept returns of crummy Christmas presents (regardless of where the presents were purchased). In exchange, they sent out $100 gift cards and gave the rejected presents to charities.
These kinds of efforts don’t come cheap, which is why Zappos builds the kind of customer relations they want to deliver into their business model.
This makes campaigns and modern customer service sustainable long enough to see a return on their investment through increased sales, brand awareness, and new customers.
How Will You Embrace Modern Customer Service?
Customer service has come a long way in the last few decades. Retailers have done more to truly serve their shoppers — and build brand loyalty as a result.
Will you use any of these modern customer service methods in your retail business? Share your thoughts in the comments.