This is a longer version of an article I wrote for the Southern Daily Echo and has appeared elsewhere:
Customer service is flavour of the month. Last week Michel Roux Jr was on BBC2 teaching belligerent teenagers how to serve fine diners. This week Channel Four has Mary Portas Secret Shopper on a mission to improve standards of service on the high street.
For a retailer, Ms Portas’ TV programmes are required viewing. She has a proven record in shop displays and has become an expert in all aspects of retailing. The trouble with the first programme was that criticising the likes of Primark, Top Shop and Pilot was like shooting fish in barrel. Seeing staff ignore customers, overhearing them chatting about their private lives- these things are hardly shock revelations. Anyone familiar with these stories experiences this every time they go in.
I suspect the problem for many low price clothing chains is that they treat their staff with contempt and that’s passed on to the customers. Mary’s mantra of ‘Smile Speak Serve’ is quite right but too simplistic. It has to be backed up with training in customer psychology so they know when and what to say and even more importantly how to listen; product knowledge so they can genuinely help fulfil the customer’s requirements; involvement in the whole business so they understand the importance of their role in it; respect so they respect the management and customers; trust so they make the right decision for each unique customer without fear of criticism.
I know Mary’s expertise is in shop design but I think she let herself be distracted by the appearance of these cheap and cheerful shops. She criticised Primark for its queues and clothes on the floor. I suspect this is a deliberate tactic. I wouldn’t be surprised if they throw a few items on the floor themselves each morning and deliberately create queues, because it all creates an image of fast sales from frantic bargain hunters. On the other hand, even a bargain hunter may need help in finding a particular jacket or get annoyed if there’s a queue while members of staff are standing around chatting- and that does mean lost sales.
It’s all so much easier for a small family-run shop like Your Life Your Style. My wife and sister-in-law lead the staff by example. Shoulder to shoulder with employees, they greet customers, offer help when it’s needed and care about satisfying them whether that ends in a sale or not. Staff are praised when they do well and helped to improve where necessary. But big stores can do it too- look at John Lewis or Apple. I did it myself when I was responsible for around a hundred staff at The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I made sure we had training programmes in place to cover all aspects of serving the public; I worked alongside them to make sure I understood their jobs and show that I respected the work they did; I met with them regularly to let them know what was going on in the company and listen to their ideas and problems.
The biggest shame attaching to the owner of Pilot was not his rude staff or his shabby shop, it was the fact that his employees had never met him. How could he expect them to care about his business?