True Customer Service – Old School Fundamentals Driving New School Techniques?


Are you challenged with truly connecting with your customers, building trusted loyalty, assuring there is a seamless multi-channel shopping experience and maintaining, as well as building demand?


Are you challenged with truly connecting with your customers, building trusted loyalty, assuring there is a seamless multi-channel shopping experience and maintaining, as well as building demand? It is an ongoing drive that all retailers face day to day to increase market share and same store sales growth. Yet some are turning off customers while others are turning them on with true customer service.

Reflecting back, I went to school on customer service with Sam Walton, former Founder and Chairman of Walmart stores back in the 80s and 90s. No better place at the time to learn about the fundamentals of customer service. A few phrases that I picked up along the way were “If you are not focused on creating customer value then you are focused on the wrong things,” “It is six times harder and more expensive to generate a new customer than to keep the ones you have” and “Customer word of mouth referrals are free.” Looking back, customer service fundamentals directly translates to addressing today’s challenges that retailers face.

Today retailers are offering customers products and services in multiple ways, trying to tap into social networks and dealing with a well-informed consumer. Additionally, information sharing and technology advances have given customers unparalleled opportunities to make quick price/value comparisons for informed purchase decisions. This information and related purchase decisions are no longer being achieved by getting in the car and running down the street to the nearest competitor, but are accessed instantaneously through their smartphones and tablets. The word of mouth sharing of shopping experiences is now significantly compressed with a Facebook post or Tweet. With this new ability the customer is now very smart and now some of the old retail rules, techniques and marketing pitches no longer work, but others do.

The fundamentals of customer service essentially have not changed, but there are now new challenges to retailers and manufacturers as consumers have higher expectations in time, service, informational support, as well as, expectations on price and value. Customers now expect products to be in-stock, make their shopping decisions on a much faster time horizon and sometimes possess knowledge of the competitive landscape better than the retailer does. Customers easily know products, prices and what is value – distinguishing what is true value, what is not, and what might be construed as deception leading to frustration, often leading to a potential disconnect with a particular retailer.

Case in Point — On-Line or In-Store?

My son knows which websites he goes to get what he is looking for, which ones provide product information and customer feedback if needed and which ones have the best and fastest on line shopping experience. Question – Does he only shop on line? No – I see him going to stores which he knows for quality, value and carry products that he likes and there are actually numerous occasions where he wants to touch, feel and inspect the product for the right features, construction and/or “look” he is after.Believe it or not he appreciates and has a strong loyalty to certain retail stores.

On numerous occasions when he is in town and we run out for something and I suggest a retailer close by, his response often is “no — they won’t have it” or “no — they are pricey” or “no — their sales people don’t know anything — ” His preferences come from on-line and in-store experiences where both imitate and compliment the other and help build / re-enforce preference, confidence and loyalty. He is informed, knows what he wants, when he wants it and what he should be paying for it. Anymore, there is often not enough time with the customer to miss an opportunity to convey a message or impression that compliments your brand.

“Take care of the consumer or someone else will,” is a lesson for all of us to remember. If you are going to have increased sales and profits it all starts with the consumer. You must have your products in the right place, in the right amount, at the right time, at the right price and present the right value proposition each time you have an opportunity to interface with the customer.Today’s consumers are picky and they have a lot more choices than ever before. They are much more informed, demand consistent service and vote with their pocket books.

Case in Point — “If I can do the research — ”

The other day my wife was shopping on line for a replacement knife set, checking three different stores to determine which retailer she would purchase it from – in store or on line.Wow, she said, “If I can do research, you would think that this company’s buyers would do the same.”She was in the market for a new stainless steel ginsu knife set and had read a top chef’s review of the top 10 ginsu knife sets, and she targeted the second highest ranking set.She went to three different retail websites looking for the exact brand and quality as tested.The results?

  • Company A – This is a company she is building preference for based on prior purchases and thought they might have a very competitive price.They had the lowest price – $88.00
  • Company B – She likes this company and shops their physical stores and their website locations.She thought they might have the highest price.Actually they had a reasonable price – $99.00
  • Company C – Historically this company has had very competitive prices day in and day out, but to our surprise actually had the highest price – $112.00

Interesting findings:

  • Company A is steadily building a preference with my wife for having consistently very competitive prices, have the easiest, quickest and most efficient website and intuitive/engaging customer interaction.She likes this retailer more and more.
  • Company B she continues to like in physical store and website experiences and both reflect consistent look and feel, good customer service and fair pricing and value.She continues to favor this retailer due to store and website experiences.
  • Company C is losing brand preference (with my wife).This comparison adds to similar in store experiences and a growing awareness that this company reflects good prices on some items, but higher prices on others.

New Times – New Challenges

New times, new challenges, and new technologies – are they changing the customers’ basic needs and values or just changing the way we meet them? It is my belief that the core fundamentals and drivers of customer service have not changed, but the environment we live in and today’s technologies have. The basic fundamentals and drivers of customer service remain constant, but the speed, transparency and methods by which we provide them are constantly changing.

In the past, customer service was principally delivered through brick and mortar stores with principle concerns for maximizing customer service. Now we need to ensure that all experiences consistently engage, facilitate and enhance customer satisfaction while leveraging unique capabilities that new technologies enable.

Blending Channels to Meet Customer Expectations

Case in Point — Leveraging all channels

A couple of months back I was in the market for a lighter leather jacket and decided to take a run to the fashion mall comprised of a great cross section of the leading retailers – specialty, department store and mass merchandisers. I distinctly remember one specialty retailer that I visited that in my opinion reflected a very high level of customer service, responsiveness and ultimately made the sale.

The shopping experience started at the front door with a bright and cheery greeting and “May I help you find something?” and walked me over to the selection of leather jackets.I quickly saw the style I was after and noticed it was at a special discounted price presenting a very good value for a well-constructed jacket with good detail.Darn – they did not have my size. I took the jacket to the employee who greeted me.Asking, do you have this in my size in the backroom or are you expecting another delivery?Come with me she said — heading to the service desk.

I checked their website with my smartphone and shared that they do not have my size in stock either.She said, “let me check some things — Yes, you are right, we are out of that size at our website and the item is discontinued for the season at our distribution center. I also checked and we are not receiving any more deliveries on this style. Let me check the local store inventories.The Sanibel store has it, she said – would you like to pick it up at the store, pick it up at this store or ship it to your home?” I preferred having the jacket shipped and she arranged it and in a flash all was completed.

Great experience and great customer service and a super employee who was fluid with all of the sales support tools her company made available in store from DC to website to her store network.All was coordinated quickly to finalize the sale and satisfy the customer. I definitely had an appreciation for all of the functions and processes needed in support.

Achieving this requires great associate training and team-building combined with great behind-the-scenes systems and capabilities, such as inventory management, home delivery, and omni-channel management.

Customer service and enhancing the shopping experience are both essentially focused on the same things; addressing old school customer service values with new school approaches, tools and techniques. The old customer centric fundamental values evangelized by Sam Walton span generations, yet the tools, approaches and methods continue to adjust to satisfy and exceed today’s customer service expectations. Across retail formats and sectors, those that best satisfy customer expectations with flexibility, consistency, speed and value will win in the competitive marketplace.


Robert Bruce is a member of the ChainLink team and co-founder of VCC Associates, Inc., providing Advisory Services for Collaborative Enterprise Demand & Supply Chain Management. /

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