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By Linda Lisanti
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Convenience Store News' 13th annual Future Forum delivered on its promise to help convenience retailers position themselves for leadership through winning strategies, passionate people and an unrelenting customer focus.
More than 150 leading retailers and suppliers attended the three-day conference, which wrapped up Wednesday at the posh Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club here. In addition to a guided tour of the area's innovative c-store concepts and several networking opportunities -- including a boat cruise -- the event featured such sessions as:
-- Cutting Edge Store Design
-- Competing Effectively to Recruit and Retain the Best People
-- How Tesco Built a Behemoth in the U.K. and Will It Work in the U.S.?
-- Ideas to Grow Your Business
Building on Tuesday's keynote speech by T. Scott Gross, entitled "Delivering Outrageous Customer Service," the final day of Future Forum featured presentations by top convenience retailers -- Kum & Go, The Spinx Co. and Valero Energy Corp. -- on how they walk the customer service talk each and every day at their stores.
Attendees then heard straight from baby boomers what they like and dislike about the c-store channel during a focus group hosted by supermarket guru Phil Lempert.
Kum & Go's Senior Vice President Jack Wilkie spoke of the 442-store chain's I.C.E. program, which educates and motivates new employees on delivering the "Ideal Customer Experience" by executing what he believes are the five fundamentals of convenience retailing -- assortment, quality, service, cleanliness and value.
Taking it a step further, Kum & Go last spring began an external program, "Go Crew," with the strategy of finding more customers, winning more money, keeping more gross margin and always delivering I.C.E. Stores were mystery shopped and associates who delivered I.C.E. received $5 to $500 gift cards. Supervisors also competed in a "Deal or No Deal" contest in which the number of points they earned dictated the number of cases they could choose. The grand prize was a new Chevy HHR vehicle.
As a result of the initiatives, customer counts did increase, as did sales, according to Wilkie. The chain now is continuing its efforts with "ICE Tour 2007."
Taking its inspiration from the book, "The Tipping Point," Valero is focused on tipping the scales of customer service by improving contact with its customers, establishing a consistent and inexpensive process for change, and rewarding and recognizing employees who embrace change, said Caroline Mowen, customer relations manager.
Some of the ways the chain has improved contact are by creating a simple email form on its Web site and placing comment cards front and center in its stores. Mowen said now, 95 percent of positive comments come from comment cards, adding, "Customers are going to sit on the phone to give you a bad comment, not a good one."
To reward associates who receive positive comments, Valero has created a "Customer Service in Action" pin, with room for five stars, signifying the five different levels of customer service -- bronze, copper, silver, gold and diamond. Five positive comments earn bronze and every 10 additional compliments means another level.
There also are five levels of Diamond, with Tier V requiring 215 compliments. To date, 9,000-plus employees are at the bronze level and one has attained Tier V.
Before "tipping the scales," 60 percent of the comments coming into Valero's customer relations department were complaints and just one percent compliments. Today, 52 percent of the comments are positive and 15 percent negative. Mowen said, noting, "It doesn't end there. We still have to address that 15 percent's complaints."
While winning customers on the back court is definitely important, Stewart Spinks, president and founder of The Spinx Co., told Future Forum attendees that winning them at the frontcourt is equally imperative. Spinx is returning service to the frontcourt by establishing "Goodwill Ambassadors" at each of its locations.
From 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., these ambassadors serve as fuel island baristas, offering gas customers sincere greetings and smiles, assistance with the pumps, introducing them to the chain's alternative fuels and samples of the store's inside offerings. The cost per store is about $10,000 per year, an amount Spinks said is well worth it.
"Petroleum is a commodity, but not at Spinx," he explained. "We have other things we have to do, but if we don't take care of the customers on the frontcourt, we probably won't ever get the chance to serve them on the back court."
Watch for the May 28th issue of Convenience Store News for full Future Forum coverage, including keynote and panel session summaries, news, photos and more.