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We hear it time and again — the mantra of the service industry that “the customer is always right.” It’s generally wise advice, of course, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
When it comes to retaining and growing customers, convenience store owners must think more holistically about "customer centricity" — that is, getting close to customers and keeping their interests at the epicenter of the business.
Customer centricity is no longer an option. It’s an imperative. According to Harris Interactive’s Customer Experience Impact Report, 86 percent of consumers who quit doing business with a company did so because of bad customer service, up from 59 percent four years prior. The customer experience is also a high priority for consumers, with 60 percent willing to pay more for a better experience.
As c-store operators face fierce competition from both traditional rivals and new competitors (quick-service restaurants, drugstores and same-day delivery services), it’s even more important that they deepen their understanding of current and potential customers to fuel long-lasting, sustainable and profitable relationships.
Given such importance, how can operators change their focus to incorporate the customer?
Start by asking a customer-oriented version of the basic Six Ws: who, what, where, when, why and how.
WHO are your customers?
It sounds basic, but identifying exactly who your customers are today is critical in understanding them better. Start by defining customer segments and filling in what you know — or what you can find out — about their lifestyles, needs, wants, preferences and purchasing trends.
Make sure to explore and know your non-customers, too. Understand why they don’t shop at your store, why they decide to purchase products elsewhere or why they use substitute products your store does not offer. Charting this larger picture of your customers illuminates a broader and richer customer landscape.
WHAT do they experience and value?
Observe your customers, or even better, stand in their shoes for a change. See what it’s like to be on their side of the counter and evaluate the shopping experience from the moment they enter your property until they leave. What delights them? What do they find annoying or struggle with?
Know what customers consciously and subconsciously value most — price, quality, assortment, etc. — so you can determine where your efforts will make the greatest difference. Try to be as objective and realistic as possible, even if you find there’s work to be done.
WHERE else do they shop instead of your store?
Look beyond your own business and consider your customers’ full range of shopping options to see how you fit into the bigger retail landscape. Do customers only visit your store when they need to fill up on gas? Do they repeatedly come in to purchase some products, but not others? When do they patronize competitors rather than you, and why?
Having a deep understanding of competitors’ strengths and weaknesses is vital to determine how you can differentiate your business and increase your share of consumer dollars. If it helps, imagine you could build a killer competitor against your own store. What characteristics would this store have and how would it be distinctive?
Armed with this information, you’ll be able to anticipate competitor moves, or better yet, disrupt and improve your own business model.
WHEN and WHY do they change their behavior?
C-store operators must be prepared to meet the changing needs of customers, even as preferences, customer segments and markets evolve. To do so, start by looking at your marketplace from the outside in. Rather than focusing internally on investments and initiatives you can control, examine external forces of change.
Whether through scenario planning, in-depth information gathering from the news, or interviews with customers (and especially non-customers), this broader view will help you detect signals of change sooner and get a fresh perspective on who your customers will be in the future and how to best serve them.
HOW can you work together?
For the best insights about your customers, go straight to the source. Ask them what would make their lives easier, and talk about the potential for working together to make that happen, even if you’re not prepared to invest in new products or services at this time.
Showing interest in customer satisfaction through this strategic dialogue and partnership demonstrates your commitment to keeping patrons happy over the long haul. It also provides an opportunity to co-create new solutions and innovations in products, services and marketing.
Customers are every company’s greatest asset. By adopting a mindset of customer centricity, you will not only serve your business’ greatest assets better, but also reap the rewards of their patronage for years to come.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.