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    Invest in the Basics of Customer Service

    It doesn't just have to be a bad or negative experience to lose a customer.

    By Larry Miller, Miller Management & Consulting

    I am a firm believer that the customer is the lifeblood of every business, and as such, they are a powerful force to deal with. I also wonder, if the previous statement is true, why don't these powerful customers use this power to tell us what we are doing in our businesses to drive them off and cause them to defect to the competition?

    I am sure you will agree that it is rare, indeed, to have one of your regular customers walk into the store, ask to speak with the manager, owner or whoever is in charge, and have them tell you all the things that form the basic reasons they are now taking all of their business elsewhere. Not to mention, all the friends they can convince that you have wronged them and therefore as friends, they too shall abandon your business. But believe me this happens every day of the week to many businesses and if you are not taking active measures to keep this from happening, it could very well sneak up on you in the form of soft sales one week, a little off the next week and before long, your store is out of business.

    My mentor in this industry was the first district manager I worked for when I was a multi-unit supervisor back in the late '70s and early '80s. He was a true merchant who understood and was able to clearly communicate the simple realities of the importance of customer service to any business that requires face-to-face interaction. His favorite topic of discussion with trainees and employees always started like this: "It is a lot easier to keep the customers you have coming through your doors than it is to go take your competitors customers away. If you do a really good job of keeping your regular customers happy, you will get customers away from all of your competitors because your customers will do the hard work of stealing your competitors' customers for you."

    If you have been shopping recently at any retailer, it is very possible that you have had a poor or even horrible shopping experience. The reality is that it doesn't have to be a bad or negative experience to lose a customer. In fact, many customers have told researchers they will leave a business if they begin to "feel like their business is not appreciated" or that "their business is taken for granted."

    If your company has already developed some basic type of customer service training program for front-line sales associates, I would suggest that if you don't already do this, add these simple questions to see what types of things your new employees believe would make a customer leave your business to go somewhere else to pick up convenience products. Ask them:

    • What do you think delivering great customer service means? What things should be done with every customer?
    • Describe a good shopping experience that you have had lately, and why you remember the event. What else occurred that stood out as good service? Listen closely to all answers.
    • What things do you think you can do while you are working in our store to make customers enjoy coming into the store when you are working?

    You just might be amazed not only by what you hear, but especially by what you don't hear.

    So many people just entering the workforce can't even describe what they personally see as good service. I have asked these three questions many times to all levels of sales associates and in all types of retail and service environments. It never ceases to amaze me how many times I have not even heard the most basic of customer service practices. When I say basic, I am referring to these three most basic steps: Greeting the customer, sincerely thanking them for their business and inviting the customer to return to the business again in the near future.

    Some people say these things are not really customer service; they are simply basic common courtesy of interaction and communication. However, I challenge you to ask yourself if these basic communication skills were provided to you in a recent shopping experience.

    I believe that our culture has given up on the expectation of great service, as I am finding it rare to have memorable customer service interactions during my everyday travels. Is it time to look at this lack of expectation as a great opportunity to set your business apart? Are the customers that frequent your location or locations every day so conditioned with low expectations that making even minor improvements can deliver great results?

    I think the answers can be determined for your local area by focusing on these questions and taking a day to shop your local market, including your direct competitors, and see just what kind of shopping experience they are providing. If you find what I found, you may tell yourself that some investment in customer service training can pay big dividends.

    If your company has no customer service training for new employees, there is a major gap in your training. Fix it sooner rather than later.

    Most of us believe that it shouldn't really matter if the customer spent $60 on fuel and another $5 on something to snack on, or if he only bought a $1.50 cup of coffee, there must be some level of appreciation shown for the business. The three basics above are, at the very least, just that -- basics. If you can honestly say that your business delivers that with every transaction, you are way ahead of the majority of your competition in my opinion.

    Larry Miller, president and founder of Miller Management and Consulting Services Inc., is a career veteran of the convenience store and foodservice channels. He began his career as a part-time store clerk and progressed through senior levels of management in all aspects of c-store retailing, including operations, marketing, merchandising, accounting, store development and human resources. He founded Miller Management to utilize his unique viewpoints about c-store retailing.

    Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

    By Larry Miller, Miller Management & Consulting
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