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Gas prices rise and fall almost cyclically in and around summertime, but they remain unpredictable due to myriad other forces. How does a convenience store protect against a customer who is predisposed to aggravation based on the soaring prices, and guard its own bottom line?
Superior customer service is clearly a factor. Mystery shopping -- the only honest, transparent view of actual customer service measured against the factors important to your brand -- has helped c-stores protect their bottom line by ensuring attentiveness to the shopper.
"Quality service still sells," said Al Goldsmith, vice president of Maritz Research Virtual Customers, a Mystery Shopping Providers Association – North America (MSPA-NA) member. "We see it in every industry, but particularly in the dynamic and competitive retail petroleum sector. Since most petroleum products are commodities, an effective differentiation strategy must rely heavily on quality service and consistent delivery at retail to achieve sales and customer loyalty objectives."
A major retail petroleum company that's a customer of Goldsmith's Maritz Research has the numbers to prove that scoring your customer service -- and making adjustments on the fly -- directly benefits the bottom line. The client's mystery shopping program scores its channel partners three times year and what's been revealed is that locations attaining high marks on mystery shops and audits sell more gas, regardless of fuel prices. In the first year of the program alone, the client's channel partners experienced a double-digit increase in average monthly volume.
Gas prices are an important factor in customer decisions, but other factors play as important a role. A recent survey by MSPA-NA member Corporate Research International, a division of Stericycle, revealed that three of the top five factors that drive customer choice relate to employees.
When asked, "What is important to you when determining where to shop?" gas prices scored an 8.48 (out of a possible 10), barely outscoring team members' professional and clean appearance (8.41), employee willingness to help customers (8.38) and their knowledge and courtesy (8.24). Convenience naturally was the king, topping the survey with an 8.55 score.
What that tells us is if the convenience store is next to or near another gas station and its prices are typically competitive with its neighbor (and seemingly just as convenient a location), then the service given by the employees will directly determine which store's cash register rings more consistently. Other factors, such as soda and coffee selection and pricing, loyalty programs and candy prices, scored much lower in the survey.
SavOn, a chain of 13 c-stores in upstate New York, has seen an increase in the skills of its associates and the ability of managers to coach employees through its mystery shopping program with College Station, Texas-based Customer Impact, another MSPA-NA member.
"We realized years ago that it takes more than low prices to create a positive experience for our guests," said Sean Brown, operations director of SavOn Stores. "Guest service is the key in gaining and retaining customers, and our mystery shopping program through Customer Impact helps us maintain that service at an unmatched level, no matter how far fuel prices rise."
Brown said SavOn employees have come to be "excited" to receive the results of their mystery shops. The constant mystery shops built into SavOn's program allow employees to stay on their toes and receive great satisfaction when they receive high scores.
And one factor we cannot ignore is the single factor customers tell us they can't ignore -- a bad restroom. According to a recent research survey by Cintas Corp., 95 percent of customers avoid patronizing a business in which they have had a negative restroom experience. Given the general reputation for the restrooms in gas stations and convenience stores, this represents a golden opportunity.
"Consumers are becoming very selective of where they buy their gas and where they choose to do their business," said Steve Heintzelman, vice president of sales and marketing at RitterAssociates, a MSPA-NA member. "Providing the consumer with a great overall experience that includes a friendly staff, a varied selection of convenient products, as well as a clean restroom, can make the difference -- even when your gas prices are higher than your competitors."
So, while consumers are never happy with the frequent spike in gas prices, your bottom line will rise and fall largely on other factors. Unless you are offering a significant savings on gasoline compared to a neighboring station, your employees clearly make the most substantial impact on customers.
Mystery shopping, for years, has helped delivered a clear view of your 24-hour delivery of customer service. If you don't have a handle on that issue, it might leave a bad taste in a customer's mouth -- even more than coffee brewed hours ago.
Dan Denston is executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association -- North America, a position he's held since 2011. He has extensive history with associations and association management throughout the country, as well as other varied business and educational experience. MSPA-NA is the trade association representing the customer experience metrics (mystery shopping) industry throughout North America.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.