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Avoiding the Big Mistake of Poor Customer Relations


February 12, 2018

For the past 30 years I’ve been calling on independent pet retailers as part of my job. You might guess that I’ve seen customer service offered by independents at its best and worst. Most of the worst are no longer with us. Some retailers who have had exemplary customer relations have made an indelible impression.

Retailers who leave everything up to the customer, forcing them to initiate a dialogue, are making a big mistake. I’ve been in stores that you could easily walk the whole place and leave 10 minutes later without so much as a, “Hi, can I help you?”

I admit that as a shopper, I don’t want someone following me around trying to sell me something, but if I’m in the store for any length of time, what that indicates is that I have a reason to be there. When the customer is forced to engage the retailer, rather than the other way around, it implies that the retailer really doesn’t care about the customer.

Sometime ago, before specializing in aquatic products, I used to call on all types of retailers. There was one retailer back then whose name was Nancy. Her store, located in Spokane, Washington, was called Thunder Mountain Dog Co. Every time I would visit the store, Nancy was with a customer, giving them all of her attention, while at the same time acknowledging me with a wave and an assurance that she would be with me as soon as possible. While waiting to talk to her, I watched as she went out of her way to solve her customer’s problem, even if it was to send them to a competitor for a product or service that she was unable to supply. I mean it—this type of personal service was in progress every time I stepped into that store. You had the feeling that you were in good hands from the moment you entered her store until you walked out.

Another type of exemplary customer service is proper training of store personnel. Larry Oltmann’s sales staff at Clark’s Feed in Bellingham, Washington, is so impressive that they are a perfect example of good customer service. He generally hires local college students (Western Washington University and also several top-flight technical colleges are located in Bellingham). These students need jobs and are obviously self-motivated. Larry is willing to train these students even though most if not all will move on once they have received their degrees. You can tell the level of training when you first walk into the store and it is impressive. And yes, not everyone has a business with that many schools locally, but many do. Have you tried to tap that asset in your community?

I know that any store that has been in business for a long time would read this article and say, “It isn’t all that easy to provide good customer service, especially when you have to hire teenagers who might not be all that motivated.” My answer to that is that every business needs to be refreshed from time to time. Just as your store fixtures need to be updated after a decade or two, so does the store’s consumer outreach policy. If you don’t have specific ideas as to what your businesses’ customer service parameters should be, then how can you expect those teenage clerks to know what is expected of them?

Here are eight simple building blocks to build a meaningful customer service policy: Train your staff on key products in the store so they can speak with confidence. Always be friendly to customers. Always say “thank you.” Show them respect. Listen carefully. Be responsive. Ask for feedback and use the feedback received, productively.

The difference between you and your major competitor (internet sellers) is the personal approach. Establishing a personal relationship is something internet sellers will continue to struggle with and will continue to be an advantage for brick and mortar retailers, assuming you’re taking advantage of that advantage!

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