August 6, 2014

In customer relations, retailers face a broader and more ongoing challenge. In the customer’s mind, it goes beyond “they took good care of me that day” and extends to something far more fundamental.

“Customer service happens during a transaction,” said Kate Zabriske of Business Training Works, Inc. “Customer relations go beyond service. Customer relations is about building a connection and moving from service provider to trusted advisor.”

A pet retailer that handles customer relations well can not only win customer loyalty, it can also put itself in a position to expand its relationship with loyal customers because it is in a better position to know their needs and to inform them of opportunities to spend and save.

But as with most things that make a positive difference toward the success of an operation, it takes a concerted and effective effort to pull it off.

Creating Balance

Building strong customer relations requires pet retailers to achieve the right balance between cold, hard business measures and emotional outreach that win the heart of a customer as well as the mind.

“Ultimately, the relationship is about business and should be measured,” Zabriskie said. “With that said, there is a level of goodwill or warm fuzzy that is hard to capture.  So what’s a retailer to do?  Measure what you can with numbers, and keep track of the rest anecdotally.”

The anecdotes may be the details that explain the statistics. If a certain customer is spending more at the store and doing it more frequently, a series of positive contacts or effective efforts at outreach might explain why that’s happening.

A frustration for many businesses, of course, is that warm fuzzy feelings are all well and good, but if they don’t result in bottom-line results, it’s easy to start questioning the time, effort and expense involved in generating them.

“Most of the time, the stories should match the statistics,” Zabriskie said. “If not, it’s time to investigate. For example, people love your store, they rate it highly in surveys related to service and so forth. Despite all the pluses, sales are down. Hmm. It’s time to look at other elements of the product makeup – pricing, availability, etc.”

So what are some practical ways for a retailer to achieve positive customer relations?

While the concept is not exactly the same as customer service, it’s undeniable that good service delivered on a consistent basis can help to achieve it, just as poor customer service can kill any chance of establishing good customer relations.

For example, very professional operations practice a concept called the “soft handoff,” which refers to a situation in which an employee on the receiving end of a question is not precisely the right person to deal with the issue. Rather than tell the customer to go find Joe, or say “that’s not my job,” the soft handoff means that the employee accompanies the customer to the person or place where the answer can be found, or where the need can be met.

It may not be “your job” per se to do that particular thing, but it is everyone’s job to make sure that every customer’s needs are taken care of.

The next step in customer relations might then be to remember that customer’s interest or preference the next time the customer comes in.

A part of customer relations is clearly a matter of communication as well. Pet retailers who take the time and make the effort to reach out proactively, not only with sales promotions but also with ideas, tips and expert advice, help to establish themselves as a helpful resource on which customers can depend on an ongoing basis.

Reward and loyalty cards can be helpful in letting store managers know about customers’ buying habits and needs, but they go only so far in helping to develop real relationships with customers. That’s where the personal touch and professional sincerity combines with good information to cement relationships.

When it’s done right, the result can be not only a loyal and regular customer, but lots of word-of-mouth promotion that’s just as effective – if not more so – than an ad in the newspaper.

But don’t let anyone say it’s easy, or quick. Building meaningful relationships never is.

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