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Retail Trends

Driving Shoppers Crazy

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Nothing kills that warm, fuzzy relationship with consumers that retailers strive to achieve and maintain like a rude associate who chats on her cell phone as she rings up an order, or a worker who refuses to make eye contact or say “thank you” — even after a shopper has bagged her own groceries. Employees who feign ignorance or say they’ll check stock — only to disappear and never return — also aren’t endearing themselves or the retailers they represent to shoppers.

Every customer interaction is an opportunity to leave a positive impression, but increasingly it seems that many of those interactions are missing the mark. There’s the customer who finds the perfect item, only to be told the color she wants is out of stock — oh, and shipping direct comes at a premium! Or how about the fast-food operator that refuses to serve a young mother because her baby is barefoot and the policy reads, “No shoes, no service?”

Has customer service gotten worse over the past few years, or do shoppers have shorter fuses? It’s hard to say definitively, but one thing is certain: Thanks to the marvels of social media, it’s not just 10 people who learn about a customer service blunder — it’s 10 to the 10th power. And that makes the pressure to get a handle on customer service more intense than ever before.

Attitude adjustment
R ude employees — also characterized as impolite or unfriendly — top the list of grievances that drive customers crazy, according to data compiled for STORES by Prosper Technologies, a Worthington, Ohio-based provider of technology tools for BIGinsight that integrate, analyze and visualize data. Nearly as many respondents complain that employees don’t know the merchandise or are ill-equipped to provide answers, and that retail stores are understaffed, resulting in long lines and slow checkouts. Also hovering near the top of a lengthy list of gripes are complaints about store policies, particularly those relating to returns or coupons.

The survey, which includes more than 6,000 verbatim responses, explores shoppers’ views of what constitutes poor customer service. Consumers were asked to write in the name of the store that they believe provided the worst service — and why. Using their software-driven analytics, Prosper examined the verbatim responses to provide a unique perspective of what drives customers crazy. (To keep the focus on the issues rather than specific retailers, STORES has chosen not to identify them.)

“Sure, assortments, pricing and inviting store layouts matter,” says Michael Perkins, chief information scientist at Prosper. “Yet more often than most merchants realize, it’s the one-to-one interaction between a customer and an associate that determines whether shoppers happily return — or vow never to set foot in a store again. One customer service meltdown can sabotage years of customer-centric good will.”

The silver lining for retail executives is that “the biggest gripe is attitudinal,” Perkins says, “and in many respects that’s easier to fix than other problems. It starts with hiring friendly people, providing them with the knowledge they need to do their job well and setting rules about what’s appropriate behavior and what isn’t.”

Worst offenders
W hen STORES reported the results of a similar survey in June 2007, the customer service complaints that vied for the top spot were employees that don’t know/care and understaffed stores. References to rude behavior ranked lower on the list. While measurably improved sentiment analysis tools render apples-to-apples comparisons between the two studies unbalanced, the fact that rude employees are now mentioned more frequently than any other customer service complaint is, sadly, in step with other research.

Earlier this year NPR reported on the deterioration of manners, noting that in 2011 some 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming ruder and less civil. A gradual decline in “pleases” and “thank yous” was cited by Lisa Gache, co-founder of Beverly Hills Manners in Los Angeles.

“The slow erosion of the ‘magic words’ in our everyday vernacular has to do with the predilection toward all things casual in our society today,” Gache says. “Casual conversation, casual dress and casual behavior have hijacked” good manners.

Where do shoppers encounter the rudest behavior most frequently? The research finds that it’s during that quick trip to the local convenience store. More than four in 10 respondents have dealt with this type of behavior while grabbing their morning coffee or a quart of milk on the way home from work. Other repeat offenders include drug stores, cited by 40 percent of those surveyed, grocery (31 percent) and discount (28 percent) stores.

Knowledgeable, helpful assistance T aking a closer look at some of the complaints consumers voice about various retail channels reveals opportunities for merchants. At department stores, the top gripe is a lack of assistance — a criticism mentioned by 27 percent of respondents. Forty-five percent grumble about not being able to get help at home improvement chains – and 21 percent say the staffers they do find are not knowledgeable. The data indicates that both specialty apparel and specialty home stores may need to review store policies, particularly as they relate to coupons and returns. In both instances, store policies play a starring role when it comes to driving shoppers crazy. Also raising an eyebrow: 23 percent of adults who listed specialty apparel as having the worst customer service have dealt with rude, impolite and unfriendly sales associates. Even more alarming: 27 percent of women — the group that tends to frequent specialty apparel chains the most — say they’ve dealt with an unapproachable or an ill-mannered associate while shopping in these venues. “Consumers’ levels of tolerance vary by shopping segment,” Perkins says. “When you’re shopping at a warehouse club your expectation of customer service is low. But at a specialty apparel shop, where shoppers anticipate knowledgeable and engaged interaction, a pushy or rude sales associate can shift perceptions quickly.” In general, the research finds that women are much less tolerant of poor customer service than men: In nearly every instance, women complained more about negative customer service interactions. A notable exception: Men are fed up with associates who appear to be indifferent and unmoved by requests for assistance.

Generational differences
F rom a generational perspective, Gen Y shoppers are the least forgiving of rude behavior at retail. More than one in four Gen Y consumers (28 percent) complains of rude, impolite and unfriendly interactions at retail.

Gen X shoppers are more inclined than their younger counterparts to gripe about problems finding help, associates who don’t know about the items they’re selling and long checkout lines. Given both groups’ hands-on approach to digital technology and familiarity with communications and media, it’s fair to assume that when they do take the time to engage in one-to-one interactions they expect the episode to be amiable.

The negative feelings they project toward traditional, store-based shopping raises an additional concern. Since these cohorts are in the core of their chief spending years, the onus is on retailers to ensure that, when shoppers do abandon their keyboards and visit a store, the interaction is positive.

The boomer generation’s biggest gripe — that they can’t seem to find anyone to help them — is even more prevalent among the “silent” generation — America’s oldest shoppers. While younger shoppers are more comfortable seeking out information via a plethora of digital devices — thus being able to circumvent store staff — older shoppers still expect someone to be able to direct them to the item they’re looking to find and have a modicum of knowledge about the products they sell. Nearly equal percentages of boomer and silent generation respondents feel that associates come up short when it comes to product familiarity.

Whether retail sales associates are as dreadful as the survey results suggest doesn’t really matter: The bottom line is that the collective wisdom of the crowd is so overwhelmingly negative that turning a deaf ear to the feedback could impact a retailer’s long-term profitability.

Consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to shopping, and most have no trouble forgoing the store where they had a bad experience for the shop up the street or the website that delivers product to their doorstep. Training and monitoring front-line staff can no longer be viewed as a cost; it needs to be a priority.