Future Forces: Have you called your call center lately?

In a demanding environment, the challenges of exemplary service and growth require a view from outside of your retail window.

By Patrick Kiernan

Certainly, no one ever starts a retail business planning to give poor service. Shoppers making their weekly trek to the local grocery store have come to expect a high level of service when it comes to freshness, variety, product specials and the checkout process. Indeed, the growth of specialty service departments such as juice bars, coffee shops and fresh fish, along with extended store hours and self-checkout, are all a part of the ever-changing customer service formula that grocers must manage.

Yet, the key message evolving in customer service is that customer expectations and demographics are poised to disrupt the food-at-home industry. As Baby Boomers retire, their shopping patterns turn toward lifestyle preservation. Meanwhile, the Millennials that follow show less loyalty to brands and “one-stop-shop” formats. Both generations will be redefining customer service away from the traditional food industry value chain.  A new study by Jefferies and AlixPartners, titled Millennials, Aging Boomers Mean Trouble in Aisle 5, should be a must-read for all.

In another study, the Temkin Group measured how consumers rate their customer experience across 18 industries and 206 companies. Rating reports for 2012 on categories such as loyalty, forgiveness, trust, customer service and web experience can shed light not only on the best companies to study, but also on how this research company defines customer service. While grocery retailers are not sitting among the bottom companies­­­—like banks and cable TV providers—when it comes to customer service, it should come as no surprise that Hy-Vee,  Publix, H-E-B, Sam’s Club, Winn-Dixie, ShopRite and, yes, Aldi are in the top 10.

Most interesting to me were the forgiveness and consumer trust ratings, where consumers were asked to rate their likelihood to forgive a company if they deliver a bad shopping experience. H-E-B, Hy-Vee, Publix and Costco all ranked in the top 10 here. So, we have an ample number of retail companies, both inside and outside traditional grocery to learn from as consumers redefine exemplary service.

Shopping online is also changing consumer service expectations by teaching consumers how to use digital tools in-store. Shoppers see better in-store communication tools in use in other retail formats and have their own mobile devices that offer shopping tools for price discounts and product information. Digital experiences are changing in-store customer service expectations. Web services and smartphone apps such as RedLaser, ShopSavvy and Smoopa, are not only changing shopper expectations on how to save time and money, but also teaching consumers about new food items.

One cannot leave the topic of customer service without addressing the role of call centers and customer complaints. While retail stores are many times the starting point of complaints surrounding pricing, service or product quality, the customer service call center is often the make-or-break point for the loss of a customer. When store employees and management are not empowered to solve the simplest customer complaints, call center volume becomes the only growth area of the company.

My recent experience with the Bank of America, (BofA) tells the story of failed customer service. BofA incorrectly coded an IRS 1099 form. Repeated 45-minute phone calls that required up to 20 prompts to talk to a bank representative led only to more incorrect 1099 forms being sent. Bank branch visits of four hours also required bank personnel to go through the same 45-minute wait time on the phone with an admission of the bank mistake but no resolution. No one can be assigned to fix BofA’s mistake as it is against bank policy to assign a representative or give out direct contact numbers. So, now all my BofA accounts are closed and this story of destructive customer service gets told over and over.

Sadly, most of today’s call centers operate as a cost of doing business rather than an investment in building loyalty. Complaints are customer moments of truth on whether you care or merely follow a robotic, scripted process honed to cut costs.

Ask yourself one question the next time you visit a call center: Would you recommend this company to a friend?

Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.

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