I don’t know about you, but when someone says “customer service”, I still think of long hold times on a landline, or even longer lines at a nearby store. But with the rise of e-commerce, the old notion of customer service has been wiped away. Now, customer service is considered a crucial component of a customer’s broader shopping experience.
Customer service is also no longer limited to post-purchase support — customer satisfaction and service must be a consideration at every step along the customer journey. Especially in retail where the goal is always to win customers back again and again, you can never overlook the importance of good service, whether you’re providing it at your physical retail store, or online through your e-commerce experience.
What is Good Customer Service in Retail?
First, let’s talk about what customer service is not: customer service should not be about putting out fires and resolving issues that have already occurred. The last thing you want is customers walking away feeling like their purchase wasn’t worth the experience they had, or, if they’re leaving empty-handed, like they got nothing out of the visit.
In fact, customers who have a poor experience share with twice as many people through word-of-mouth or social media compared to when they have a positive experience.
Acceptable customer service means your customers are walking away feeling net positive: like the results of their experience made it worth visiting you (in-store or online). They’re leaving with something they liked, and are glad they made the trip.
But what you’re really after is offering such good customer service that your customers seek you out, even when they don’t need anything at all — they pretty much just enjoy being in your presence! That’s when you’ve nailed it, because that means you’ve made such a positive impression that your customer base is likely to spend more and stick around for longer.
How to Provide a Good Customer Service Experience in Retail
As I said, customer service is embedded into the entire shopping experience. However, there are a number of particularly crucial moments where great customer service can have a significant impact. Let’s look at some of these make-or-break moments and discuss ways to make them delightful and memorable.
When a Customer Makes an Entrance
Congrats! Foot traffic! One of the great parts of having a physical store is that stores boast an incredibly high conversion rate compared to their online counterparts — often 10x the conversion rate of e-commerce! In other words, when a customer walks into your store, she has indicated a very high purchase intent right off the bat — so let’s make sure you capitalize on that.
First thing is to always greet your customer. Greeting customers makes them feel like they are supposed to be there and puts them at ease. Providing your name as part of your greeting will also make it easier for them to reach out to you during their visit if they have any questions.
When Customers are “Just Browsing”
Some customers who walk into your store may be showrooming — meaning they are at the exploratory stage of their shopping journey and are there to do research and get a feel for things. If the customer tells you directly that they are “just browsing”, that should be an indication to you to focus more on education rather than the bottom-of-the-funnel hard sell.
You can often gauge where a customer is in their journey by asking them how you can help. If they ask for a specific product, then they’ve probably already done their homework and are making a final assessment; if not, your best bet is to keep a close eye while keeping busy with your normal tasks.
At the Fitting Room
Once customers have chosen to try something on, consider that another win! Customers who try something on purchase 67% of the time. However, customers may also feel like trying something on means they have to make a purchase. The best thing you can do for these customers to alleviate the pressure is to let them know they have tons of options with what to do next: they can try products in a different size or color, request similar products to try instead, or continue to browse if the items are not working out.
If your store is not prone to long wait times for fitting rooms, make sure the customer doesn’t feel rushed. While of course a purchase is what we’re all hoping for, making the customer feel like she is not on the hook just because she used your fitting room is likely to make her feel more comfortable and encourage her to come back again regardless of if she purchases.
One effective strategy many Endear users have used is offering to send customers a recap of what they tried on using our Lookbooks feature. With Lookbooks, you can rest assured that even if the customer isn’t ready to buy immediately, she’ll be able to review her options and even use the Lookbook to make the purchases online instead. Best of all, this strategy incentivizes the customer to provide her contact info (so you can send her the lookbook). With Endear, you can even find out if she purchased later on.
When an Item is Out of Stock
One drawback of a store is it has some physical limitations — there is only room for so much inventory. This limitation can often create problems when a store visitor is looking for something in a different size or color that isn’t available immediately at your location. While historically this may have been a deal-breaker, a good omnichannel platform and team connectivity can help alleviate this situation and also gives you as a salesperson the opportunity to show your dedication to your customer.
Modern-day consumers have high expectations around a seamless shopping experience, and they’ll likely expect for you to check if the missing item is available online or nearby. If you’re able to find out these details, you can give the customer great peace-of-mind by putting yourself out there to help her get what she’s looking for.
For example, you could offer to text the customer when the item arrives at your store, or offer to connect her with an associate at the store where the item is already available. And, of course, you can let the customer know whether the item is available on your ecommerce site and offer to send it to her directly to review on her own time.
In moments like these, customers’ disappointment about lack of availability can quickly be overcome through incredible customer service.
Your customer has reached the check-out counter — you’re at the finish line! But since check-out is also often the last thing a customer remembers, it’s even more crucial that the experience goes well. At the bare minimum, check in to get customer feedback on her shopping experience. This moment will either serve as an opportunity to re-inforce how wonderful a time she has had or will enable you to potentially resolve any issues that have come up.
The check-out process is also a great moment to create a connection between you and the customer, either through learning her name, complimenting her purchase, or providing guidance on how to make the most of her new items so she feels even more confident about her decision.
Creating conversation will also make the whole customer experience feel less like a transaction.
You can also consider making the check-out counter a cool place to be! Think about how the counter could be more inviting, for example by providing information about upcoming events or free samples that can help educate the customer about new products.
After They Purchase
Whatever you do, never underestimate the value of a thank-you. When we did our own study of how influential thank-you notes can be, we learned that they converted at almost double the rate of standard messages sent through Endear — over 10%! When you think about how hard it can be to win back a customer, thank-you notes create an immediate opportunity to reach out again and ensure that customers have a direct line to you, whether they have a follow-up question or simply want to purchase something else.
When a Customer is Making a Return
Let’s face it — returns are usually a drag. The only thing worse than trying to make a return is failing. Similar to an item being out of stock, returns create another opportunity to delight your customer base by turning a usually negative experience into a positive one.
Customers move between shopping in-store and online more than ever, so one major update any retailer should consider is enabling customers to return items in-store that they bought online. While this isn’t something that can change overnight, the decision will lead to happy customers.
If you are faced with the bigger challenge of having to reject a customer’s return, whether because it was made online or for any other reason, there are other strategies to appease angry customers and create a pleasant customer experience. For example, make sure they know how they can make their return and ask if there’s any way for you to make the process easier on them (for example, maybe looking up their order number or printing out a shipping label). Another route is to let them know about your exchange program. While you may not be able to give them a refund, they may be interested in purchasing another item instead — especially if you can offer an extra-special discount.
There are plenty of opportunities to ensure customers are receiving excellent customer service, so always keep your eye out even beyond the situations listed above! You can even visit other stores as a secret shopper to see what kind of service they offer and what takeaways you can learn for your own store.
Examples of Good Customer Service in Retail
If you’d rather read about real-life examples, here’s a look at how some top brands are going the extra mile with top-notch customer support and service within their retail experience.
At this point, outdoor apparel and gear retailer REI has set the gold standard for customer service. REI is famous for being a cooperative rather than a publicly-traded company, meaning that members of the co-op (who are often loyal customers) participate in an annual company dividend and additional offers. Having such a close tie to their customers means that REI can always put customers’ priorities and interests first, rather focusing on the priorities and interests of shareholders.
This isn’t the only way REI shows their customers love. You may even remember REI for how they saved the day in the 2014 movie Wild, when Reese Witherspoon loses her boots while hiking and has a new pair waiting for her at the next rest stop. This type of service goes way beyond a friendly smile at a store — it’s about being there every step of the way for your customers and having a deep understanding about the role your products play in customers’ lives. Reese was able to get her boots because of REI’s 100% satisfaction guarantee, further demonstrating the company’s long-term approach to customer loyalty.
While REI may have exceptional customer service, there’s nothing quite like visiting an Apple store. Part of the reason it’s such a pleasure is that, similar to Starbucks, you can visit any Apple store in the world and count on a consistent experience. You’re bound to encounter a friendly, wickedly-smart, and patient salesperson or “Genius” who will help make all your problems go away.
This level of service is because of the time and energy that Apple has put into training their team members to sell in the A.P.P.L.E. way. This method teaches each employee exactly how to interact with customers to create the impression I described above. If you look at what each letter stands for, none of them actually suggests an element of selling. Instead, the technique revolves around ensuring that customers’ needs are met and problems are resolved, and encourages them to continue to come back. By doing so, customers associate the Apple store with solutions, rather than a place to buy things and spend money, thus separating it from most other retail experiences.
Of all the comeback tales in retail, I like to reference Nordstrom the most. While most department stores have struggled to stay relevant, Nordstrom has made the biggest push to update its store formats and service offerings to better suit the modern shopper.
Nordstrom’s new Nordstrom Local is maybe the clearest effort by the retailer to improve its customer service strategy. Awarded “Store Concept of the Year” by Retail Dive, this new concept is actually completely merchandise-free, and instead exists only to offer pick-up for online orders, process returns, and provide styling advice and tailoring services to customers. Launched in 2017, this model has already proven to work, with customers who visit spending over double what other customers spend. Nordstrom Local is a near-perfect example of the impact that good service can have on a retailer’s bottom line.
Nike’s strongest customer service actually exists in the digital realm. The sports retailer is another key example that customer service should not be reactive. In fact, Nike has created numerous digital apps and communities to help customers get more out of its products, including the Run Club and SNKRS app to complement its more general shopping app.
Creating unique digital products to appeal to various core audiences allows Nike to pervade its customers’ lifestyles and become an essential part of how they stay active.
While Ikea operates both online and in-store, the Swedish furniture retailer actually plays best in customers’ homes. If you are one of a select few people who has never tried to put together Ikea furniture, the entire premise of the company is that anyone can build anything — whether a king size bed or a simple storage drawer. But fulfilling that promise is not easy, and over the course of 75+ years in business, Ikea continues to set itself apart as the go-to retailer for anyone eager for a DIY project.
Ikea may have one of the toughest jobs when it comes to overcoming buyer’s remorse. After I’ve picked out the perfect couch in their store, it arrives for me to assemble myself. This moment is where Ikea stands out in the industry — it has made furniture assembly as dummy-proof as possible by simplifying and almost always including all the tools you need for the job, as well as fun & friendly instructions on how to put my item together. The company’s dedication to this critical post-purchase experience has made it a go-to for anyone trying to furnish a space quickly and affordably.
When COVID-19 shut down most of the US in March 2020, many brands sought out new ways to be a support system for their customers, and DTC swim brand Summersalt even went so far as to provide the equivalent of a “pick-me-up” hotline — a simple phone number anyone could text to get a cheerful response or resource back, such as self-help tips or funny GIFs.
While the sceptic in me appreciates the value of collecting phone numbers as SMS becomes a critical marketing channel, the optimist in me appreciates the easy access to something that can make my day a bit brighter.
Truly good customer service will start from the top, and will be ingrained in everything a company does. Let’s take sock company Bombas for example. On top of being a B-corp that donates a pair of socks for every pair purchased, the company also puts happiness front and center, even creating leadership roles like “Head of Happiness”. This sort of job title speaks wonders about the company’s approach to service because it puts the objective of good customer service front-and-center: make people happy.
Similar to REI, the company also has a “Happiness Guarantee”, ensuring that their customer service team will go above and beyond until customers are happy about their purchase. On top of all of this though, Bombas also points out that sometimes the people you make happy don’t have to be customers: beyond donating socks to shelters, Bombas also hosts regular hot breakfasts for the homeless population of New York, where they are headquartered.
These retailers do a wonderful job of showcasing the various forms that customer service can come in — way beyond live chat or a customer service desk. One of the best ways to make sure you’re providing excellent customer service is to first make sure you have an easy way to speak to your customers. Endear enables ongoing two-way communication, meaning either you or your customer can start a conversation at any time, and stay in touch at every stage of the purchase journey.