Putting Customers in the Christmas Spirit

Today is Black Friday, traditionally the official start of the Christmas season for retailers across the U.S. In the coming weeks, shoppers’ nerves will be put to the test as they fight heavy traffic, congested stores, and anxieities about getting their loved ones the perfect Christmas gift. It’s enough to make people lose sight of the reasons why Christmas is celebrated!

If you are a retailer, it stands to reason that you would adjust your marketing tactics to meet customers’ needs during this season. Extended hours, additional sales and customer service employees, and special promotions are standard fare. But, what if you are not a retailer or Christmas isn’t the boom period that it is for retailers? Do you dismiss the month of December as a slow period and go shopping with the masses? You don’t have to, and you should not take a holiday from marketing.

Some brands that are not top-of-mind with consumers during the holidays have taken steps to provide comfort and convenience to shoppers. Whether it be Bank of America’s cardmember lounges that provide resting places and free gift wrapping or Charmin tissue providing high-end portable toilets (is that an oxymoron?), there are ways you can help your customers get in the Christmas spirit. And, while they may not want to buy your products or services to give as Christmas gifts, any way that you can keep your brand on their mind and even add value to their hectic lives is a plus worth exploring. Link

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There Are Signs!

A recent shopping experience opened my eyes to the tone retailers take with customers on what I would call “warning signs.” We shopped for hockey equipment for our youngest son this past weekend. First, we visited a small hockey shop at the ice rink in Nashville where my son plays. It is an outpost for the store’s main location downtown. It has limited hours, but it was open so we decided to go in. I couldn’t help but notice a sign on the wall that said “You flex – You break – You buy.” The tone of the sign, coupled with the employee who looked only slightly happier to be there than outside in the 100-degree heat, made me want to leave sooner rather than later. Besides, I have confidence in my child’s ability to break things!

At the store’s main location downtown, another sign got my attention. It said, “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.” I was not offended by the sign, and I assume that the signs at both stores were placed as a result of incidents in which customers, probably children, damaged or broke merchandise. However, there is a more tactful way to communicate the message and build positive rapport with customers. A sign with a message of something like, “We value the safety of your children. Please accompany them as they shop. Thanks for visiting our store” is more positive and conveys the same idea. The general message of “Don’t break anything!” can be conveyed in more customer-friendly language. I would argue that it is indeed a child’s safety that is at issue for no other reason than if a child were to damage or break an expensive piece of equipment, he or she could face the wrath of dad or mom!

As you might guess, we made purchases at neither location. We went to a third store in the suburbs and purchased a helmet and stick. I wouldn’t be surprised the next time I visit the other two stores if I were to see a sign that said “Customers not allowed.” That would be ridiculous, but so is creating adversarial relationships with your customers.

It’s the Execution, Stupid!

A recent study by Carlson Marketing and the Peppers & Rogers Group provides insight into what consumers value from retailers. In the report, “Getting it Right at Retail,” respondents rated customer service and being “easy to do business with” as very important attributes in a retailer. These service issues, along with price and availability of merchandise, were of great importance to the consumers surveyed. Retailers should be concerned with another finding from the study: over 40% of respondents indicated they were as happy with other retailers as they were their primary retailer choices. In other words, many customers have little problem with switiching to other retailers when their primary retailers do not meet their expectations.

Results of the study are interesting, but are they really surprising? Consumers want to be treated fairly and and have their business valued by retailers. I doubt companies like Wal-Mart, Auto Zone, and Macy’s that scored low with consumers in this study have set out to create bad experiences for their customers. It’s all about execution, or lack thereof. For example, another finding from the study is that many times retailers that have well conceived loyalty programs do not effectively implement them as front-line service employees are too often ignorant of these important customer programs. This problem is not new for retailers; employee turnover in retail organizations has been high for years. A mixture of low salaries, being put in stressful situations dealing with difficult customers, and the saturation of retail outlets that necessitates filling more positions (that are low paying and stressful) has contributed to the customer service woes experienced in this country. Retailers willing to invest in employees in terms of training and compensation are poised to develop a competitive advantage, assuming other elements of their strategy are in place (e.g., merchandise mix, pricing, and presentation/experience). Link

Sprint Hangs Up on Unprofitable Customers

Wireless communication provider Sprint recently made headlines when it announced that it was terminating the service contracts of approximately 1,000 customers. Subscribers in the affected group were identified by the company as being unprofitable because of their numerous calls seeking customer support. The customers’ frequent interaction with Sprint support personnel was viewed as a drain on resources that could be used to serve other customers more effectively.

It takes courage for a business to “fire” a customer. Maybe it’s human nature or at least traditional marketing thought that we want to be liked by everyone. We want our customers to like (if not love) us, and if someone is unhappy with us we should not rest until they are happy. The customer is always right, you know! Perhaps that slogan should be modified to read “A profitable customer is always right.”

I applaud Sprint for taking the step to end its relationship with customers it has been unable to serve to their satisfaction. It is not easy to give up on customers, especially when you consider how hard it is to acquire them. However, it seems ironic that a company that has no trouble binding its customers to a long-term commitment is walking away from its commitment to customers when the relationship is less than perfect. Wouldn’t it be refreshing for companies like Sprint to create a two-way street and allow customers that are chronically dissatisfied to end a contract! Not likely to happen any time soon, but you never know. Link