Monday, March 24, 2014

Indian Retail: Are you walking the talk of customer service

Customer Satisfaction is the most overused and abused term. There is a whole universe of business opportunity that revolves around these two words. Over the years this has morphed into variations like customer delight, customer wow, etc.

All this is great to hear and quite profitable too if one were to be offering a training program or consulting inputs built around these two words.

Alas, as customers this talk never does reach down to us on an operating level. Let me share this interesting anecdote about a chain store.

A friend of mine recently happened to purchase a lot of products from a leading lifestyle chain and went home hoping to surprise her family members. As in the case of any surprise gifts, some were welcomed while a few were not. So, she planned to return to the store to either exchange these or return the same. My friend set off confidently for this task as she remembered seeing a large sign about replacement being guaranteed and had read through the conditions mentioned regarding the same.

Upon reaching the store, she went to the customer service desk near the billing counters and requested their help to exchange the few products she had purchased. To her surprise she was asked to go to another counter on another floor where replacements and exchanges were handled. After locating this special counter she repeated her request and the staff said that she would be given a note for the value of products purchased and she can show this note at the billing counter towards payment of the products she has selected now. In industry terms, this is a credit note.

Now came the twist in the tale. After she had selected the new products and got the same billed, she found that the bill value was less than the credit note value. However, the staff refused to refund her the money as that was not allowed as per policy. When questioned about the replacement and exchange promise mentioned in the large sign, it was pointed out that no cash refund was also mentioned in that sign, although as fine print!

In effect this customer had to end up paying more for a product just because she had to get it exchanged.

When I mention walking the talk, it refers to enabling the customers to experience the exact same thing which has been promised and not about the various disclaimers in small print. There are two components to this.

One is about setting the right expectations. Quite often the customer expectations are raised to such impossible levels through a mix of hyperbole and fancy words. Whether intentionally or not, customers end up interpreting these statements in their own way and expectations are set. On the contrary Retailers set in strict systems and policies to maintain control and discipline as also avoid any mischief at the store level.

Unfortunately, most of these systems and processes are in direct contradiction of the stated customer policies and other claims which have created expectations in the minds of a customer.

Customer service issues and complaints are a natural outcome and quite often these are ignored because there is nothing that can be done. “It is against our policy” is the standard excuse.

When said by the store staff, I can give them the benefit of doubt and maybe even pity them for having been put in a difficult place by the Retailer. However, one often tends to hear this phrase even from managerial people across levels. This is completely unacceptable and will not help any Retailer in the long run.

Very simply put, think carefully before you talk to your customer and create expectations - either directly or indirectly through signage, advertisements, etc. However, once you have created an expectation walk the talk that has defined this expectation and do not back down from the same.

I recall a store launch where a very good offer on cooking oil was given. It so happened that the price of cooking oil, which is a commodity, increased significantly a day or two before the launch. The easy way out was to withdraw the offer and tell the customer that it was not there. 

However the team decided to walk the talk.

They went ahead with the offer and managed the customer expectation by limiting the quantity to two packets. Although there were some complaints the majority of the customers appreciated the fact that we had continued with the offer and had not cancelled the same.

Taking off on the tagline of a famous brand, “keep walking”, whatever you talk about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Are you Buying Sales?

The SALE season is upon us!

Every Retailer, especially those in the lifestyle space routinely announce and execute the “End Of Season Sale” (EOSS). Advertisements, posters, etc., scream varying percentages with the word “Upto” mentioned in small print - for example “Upto 70% Off”.

Although the intent of these EOSS offers is to clear stocks and shelf space for the new products, lines and styles, this is becoming counterproductive in many cases. Shoppers have started expecting such offers and their timing has become a well known fact. As such, the customers tend to often wait for EOSS to make their purchases. Ironically Retailers have realized that and are beginning to feed this habit by planning for special EOSS stocks which defeats the very purpose of this activity.

The reality in Indian Retail is that most promotions by and large are run without much thought and no clearly defined specific objective. Most promotions are being planned to increase sales and then every category jumps on to the band wagon to leverage the increased customer walk ins. EOSS is also going down that road and this is definitely not a good trend.

For starters this trend is clearly conditioning the shopper against the regular pricing being offered at any store and skews the sales trends heavily. In the case of mass merchandisers, the skewed sales trends do affect the inventory levels, forecasting, etc. Even after normalizing the sales for promotion impact, the data cannot be completely trusted because there are similar promotions on the same brand being offered by other stores and this also skews the data.

This brings me to the ago old debate of Hi-Lo promotion led pricing Vs EDLP or discounted pricing. Although EDLP offers consistency and its resultant benefits, promotions bring in excitement which has its own set of benefits for any Retailer.

Am I proposing that Retailers do away with promotions and only follow a discounting model?

Not at all. My view is that promotions are not only tactical but also a part of the Retailer’s strategy. As such promotion planning needs to be done in a structured and well planned manner. Let me elaborate on one aspect of structured promotion planning which is setting objectives.

When asked why that particular promotion is being run on that SKU or category, the inevitable answer is either about increasing sales or because competition is doing the same. In other words a well defined and specific objective is missing.

I say so because sales is not an absolute and insulated phenomenon in Retail. It is actually composed of three elements –
  • Walk ins or Footfall
  • Number of Bills
  • Average Bill Value or Ticket Size

Any promotion must be structured to deliver a result which will clearly impact one or more of these three elements. This is important because different categories and varying promotions impact each of these three elements in a different manner. For example impulse or low involvement categories are great to increase footfalls but would require a very strong offer.

Execution is the next important factor to ensure that the promotions deliver the desired results. Whether it is with regard to having adequate stocks or having the proper signage and promotion communication, every execution element plays a vital role and cannot be ignored.

Last but definitely not the least is the store staff briefing which can in some cases make or break a promotion.

Let me share an example. An apparel store was offering a gift voucher linked to particular slabs of bill value. When the cashier was billing my purchase I noticed that I had become eligible for one such gift voucher and wanted to use the value of that voucher against the remaining purchases. Therefore reduce the total amount I was paying.

When I mentioned this to the cashier, as expected, he became flustered and called the supervisor. I was surprised to find that the supervisor was well briefed and he checked my purchases and briefed the cashier to bill the products as I had requested as also capture the gift voucher number against the second bill.

There are two take aways from this incident.
  1. From a shopper’s perspective the majority of cashiers and supervisors would be flustered in such situations and take the easy way out by saying that it is not allowed. Briefing the staff helps the customer get a clear communication which build loyalty instead of making them frustrated.
  2. However, from a Retailer’s perspective this seems like a waste of promotional budget. Neither is it bringing me back to increase their footfall nor did it make me buy more and therefore increase the average bill value. Why did that Retailer throw away that margin?

Very clearly promotions are not easy to plan and manage. To be able to achieve the right balance between positive business impact as also happy shoppers, the Retailer should have planned the promotion with a lot of thought, data and a clear objective.

In the absence of adequate thought and planning for any promotion, the Retailer is only buying sales!