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In retail, customer service comes first
In retail, customer service comes first

When customer service is unshackled

It’s not enough for a business to offer customer service – it should be customer-centric from the top down. BARRY URQUHART explores how corporate culture must evolve to put customer-service skills first.

Customer service skills are easy to master but they are impeded and compromised in many instances by inadequate, superficial and narrowly-focused corporate cultures.

Well-scripted mission statements and brand philosophies on office walls are insufficient and often misleading. This is because they seldom articulate the underlying driving force that makes things happen in a business.

Considerable resources and funds are channelled into processes that reduce costs and enhance internal efficiency – at the expense of customer and client satisfaction.

Under-utilised customer skills often remain unrecognised; employees go unsupported and improvements are not implemented.

Frequently, the importance of customer service may be appreciated on a superficial level – but it often remains unrealised, to the dismay of front-line service providers.

The personal touch

Customer and client satisfaction is determined by, and measured against, expectations, as well as first impressions.

Automated telephone systems remain a source of frustration and dissatisfaction, mostly because there’s no way to bypass pre-recorded messages and get access to actual service professionals.

By the time a customer reaches a person, it can be difficult for staff to recover from the anxiety and frustration that customer feels.

The ability of staff to neutralise such emotions is important but this falls a long way short of creating customer satisfaction – let alone delight. A case in point is the recent declaration by Centrelink that telephone wait-times have been significantly reduced... to ‘just’ 17 minutes!

Against the benchmark of service excellence – when incoming calls are answered within three rings – it is little wonder that customers are reluctant to call.

Service begets performance

Even if staff have excellent service skills, an inadequate corporate culture will compromise customer-service standards.

"Having highly-trained, qualified team members who possess great product knowledge counts for little if they are insufficient in numbers and can’t readily be found on the shop floor"

Department stores throughout Australia are reporting losses in sales, profits and market share. The response from senior management has been to declare a commitment to customer-focused endeavours, including increased training in customer service.

Such utterances again fall well short, as do the number of available and accessible service providers.

The consumer perception of the Australian department-store sector is that it is difficult to find staff when visiting stores. Having highly-trained, qualified team members who possess great product knowledge counts for little if they are insufficient in numbers and can’t readily be found on the shop floor.

There is a universal need for all senior-executive and non-executive ranks to champion customer service delivery.

One touch only

A need for staff to refer matters to another person or department mars the customer experience and diminishes the chances of them becoming a long-term advocate of the business.

Delegating authority improves morale, contributes to staff loyalty, stabilises team compositions and reassures customers that they are dealing with people who have the capacity to resolve issues to their satisfaction.

The manner and speed in which product returns take place, and in which quality issues and service deficiencies are addressed, are key indicators of the degree to which a service-oriented corporate culture prevails.

For some, following up with customers is time-consuming and does not necessarily generate additional revenue.

Moreover, businesses are frequently reluctant to expose themselves to expressions of dissatisfaction from customers – but some things are better to know first-hand. Third-party complaints are difficult to manage and impossible to contain.

It remains true that open, two-way communication is a key characteristic for sustaining client satisfaction and loyalty.

Don't compromise commitment

With service excellence there is no place to hide. Training should involve senior management and board members, and active participation is essential.

At the very least, participants should be able to present considered action plans to senior executives and non-executives at the conclusion of the training programme. They will feel rewarded and be reassured that they have been heard.

In the new retail environment, customer-service initiatives are particularly relevant and businesses should ensure all endeavours are universally embraced and applied.

Barry Urquhart

Contributor • Marketing Focus

Barry Urquhart is managing director of Marketing Focus. He has been a consultant to the retail industry around the world since 1980. Visit: or email

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