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A little customer service goes a long way

I have heard other folks say it, and I’ve muttered it myself — customer service just isn’t what it used to be. Now, there is a new study out that backs us up, and it should serve as a real wake-up call to the business community, particularly those in the brick-and-mortar world.

The report, commissioned by American Express and the National Retail Federation, found that 99% of shoppers rate customer service as a factor in their decision to buy or not whether in the real world or online. However, only 16% of traditional shoppers were extremely satisfied with the service they received. And only 40% thought brick-and-mortar merchants were making efforts to improve customer service, while almost as many (38%) felt they were not as committed to quality service than they were several years ago.

Online shoppers were much more enthusiastic and optimistic. Almost all (99%) were either extremely satisfied or very satisfied with their service, while 71% think online merchants are looking to enhance service and only 8% believe they are less committed to service compared to several years ago.

In essence, shoppers are saying they find buying experiences much more satisfying when there are no humans involved. They are satisfied with their online experience because their order was taken, filled and delivered promptly and accurately, all without having to deal with any people. It would seem computer screens have become more attractive to buyers than salespersons’ faces.

However, the study refutes this notion. Approximately two-thirds of shoppers said courteous salespeople and being treated like a valued customer is extremely important in their decision-making process, and 61% said it is also extremely important to have an employee available to ask for help. Obviously, these are areas in which online merchants can not compete. Yet, judging by the study, real-world businesses are not taking advantage of this “human” aspect of the selling process. And merchants seem less and less likely to care. It’s an indictment.

Opportunity to stand out

While this is all troubling, it leaves the door wide open for merchants to grab a competitive advantage by simply offering a mere modicum of friendly, professional customer service. For example, I walked in a convenience store in Clinton recently to buy a soft drink and was greeted by the store clerk with a friendly “hello.” (Hey, you don’t always even get that anymore.) Then at the point of sale, she actually counted my change back to me. “It was 88¢. Twelve cents makes one dollar, two, three, four and one makes $5. Thank you.” I was pleasantly surprised by a relatively simple act of customer service, and I’ll be back.

But perhaps the best customer service success story I personally have run across recently is the dentistry practice of Dr. Andrew Dulaney in Jackson. I am not attempting to endorse Dr. Dulaney’s practice, but I do endorse his way of practicing business.

I was in his office several times with my youngest daughter, and with the first visit was struck by not only how friendly and professional the staff is, but how close they are to their patients. Everyone is on a first-name basis. One woman brought pictures of her kids that the staff all crowded around to see. After one elderly couple left, I overheard one staff member give another a long rundown on who those people were, how she knew them and for how long.

The next visits were more of the same. One time, the mail carrier came in and was greeted by his first name. He then asked if Dr. Dulaney was in. When he was told he was with a patient, the postal carrier said he would just go back and stick his head in the door.

You know what he wanted to tell Dr. Dulaney, who also greeted him as if he were a long-absent relative? That his son was in a basketball game that was to be televised, and he wanted to make sure that Dr. Dulaney saw it. It was more than obvious that Dr. Dulaney had known the young man for some time, perhaps as a patient. He asked the time and channel, and promised to watch. The carrier left beaming with loud “good-byes” to the staff.

Building a bond

How did Dr. Dulaney and his staff manage to build such long and deep-seeded relationships with their patients? My guess is through repeat business. And how did they earn — yes, earn — this repeat business? By treating their patients courteously and professionally. Giving timely answers to questions.

Learning names of not only patients but their families.

Showing empathy. It has a positive effect, including on the bottom line.

Back to the convenience store clerk, when I thanked her for giving my change back the “old-fashioned” way, I complimented her on the outstanding training she must have received. She looked at me and said, “Oh, I wasn’t trained to do that. That’s the way I like to get my change back, so I do it for my customers.”

Imagine all that.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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