Over the last couple of weeks, I have found myself thinking about issues relating to ‘customer service’ and the direct impact ‘the customer’ has in driving profitability and competitiveness, particularly in the retail sector, more so as Christmas approaches. Indeed, whilst at a client meeting, when I inquired what the present key business challenge was, the answer was pretty direct: “…to increase sales, promote quality and drive down costs…” These challenges are similar across a multitude of industries and sectors, more so now than ever before, and are constantly reported in the media. Indeed, as I sit here typing away, I can hear the BBC News from my TV announcing in the background “…the British Retail Consortium announces that like-for-like sales in the UK fell 1.6% compared to this time last year…the weakest sales figures for 6 months…”.
I think it is correct to suggest that at the heart of the ‘drive’ to increase sales and drive down costs are the economic conditions being faced globally – particularly in Europe and America. The arguments for these are widely debated so we won’t tinker with them, but the pervading question remains: How do we begin to map a path toward a viable solution?? How do we practically go about increasing business sales and driving down costs? I think a good place to start may be by returning back to the very basics by asking ourselves the question: “Who is Jo(e) Bloggs”??
Joe Bloggs refers to that ‘non-descript’ customer who, nonetheless, remains the pervading reason behind the design of complex sales & marketing strategies, the development of market segmentation tools & analyses, customer targeting mechanisms, and subsequent round-table discussions that examine the impact of these on the rise or fall of bottom-line figures. Joe Bloggs (or Jo Bloggs, the female equivalent), is your everyday individual (impacted by the market forces of globalisation, new technologies, world immigration – cultural diversity, etc), and who is likely to come from a range of complex diverse backgrounds with thoughts, feelings and desires which influence their behaviour in terms of how or where they choose to spend their hard-earned-cash.
Jo Bloggs is your everyday human being who, like everyone else, wants to be treated as an individual and likes to feel that her particular needs have been met when deciding to purchase a service or product. Importantly, Jo isn’t just paying for a product on the shelf, she is actually paying for the ‘customer experience’ that comes as an intricate part of it, and which determines whether she’ll subconsciously take on the role of ambassador in promoting her experience of your business (the ‘brand’) within her ‘community’ – toward your bottom-line benefit.
The UK retail industry is no doubt undergoing challenging times, but this in turn consequently requires a return to the table to find innovative ways of re-establishing customer and brand loyalty. To understand the kind of solutions that are needed, I think it may be relevant to borrow a leaf from the marketing and sales strategies employed by Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Dior, Gucci, McQueen, Chanel and retailers of very high-end luxury products. As the cost of majority of these products are quite simply astronomical even to the averagely remunerated consumer, the strategy luxury retailers adopt to off-set the reality of high product costs, has been to invest in staff training, with an emphasis on those who work on the floor to provide a customer service that is quite simply first class and next to none – one that keeps Jo coming back. How many times have we literally invaded the last of our savings to buy a really, really nice product, pricey, but nonetheless worth it – we say to ourselves – because we love the customer experience, are aligned to the brand, and importantly, like the feeling of reward that comes with the purchase? Indeed, whilst driving to the station this morning, I was listening to Capital 95.8 FM, London, and as though to confirm the thoughts expressed above, an advert came on air advertising luxury fragrances at discounted prices in selected shops across the UK given the festive season, however at the very end of the advert, a voice said very quickly: “this offer does not include Chanel products”. I thought to myself, what a bold tactic; keeping themselves exclusive, whilst strategically going the extra mile to be inclusive through investing in customer services.
Customer segmentation mechanisms; be they geographic, psychographic, or behavioural, etc – all refer, at their simplest common denominator, to the human being – who in order to be engaged – needs to be included in the service and product offering from its very conception through to it’s purchase and usage. In other words, to ensure Jo Bloggs assists in increasing sales, there are certain fundamental prerequisites that need to be carried out by the organisation such that it leads to the subconscious assimilation of its brand which ensures customer loyalty and consistent product and service demand. That fundamental prerequisite is called excellent customer service, a term we know so well because we regularly use it ourselves, indeed, it is a yardstick for measuring organisational success in a variety of ways including organisational performance, growth and profitability. Providing excellent customer service actually starts way before the actual physical sales transaction takes place on the shop floor! It starts way before a signature is put to the cheque or hands are jointly held in a handshake. Excellent customer service actually starts with understanding ‘who‘ your customer is, and exactly where they are to be located. Who is Jo(e) Bloggs??
The ‘customer’ is not an abstract figure or number on an excel spreadsheet. The stereotypical customer might not even be the individual who casually walks off the street and into the shop to buy a product – may be a sandwich. Excellent customer service provision must begin with recognising the Jo(e) Bloggs around us on a daily basis, in our staff and employees – who are in fact representative of the customers we aim to attract to gain their continued custom. It is important to remind ourselves that each staff or employee is in fact a member of an intricate network of people and/or ‘communities’ with whom they interact socially. In effect, each person is a ‘door’ to understanding the ‘complexities of difference’ that organisations have to positively engage so as to create and sustain a competitive advantage.
Joe Bloggs is located within your organisation’s internal workforce. He is your professional colleague, managers, supervisors, and staff working across various functional areas. Joe Bloggs is also located external to an organisation’s workforce within the people we more usually associate with the term ‘customer’ who actually buy and use an organisation‘s products and services. The two are intricately related. The internal workforce needs to be bought into the vision and values of the organisation as it is this ‘buy-in’ that encourages higher creativity levels and facilitates the maximisation of different talents and skills for the development of the product and service that the ‘external’ customer ‘buys-into’ – because it truly reflects their needs. Indeed, the customer service provided at the time of purchase, within this understanding, is to be seen as an opportunity to re-affirm customer buy-in and brand alignment through providing an individual-centred and tailored service driven by the ethical business values of inclusivity, respect and trust – which incidentally are also core diversity values.
Good people management equates to good business. Jo Bloggs doesn’t just buy Chanel products because it is Chanel. She buys it because it is symbolic of team craftsmanship, creativity, and professionalism. Where organisations invest in staff, ensuring alignment to its ethos and core values and behaviours that promote the utilisation of varied skills and backgrounds when developing products and services, they are better placed to reflect the needs of the ‘external’ customer – with whom they share their ‘community’.
Now, it is important to say at this juncture, that the thoughts expressed above are not an attempt to reject the usefulness of customer segmentation methods businesses deploy to better understand their customer base. Rather, it is to simply suggest that in order to get to know ‘who ‘Jo(e) Bloggs is, it is important to begin with looking at the most common denominator – the individuals immediately around you, indeed do not fail to look within yourself too – as you are part of ‘the Jo(e) Bloggs family’ with diverse experiences, backgrounds, skills, desires, etc. When these are effectively harnessed, engaged and used within organisations alongside customer segmentation methodologies, a more accurate picture of Jo(e) Bloggs will be painted – ensuring the services and products designed as a consequence, not only bring the customer back through the door, but in effect lead to consistent increases in sales.
The present challenging economic conditions, particularly with regards the retail sector, pose a great opportunity, I think, for taking a step back to develop a strategic approach for re-engaging ‘the customer’. Initially focusing on knowing ‘who’ your customer is through inclusive and excellent service provision that commences internally with staff – investing in their development and training – is key to keeping those sales ‘on-the-up’, as the impact on the ‘external’ customer is actually far more direct than we might have anticipated or previously imagined…
Jude-Martin is Director of Diversity is…a consultancy focused on providing a fresh and innovative approach to diversity through the provision of HR services covering Strategy, Assessment, and Development for ensuring effective people management in the 21st century global business context.