How To Get Excellent Customer Service in a Retail Store Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How To Get Excellent Customer Service in a Retail Store

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Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard) and Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) providing customer service for Grace Brothers.

Everyone has a shopping tale to tell about the rudest store clerk, or the worst cashier, or some other variety of shopping nightmare. While it's true that many stores are liable to have some young and inexperienced staff, it is also true that there is a certain breed of human that thrives in the retail sales environment, and it's just as easy to find one of them as it is the other. Also, with a little effort on your part, the former can become the latter, and wouldn't that make the retail world a happy place for everyone?

If you would like to improve the chances that your most recent retail horror story will be your last, read on to learn how to become a good - nay, excellent customer.

Be Willing to Help Yourself

If the store is new, or not so new but large enough to fit not only your house, but yours and several neighbours' as well, it is likely there will be some sort of store map near the entrance. It won't be intricately detailed, but should be able to point you in the right direction for the items you are looking for. The map may be near a stack of flyers for the store's current sales and specials; you should take one because you never know when those things you didn't even know you needed might be on sale1.

If the store is moderately large there may be headings on the aisles telling what kind of merchandise can be found down each. Obviously the headers can't mention everything in a given aisle, but it's a pretty sure bet that if the sign says there's pasta in the aisle, there's pasta sauce, too.

When there is no discernable means of finding what you need at a glance, and even when there is, any store associate, from the manager on down to the chap who sweeps the floors, should be able to tell you where the shoe department is, or where the cleaning supplies might be found. Some employees may walk you right to the item you're looking for, others may only direct you to the general area where someone with more specialist knowledge should be wandering around.

Finding the More Elusive Help

Of course, there will be times when it seems that nobody's about, and always when you're in a hurry to grab a last-minute item. There are a couple of things that may improve your chances of being noticed by a sales assistant.

Dressing smartly and looking important could have employees falling over themselves to assist you, but it could also backfire as well - a power suit won't get you very far in a Wal-Mart. Assistants may be more resentful than helpful if they feel you're deliberately trying to remind them of their place.

Alternatively, the opposite is also true: try looking shifty and suspicious. Nearly everyone in sales is trained to spot this type of behaviour in order to deter theft; if a potential thief is aware that he is drawing too much attention he will leave and try somewhere else. It would be wise not to over-use this tactic, especially not repeatedly in the same store, lest the employees catch on and watch you every time you cross their threshold.

If standing on your head and singing the national anthem as loudly as you can still attracts no attention, your best bet is to go where the employees are usually stationed - the customer service desk, the checkout lanes, a jewellery counter or electronics lock up if one exists. Ask the employee stationed there to send help to the area you need it in, or ask to speak to a manager. If you routinely have difficulty finding help in a store definitely speak to the manager, and tell him that your continued business may be at risk.

Be Patient and Polite

Yes, it's true that this is primarily the job of the associate who is providing you assistance, but being polite and patient will go miles toward getting you what you want. When you ask for help, don't be in the middle of a call on your cell phone, give the clerk your full attention so you can make the best use of the information he is giving you. This goes for the checkout line as well; it's just rude to conduct a transaction with one person while involved in a conversation with someone else. If the call is that important, finish it before approaching the clerk or cashier.

Understand that it is not up to anyone in the store to decide the store's layout. How merchandise is arranged is dictated by corporate directive, mostly to ensure that multiple stores are laid out in similar fashion so customers can find what they want no matter which branch of a store they enter. In other words, it's not the clerk's fault if the hand towels and the bath towels aren't in the same aisle.

When an item you are looking for isn't on the shelf, even if there is an empty space for it, a stock person is usually willing to go looking for it in the stockroom. Please be patient with them, especially if you have never seen the inside of a stockroom. It may take them several minutes, and if they've had to move mountains of stock to find your item it will be discouraging for them to find you've left before they return.

If the item you are after is out of stock or something that store doesn't carry, the clerk is usually still willing to do what he can to help you. He may know that your particular item is due to arrive in a couple of days2. If it's something that will be arriving shortly the store may be willing to set one aside for you, although don't expect them to hang on to it indefinitely. If your item is something that can be specially ordered an associate will be happy to help you with this, but you may be asked to pay for it up front. Associates might also be willing to call other stores to find your item and place it on hold for you, but if the store is busy they may not have time for this level of service. You might ask for a list of phone numbers for other locations so you can call yourself and save having to drive all over.

Wrong Size? Wrong Colour? Defective? Return It

When you are making a return, find out what the store's return policy is. Knowing what you are entitled to beforehand eliminates the possibility of not being satisfied with what they offer. Many stores use some combination of the following guidelines:

  • Proof of purchase - Most stores will require a cash register receipt or sales invoice to process a refund. The store may be able to process a return without one, but you might not receive your purchase price or a cash refund.
  • Reason for return - Some stores may only accept returned items that are broken or defective. If you've just decided that you no longer want it you may be stuck with it anyway.
  • Method of refund - Stores can require that the method of refund is the same as the original method of payment, which is fine if you paid by cash or bank card. If you paid with a cheque though, you may have to wait for a checque to be issued from the main office. Some stores may only offer a refund in store credit.
  • Time limit - Many stores place a limit beyond which they are no longer responsible to provide refunds or exchanges even if your product is defective. This limit can be anywhere from seven days to three months or more, but after the limit expires your recourse is to take issues directly to the manufacturer.

Again, it pays to be patient and polite, so try to curb your temper if you feel you're not being treated fairly. Many sales assistants are inately suspicious and on the look out for someone trying to con or rob them. A good few will have learnt this the hard way. Don't get cross when the unimpeachable moral character you know you have is not acknowledged by a total stranger. Your cries of 'but I wouldn't do something like that' are of no use to someone refusing to give you a refund for an item you can't prove you bought, because people who steal stuff say the same thing.

Other Helpful Tips

Be aware of the store's operating hours. Try not to come in at the last minute for a shopping order that will take a while to gather. Associates should always try to accommodate your needs, but they'd like to go home at the end of their shift as well, and if they are students (as many sales associates are) they may have homework to finish up and an early morning the next day.

When heading for the checkout, have your form of payment handy so as not to hold up everyone else digging through your pockets or bag for your bank card or the last bit of change. Pay attention to the items as they are being rung, and if there are price discrepancies allow the cashier to verify and correct them for you. Bear in mind that it is not the cashier's fault nor the register's when items are stocked in the wrong place or signs are misplaced3. The store may or may not be willing to override an incorrect price, but it's usually at their discretion and depends on the nature of the error and store policy. While managers and associates are investigating the discrepancy, you probably want to decide if you still want the item if it's not going to be the price you thought it was.

If an alarm goes off as you exit the store, stop and remain in the store. Setting off the alarm does not mean that anyone in the store thinks you are a thief. Usually it means that the cashier failed to deactivate a security chip that manufacturers hide in the most unexpected places4, or forgot to remove a security hangtag. An associate or manager will be over to assist you and to deactivate or remove whatever was forgotten. You will look far more suspicious if you continue moving toward the exit as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately the world has become a place where no one is above suspicion in retail theft, and it's far better to cooperate and let the store correct its mistake than to make yourself look the least bit guilty.

Resolving Issues

Inevitably you will receive service somewhere that is not up to your standard, or you will believe that the person assisting you has really not gone the distance. The store manager, or manager on duty if there are several, is there to make sure you leave their store as happy as you were when you entered. Here are some tips to help you achieve satisfaction:

  • Remain calm and polite. Explain to the manager exactly what you were after and how the store's service has failed you.
  • Have reasonable expectations of compensation. A manager may only be able to offer you a rain check on an out-of-stock item, or a comparable item at an advertised price or a discount. They might be able to include a discount coupon for a future purchase, or for a complimentary popcorn at the snack bar. They may even be able to get you exactly what you want if you only give them the chance.
  • If the store manager isn't able to resolve your issue, ask for contact information for the next level of authority. This may be a district manager or a customer service call centre. Sometimes simply asking for this information is enough to make the store go the extra mile for you, other times the store has really done everything in its remit to try to make you happy and it will be necessary to follow up. Be just as polite and courteous to anyone else you speak to regarding the matter.

And Another Thing...

When you have had an exceptional experience, or even just a very good one, if anything at all has exceeded your expectations, tell someone about it. If an associate has gone above and beyond to meet your request, tell his manager. If a store manager has satisfied your complaint by more than you expected, tell his district manager. If the store just shines and everything is in its place and easy to find, tell the owner. Tell someone. Everyone, including you, feels better when they know they are doing a good job and making someone happy.

1Make sure you read the sales flyer thoroughly, and pay attention to the signage on the shelves and displays so that you understand exactly what the special offers are.2Or he may not, many chain stores aren't in control of their ordering systems, stock is shipped automatically by an inventory system.3It may not be the store's fault at all if other shoppers have left unwanted items randomly on shelves where they don't belong.4Like the inside spines of books, the heels or soles of shoes, inside the case for any CD, DVD or game cartridge, etc.

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