Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Can You Offer Free Lunches?

There is an old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true of free shipping. It is a variable cost of doing business. It ultimately must be passed on to customers, directly or through increased prices.

So why did Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, announce in early November 2010 that it was offering free shipping through December 20? Furthermore, why did competitors like Target and JCPenney quickly announce similar plans?

The answer is they all read the same market research. Consumers love “free” shipping. It is as close to a guaranteed way of increasing customer satisfaction as you will find. Conversely, an online shopper survey by Compete.com reported that high shipping costs were the number-one reason online shoppers were not satisfied with their orders. It is also why 65% of respondents indicated they prefer the “in store pick up” option, when available.

This tendency to avoid explicit shipping costs can present marketing opportunities to a creative businessperson. For example, a few years ago, one of the national pizza chains decided to offer a home delivered pizza that was larger than the in-store version. Customers willingly paid extra for the super-sized pizza, especially since it came with free delivery. Customers did not know (or did not care) that there was no incremental cost for the larger product. The extra price was in reality a hidden delivery charge.

The moral of this example is simply that customer perceptions and opinions define value in every transaction. If they are reluctant or unwilling to pay for one service, perhaps they will perceive value in some other feature that can fund the cost of the first service.

Finally, if you decide to offer free shipping, test the bottom line impact by initially setting a minimum threshold (for example, only available on orders over $50) on sales.

Accountability is a key to every successful marketing campaign, and this is no exception.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 

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