Practical Ecommerce

4 Customer Service Lessons from a Big Sale

Spending hours at a brick-and-click retailer’s “big sale” offered some important reminders about retail customer experiences. These reminders — like showrooming, price, easily offended folks and customer relationships — make good lessons for online sellers.

I have a confession. I don’t often write articles in the first person, preferring, generally, to keep myself separate from my journalism. But since I am going to describe some of my own experiences from the past few days, it seemed easier to directly address you, my reader.

I have spent much of the week working on the retail floor for a mid-market, brick-and-click chain, which is having one of its largest and most important sales of the year. The sale is both online and in-store, and marketing included both the digital and the traditional, but the emphasis has really been on the physical locations where manufacturer representatives and a horde of corporate folks, myself included, descend on a few select locations each day to wheel and deal with shoppers, Middle East bazaar style.

The sale and the negotiating allowed me to talk to hundreds of customers face-to-face in a way that many folks in the ecommerce business don’t often get to do. The close quarters reminded about a few things, which I suppose I knew, but, perhaps, did not consider often enough in my ecommerce marketing and operations.

The close quarters reminded about a few things, which I suppose I knew, but, perhaps, did not consider often enough in my ecommerce marketing and operations.

Showrooming Is a Two-way Street

I am accustomed to hearing about retailers with physical locations complain that showrooming hurts sales. The argument is that customers come into a physical store handle products or even try on clothing, only to pull out a smartphone and order online.

Interestingly, during the “big sale” this week, I saw showrooming used in reverse to reassure customers they were really getting a good deal.

Things started when a manufacturers’ rep escorted a customer to the register. The customer was making more than $1,000 in purchases and the rep was giving him a special discount that needed to be explained to the cashier.

During the checkout process, the customer started to get cold feet, and asked out loud if he was going to be upset when he went home and looked up the things he was buying online.

The rep stopped the transaction and, one by one, looked up each item on Amazon and in Google Shopping. In all cases, the customer was getting a better deal in the store. The customer felt reassured.

Picking up on his success, the rep began showrooming everything he was selling. In a few cases, there was someone online with a lower price, so he matched it. But many times, he was able to reassure customers about their purchases.

Ecommerce retailers might take this lesson a couple of ways. Perhaps, you could go so far as to show competitor’s prices on your site, or, as a more subtle response, begin offering a low price guarantee.

Price Matters a Lot

About an hour before the “big sale” ended one day, an affable fellow, perhaps 60-years-old, came into the store. He had to walk with a cane’s aid, and his back was just a bit hunched over, but somehow these features only made him seem more friendly.

This customer had eluded all of our marketing, missing the emails, Pandora ads, radio promotions, social media posts, and print ads. He was unaware of the sale, and had just come in, as he often did, to pick up a few consumables. But a price stopped him cold.

There was a large air compressor. The sort one uses to fill truck tires or power pneumatic contractor tools. It had been discounted more than $100, and was now a mere $339.99. The manufacturers rep walked up. He and the customer exchanged smiles. The compressor was sold.

The lesson for me was that price — which I would generally argue against competing on — can get some customers to make purchases on the spot and spontaneously.

It made me wonder about how I merchandise online. Can I find ways to put giant air compressions in front of folks online too?

Customers Are Sensitive

The big sale is actually quite fun. There were five recognizable brands that were selling products at very low prices. On top this, when customers put together packages, buying multiple items from a single brand, there were several folks authorized to give even greater discounts.

A shopper might say to me, “Hey, I want to buy this tool and that accessory, what can you do for me?”

In response, I’d point out what a great value they were getting already, show them how much more things cost on Amazon, and then say, “Well, if you took that tool and that accessory and this other tool, I could give you an extra $10 off.”

Like I said, it was fun, and most of the shoppers enjoyed the exchanges too. But I was surprised just how sensitive or easily offended some customers could be.

For example, one customer really wanted an item that retailed for more than $800. The manufacturer rep helping the customer had offered to sell it for $539.99 — $7 over the retailers actual cost — but the customer said she’d pay nothing more than $490 for it. When the rep declined to make the deal, she stormed out, yelling that the store was trying to rip her off.

Similarly, an older fellow wearing a Vietnam veteran hat made an impressive deal with one of the manufacturer reps, getting almost 60 percent off on a stack of items. When the man reached the cashier, he asked if he could get a 10-percent veteran’s discount on top of the price he’d negotiated. When the cashier told him the store did not offer a veteran’s discount, he was enraged at the perceived insult.

It was a good reminder that some customers are easily offended and not very reasonable. Sometimes, you just have to let them go.

Relationships Trump Everything Else

The chain that was holding the big sale makes a significant investment in customer service. In fact, it generally has three times the number of customer service employees than the average for retailers in its segment. All of the extra personnel means there is almost always someone nearby to greet customers, answer questions, or help find products.

This emphasis on having people there to help customers has also helped the chain build some amazing customer relationships.

I watched an assistant manager at one store greet no fewer than 20 customers by name over the course of a few hours.

In many cases, he knew where the customers worked, where they lived, and the name of their dog. (I am not making this up.)

In an environment where we were selling items at low prices, it was reassuring to see that there were many folks who’d come into the store to buy at almost any price because the relationship they had went beyond buyer and seller. They were friends with the folks in the store, and, by association, friends with the store.

This reminder encouraged me a bit. I focus a lot of my attention on content marketing, personalization, and relationship building. So it is heartening to see that customer relationships really do trump everything else.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Susan Kuchinskas July 22, 2016 Reply

    This was a valuable article illustrating ways that retailers can combat or even make use of showrooming. I do wonder why you thought it necessary to twice note that certain customers were older. Did this really make any difference to the interaction? How would it have sounded if you had said instead, “An African-American fellow,” or, “an affable fellow, maybe Filipino”? It would have seemed uncalled-for, right? Just sayin.