I am sure that everyone is now aware that Christmas is nearly upon us. It’s been another tough year for UK retail, and I for one am hoping that Christmas doesn’t lead to a period of sliding retail standards and poor customer service, as a result of overstretched store teams.
As I write this, I’m in Asia working with Harley-Davidson Japan. Whilst I’m here to implement a global brand delivery and VM programme with my client, Japanese retailers are giving me a stern reminder of what the best customer service standards in the world look like.
Like the UK, Japan has had its share of economic woes, and it’s also endured a recent national disaster of epic proportions. And whilst this has caused the nation and its retail industry tremendous anguish and pain, you wouldn’t know it when shopping in Tokyo. Could the same be said of the UK right now?
Without exaggeration, the Japanese treat customers like gods. They’re detail orientated, intolerant, culturally shy, and deferential when dealing with customers. It’s no surprise then that they don’t take easily to personal glory, instead internalising immense pride and satisfaction in a good job VERY well done. Store teams are mostly impeccably dressed, generally in suits in the top end stores, and even in casual or fashion stores, staff are well turned out in company clothing with good grooming.
Instore, this all equates to fantastic customer service and an excellent shopping experience. Here are some of the basic elements that impressed me most.
The greeting means something here. It’s not just the cursory and repetitive “welcome to the Gap” or the even more annoying “Wassuuuppp?” of fellow American brand Hollister. In Japan there is an established way of greeting, where customers are bowed to, welcomed by a sincere verbal introduction and advised in no uncertain terms that if the sales staff can do anything for them, they will. This can be a little overbearing when first witnessed, but culturally it’s the norm in the better-end stores.
Nothing is too much trouble for the Japanese, and service is attentive, responsive and very accommodating. In this mutual respect relationship customers are also very well mannered, making for a ‘love me, love my shop’ approach. I have experienced the highest levels of customer service that include providing a chair for customers to sit on! Refreshments such as green tea are standard, as is the removal and care of shoes before entering a fitting room, and one-to-one service. To the average westerner (or was it just me?), I find some of this a bit suffocating. But as a general principle of ‘thinking like a customer’ and how to deliver service that goes the extra mile – it ticks all the boxes.
The Payment / Wrapping
Everyone is treated with courtesy and respect at the tills, but higher up the price scale the wrapping becomes VERY indulgent. I’m not talking about expensive items, just nice cakes from a bakery, a pair of good shoes etc. Pleasingly, carrier bags are not dispensed as the 5p decomposable type we’re being forced to take, but more ‘keepsake’ bags made from attractive materials, with stylish branding and special features such as ribbon and tissue inside. Bags that customers want to keep and re-use. In the UK, this is becoming a lost art with our relentless push on eco-friendly packaging solutions, which have taken much of the enjoyment out of taking your booty home! Surely there’s a way to have responsible carrier bags that still delight? The downside of Japan’s packaging nirvana is that there is little public awareness or appetite for recycling / cutting down waste. And whilst the UK can learn from Japan’s attentiveness to the consumer, we lead the way in sustainable eco-awareness.
It’s not uncommon for sales staff to attend the customer to the exit. Even going outside to offer a final bow and give grateful thanks to the customer as they walk away with their backs turned up the street. This ‘respect’ is part of bringing good luck to the store by having positive energy and positive relations with customers.
These are all considered basic, yet essential elements of successful customer service, and with the exception of packaging (which could even be a new revenue stream), they are all simple to implement into a brand. I am not suggesting that UK retailers adopt the Japanese culture of bowing, but I am suggesting that a little extra effort to attend to customers’ requirements this Christmas will increase sales, brand loyalty and return visits.
During the Olympics, alongside our winning athletes, it was the Games Makers that stole the news headlines – offering their cheerful, enthusiastic and helpful support to all those attending. Repeating this spirit, if not also the deeds, will certainly make customers happier when shopping and will likely increase the number of successful purchases made. And of course, this is a time of year when staff can a. be frazzled, or b. be even more motivated by the hoards of impatient and hurried Yuletide shoppers, who stop by to simply ‘interrupt’ their day.
As retailers look around for new pain saving measures, such as Business Rate freezes, market town rejuvenations and a new round of new discounting depths, wouldn’t it be better to simply look after the existing customers better and in so doing, make more sales and stronger retail businesses that way?
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