What has happened to customer service, asks Joe Cushnan, Ex general manager at Makro, Alfred Dunhill and Asda

The Grass Roots Are You Being Served? survey outlining the decline in customer service in the past 10 years (The Grocer, December 3, p8) is a statement of the obvious and blatantly clear to those who shop in supermarkets, on the high street and who work in retailing.

The survey is rich in its observations of signals including lack of eye contact, smiles, friendliness, helpfulness and a deterioration of product knowledge. The courtesy desert of shops, shoppers and shopping is a reflection of changing times, the ‘am I bovvered?’ generation perhaps, but while the survey explains what has gone wrong, there is not much to explain why and nothing new or different to advise the industry beyond practices it already knows.

In my experience as a retail manager for many years, the customer service agenda has not changed, nor should it. All the things I mentioned before, like smiles and friendliness, are as important today as they ever were. Major retailers devote huge resources - human, money and time - to evangelise the messages of customer supremacy. It is a business sentiment and a reality that the customer is always right, left and centre of focus. So what has gone wrong?

One of the many changes of emphasis in this consistent business agenda has been the raising of customer expectations to the dizzy heights of no queues, no quibbles, no hassle and no intention of ever saying no to anything the customer wants or demands.

The raising of the customer service bar is approaching sky level and, while shops do not always have the resources, planning and efficiency to back up the glossy advertising,
customers see it, soak it in, believe it, expect it and are therefore brutally disappointed when even the tiniest of things goes wrong.

It is a classic case of over-promising on the shopping experience and under-delivering in practice. But where does the fault lie?

As with most things in business the buck should stop at the top, or at least at the top layer, of directors and senior managers. It is so easy to sit in the boardroom and come up with lists of top tips for this and that, while not thinking through several contingency plans to resolve problems on the shopfloor.

Hello, Mr Director, things go wrong! The little-known business guru, Perry Como, had the right idea. If you chase the impossible dream, you’ll fail. If you try to reach the unreachable star, you’ll fail. If you try to give the impression that you will give perfect service every second of every day, you’ll fail. Human beings are imperfect. So what’s the best way forward?

Well, one way is to lower expectations to levels of reality. I did say lower. Yes, retailers should employ nice people with great personalities, natural good manners, gentle senses of humour and a liking for other people.

But retailers should cut out any unnecessary work pressures on employees to allow them room to do the job effectively, consistently and well.

They should also look to value the same employees with wages and incentives concomitant with the essential jobs they are doing interfacing with customers. Marketing departments should find ways to play down the sassy, sexy service impossibilities on signs and posters with which they are burdening store teams.

Customers should expect, at times, that queues will form and problems will occur. They should also understand that a percentage of service staff will get it wrong. They should know by now that to err is human, especially in supermarkets on a Saturday afternoon.

Service reality can be a competitive challenge. The more reality savvy we all are as shops and shoppers, the less we’ll expect the moon and the more we will keep our feet firmly on planet earth - you know, grass roots.