Perception is Reality. Are your customers perceiving excellent customer service? I have always found the saying “perception is reality” to be subtly profound. Not profound like a thought-provoking, life-changing revelation. But, profound in the sense that the essence of those three words explains so many things. Why someone behaves a certain way. Why two people from the same family have vastly different recollections of the same event. Why misunderstandings so easily occur. Why customers choose to shop elsewhere.
Customer loyalty? Sure. Customer loyalty is undoubtedly impacted by perception, and it’s the poor shopping experiences of others that formulate that perception.
For years now we’ve heard how poor shopping experiences don’t end when the customer leaves. It’s human nature to share that story with others and that’s exactly what upset customers do. Customers who have a poor shopping experience tell their friends and family. And depending on the grievance, those friends and family tell their friends and family. Before you know it, the story about an inept sales clerk who gave misinformation becomes larger than life.
Shoppers at Risk - an at risk study of 1,000 U.S. shoppers conducted by The Verde Group and the Baker Retailing Initiative at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania - concluded that negative word-of-mouth is damaging. A full 50 percent of shoppers say they have chosen not to visit a particular business because of someone else’s poor experience. Their perception - formed by another’s experience - became their reality and they acted on it.
Think about it. A close friend, your boss, your favorite uncle - anyone whose opinion you hold in high esteem - tells you about a poor shopping experience. You hear a highly colored version of the event, completely subjective, and yet their opinion influences your opinion because you value them.
While negative word-of-mouth is one of the reasons customers choose to shop elsewhere, other reasons include:
According to The Wharton School’s 2007 study, customers are quickest to share their negative shopping experiences with others when the problem deals with sales associates. It seems shoppers aren’t very forgiving of store employees, especially when those employees are focusing on non-customer things.
Ignoring the customer to chat amongst each other or attending to non-customer tasks is detrimental to customer loyalty. It’s like shouting “we don’t care about you.” Shoppers, however, have the last word and that’s goodbye. The study found that 6% of all shoppers are lost because sales associates aren’t available.
Have you ever walked out of a store empty-handed even though your intention was to purchase something? I have. There have been times when I have put my potential purchases down on the counter and walked out deciding to go elsewhere. Sometimes I went back and gave the business another chance. Other times, I switched businesses entirely.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a fickle shopper with so much time on my hands that I can dart from store to store without upsetting my day and I doubt that most of those 6% shoppers are either. The truth is, those times I left while waiting to be served were inconvenient. It was a hassle for me to go elsewhere. But the time I waited or the way I was being ignored was too much to stay.
Here’s an example. Just last week I stopped at a convenience store to get a cup of coffee. I added cream, put on a lid, and got in line behind four other customers who were also waiting. No one was behind the counter. I looked around.
One sales associate was helping a customer with lottery tickets. The other had evidently finished making coffee and was no longer on the floor.
I gave it five minutes. Still we waited in line behind an empty counter. Now there were seven of us. Everyone was grumbling. I stepped out of line, set my coffee on the counter, and walked out. Guess who was standing on the sidewalk laughing and chatting with friends? Yep. The second sales associate.
The loss in sales of a $1 cup of coffee may not seem like much but it adds up. If over the course of one year, 100 customers walk through that convenience store each day - and that’s probably very conservative - and 6 walk out empty-handed, the loss becomes more significant: more than $2,000 a year. And, that’s based on the assumption that those customers walked out without purchasing $1 cup of coffee. Consider the amount of the loss if those customers were buying a gallon of milk, or prepaying gas.
Another point of the study suggests that shoppers want employees to help, but they want genuine help. They don’t want to be on the receiving end of sales techniques or formula sales pitches. They want a sincere associate who is knowledgeable about the products.
The study found that this is especially important to younger shoppers - namely customers 18 to 29 - who cite being ignored and dealing with phony staff members as two of the most prominent service issues. Who wants to deal with someone who is more interested in making a sale than serving the customer?
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I overheard an exchange between a sales clerk and a customer who had an armful of clothes to try on. As the woman came out of the fitting room and stood in front of the large mirror, the sales associate began cooing about how wonderful the outfit looked. The customer wasn’t so sure. She said she wasn’t sure the outfit suited her but the sales associate told her it was the latest style and fit her perfectly.
It may have been the latest style but the customer seemed uneasy in it. The sales associate continued to lavish the customer with compliments each time she came out of the fitting room. The store associate seemed surprised when the customer left empty-handed.
Interestingly, shoppers have more tolerance for store issues than problem associates. However, all bets are off if a store associate poorly handles a store issue. The poor handling of a problem can turn a store issue into a sales associate issue. Then people will talk.
A customer may not like the return policy but that may not be reason enough to shop elsewhere. But if the employee poorly handles a return request, watch out. According to the study, if the problem deals with a sales associate, friends are 50% more likely to hear about the issue.
Shoppers want consistency. Although they’ll be forgiving for a few visits, eventually they’ll leave if their expectations aren’t met.
Loyal customers return to a business over and over because they trust their experience will be as good as their previous one. Customers may forgive a new employee or an off day hoping that things will return as they expect on their next visit. But if they can’t trust in that consistency and that their expectations will be met, they’ll go elsewhere. Consistency is important to customers. They walk in and want you to reaffirm their trust by giving them what they expect.
That’s why research shows that a full 95% of people will continue to patronize your business if you resolve a problem on the spot. When you handle a problem immediately, it’s like addressing -and fixing - an inconsistency.
And, maybe, just maybe, they’ll create positive word of mouth by telling their family and friends about that.
Michele Eby works for Media Partners as a writer and training adviser. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years. Media Partners’ training program, Give 'em the Pickle and the Shoppers at Risk Survey were the sources for this article.