Getting an edge

When customer service can make the difference

Sep-Oct 2012 Cov“So many flooring shops have the same products selling at the same prices to the same type of customer. What we focus in our store is leading-edge customer service, and we believe it’s what helps us stand out from the competition,” says Nick Kaplanis of Nufloors in Langley, B.C., who serves as project manager, sales manager, customer service manager — among other things — in the flooring shop.

What Kaplanis is talking about isn’t just your run-of-the-mill effort to make the customer happy. In fact, entire schools of business thought are dedicated to the field of customer service, and Kaplanis’s store, and others like his, utilize some of this knowledge to remain competitive during challenging times. Yet the effort doesn’t have to be complicated.

For example, Nufloors uses a technique that has become familiar to anyone that has walked by a Walmart: the greeter — but not quite. Instead of hiring a full-time dedicated greeter, Kaplanis makes sure that someone, whether it’s the secretary or someone else that is free at the time, personally welcomes each customer and makes him or her feel welcome.

According to Kaplanis, “Our basic approach to customer service is this: We treat others like we would want to be treated, too. When our staff got together to discuss ways of improving customer service, we invariably talked about the experience we want when we go shopping ourselves. So that’s the experience we offer to our own customers, too.”

Yet there are more formal techniques to be used in the pursuit of customer service excellence. For example, the customer follow-up survey is one way of keeping the customers you already have, and Kaplanis is certainly a big believer.

As he explains, “While word of mouth is a great thing, and we definitely receive our share of direct positive feedback, more scientific methods help us make an objective evaluation of our performance. And, on that score, there is little doubt. Our surveys tell us that most of our customers are more than happy with the product and service we deliver.”

The Canadian flooring industry can probably be considered a niche sector. It’s not incredibly large, it consists of many small retailers — often family-owned shops — with outsourced installation services that are as common in St. John’s, Nfld. as they are in Victoria, B.C. These traits help contribute to the scattered nature of customer service in flooring.

Jo-Anne Teed is the new president of the National Floor Covering Association (NFCA), long-time board member of the Alberta Floor Covering Association, and co-owner of Universal Flooring Systems in Calgary, Alta. Her thoughts on customer service reflect its scattered nature when she says, “It’s often about what works in one store as opposed to another. In our industry right now, it’s up to individual retailers to determine what customer service is, and that can work.”

Teed acknowledges that the kind of training the flooring industry provides, including the NFCA, doesn’t place a high profile focus on the topic of customer service, which is often covered in other areas of flooring. There are courses on installation, sales and the rest, but no specific body of knowledge on areas like customer retention.

Is this something our industry can improve upon? Teed says yes. She adds, “You know that my personal crusade has been about training, and the lack thereof in the field in Canadian flooring. Yet can we add customer service to installation training? Sure. Can we place a greater emphasis on formal customer service training in general? I definitely think it’s something to consider.”

Yet the well isn’t completely dry when it comes to flooring industry offerings. As Kaplanis explains, “In fact, manufacturers often suggest to us speakers that come in and talk to our staff, or offer courses that involve a significant emphasis on customer service. You have to look for them and, because we focus so much on the topic ourselves, we do find them. That might not be the case with many other retailers out there.”

To say that Kaplanis’s Nufloors store places an emphasis on customer service is probably an understatement. In fact, it’s written into every employee contract in the store that they must abide by the company’s philosophy of customer service. If they don’t, Kaplanis says they’re gone. “We don’t fool around with this stuff. We don’t tolerate negligence or carelessness when it comes to servicing our customer.”

How does Kaplanis’s store enforce its customer service standard of excellence? He uses a number of techniques. One is to have someone on staff whose duties include going out into the field, seeing how the product is being installed, and ensuring it is being done to standard. The store’s current enforcer is an industry veteran with expertise in installation, estimation and, you guessed it, customer service.

Another Nufloors technique involves addressing an old challenge in the flooring industry: the hiring of outsourced installation contractors, which can make it difficult to maintain a uniform standard for all the crews being hired. Kaplanis says they do something simple. They find the right contractors, and keep hiring them. He adds, “We find the right crews, we hang onto them, and that ensures our level of service. It’s that straightforward.”

One of the challenges for any industry in a tough competitive environment is setting prices. Many businesses have to struggle with the question: Do I cut prices to attract more customers to me and away from my competition? Kaplanis says his store will have none of that.

According to Kaplan, “We are just not going down that road. We believe we offer value to our customers. Much of that value is customer service. Our customers are getting what they pay for, and we think this approach works. We get many customers coming back and spreading word of mouth.”

For Teed, much of the challenge in dealing with customers comes from managing expectations. As she puts it, “It has to be about communication and education. The more that we can engage a consumer, the more likely it is that they can understand what their needs are, and how flooring professionals can meet them.”

Another fact of customer service is  that companies are wiser to spend more time, effort and money on keeping the customers they currently have rather than trying to attract new customers through sales and marketing. It can be counterintuitive in a tough economy to not focus exclusively on new customers, but the evidence and logic are clear: happy customers not only keep returning, they tell others. This leads not only to continued sales, but to sales growth, too.

Kaplanis’s store actually wanted to test this theory out, so for a two-month period they stopped advertising in the local newspaper. They wanted to see what this would do to store traffic. Ironically, traffic went up by about five percent. Although not scientific, Kaplanis’s conclusion is that the store’s reputation won through. He says, “More people came in. They came if for some reason. That we focus so much on the customer experience has to be a part of it.”

Can social media be a part of that customer service experience? Not so much, according to Kaplanis. As he sees it, “There’s nothing wrong with Facebook and other electronic forums. However, for our demographic, more traditional methods seem to work well. That means print advertising, as in our local newspaper, and it also means direct contact with the customer. Social marketing might be right for a younger audience, but not for who we’re targeting, which is people from about 40 to 65 years of age.

In the end, Kaplanis believes that a total commitment to customer service is what gives his store an edge. He adds, “It really has to be instilled in every single employee; in every company policy document; in almost everything we do. It might start sounding redundant, but we think you have to pay more than lip service to customer service, or else the same-old just won’t work.”

Part of that “same-old” that Kaplanis believes is common in our industry is a mentality where stores keep doing the same thing they always have. He explains: “I see some stores that have been passed off from one generation to the other. They do good work, but they also seem averse to new things, new methods and new schools of thought. That’s not our way.”

The irony with Kaplanis’s Nufloors store in Langley is that they have had the same ownership for about 40 years, and they have been doing much the same thing for that time, but it’s involved constantly innovating in ways to keep the customer happy. Kaplanis says, “We’ve been lucky. What first started out as a habit of customer service turned into a more formal approach in the area, which means we’re constantly innovating; constantly looking for that edge.”

The field of customer service is never going to be an exact science. There is good reason for that: human behaviour isn’t strictly a scientific matter. Nevertheless, if the police can profile certain kinds of people associated with certain kinds of crimes, customer service specialists can associate certain kinds of business practices with the likelihood of repeat business.

In other words, there are certain practices all businesses can engage in, especially in retail, which lead to growth and success. These practices include treating the customer as you would want to be treated, engaging the customer frequently, getting their feedback — both informally and formally, when possible — and creating a culture within a company that places an emphasis on the customer experience.

Does it mean, as the saying goes, that “the customer is always right?” As Teed puts it, “Well, no, the customer can’t always be right. You know it and I know it. However, good customer service means knowing how to tell customers where the problem lies, and then informing them of the steps the company can take to alleviate the problem. You don’t necessarily need a course to figure out how to do that.”

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