May we help you?

Coverings-Sept-Oct-2016Where does customer service begin? Where does it end? Every flooring retailer has to ask those questions, and be prepared to answer them on a daily basis.

A century ago, the telephone would ring or someone would walk into a store to inquire “can you help me?” Those two initial points of contact, the start of the customer service experience, have expanded greatly in the age of the internet, however.

The friendly, trusty receptionist that answers the phone and the knowledgeable salesman inside the showroom now have websites— and numerous social media options — that customers are likely to experience first.

According to sales professional Jason Locke at Wacky’s Flooring in Dartmouth, N.S., customer service starts “as soon as the phone rings. Other than walk-in traffic, the phone system is huge.” Wacky’s Flooring ensures that a live voice answers, not an automated voice messaging system, so that customers can have their call fielded immediately.

“That’s their first (human contact) impression,” says Locke. After looking at the website or social media sites, “if they are dealt with properly over the phone — the reception is polite — then you’re at least guaranteed to have that customer at least visit your store.”

Locke is a huge advocate of social media and frequently posts videos of different products. “My customer response is pretty good with that.” The Wacky’s Flooring website has photos and profiles of each of the staff, including Locke, that provide customers a higher level of familiarity with the business before visiting the store.

The Dartmouth location is also paired with another in Saint John, N.B., and share a combined website that visitors can use to register and request flooring information. Locke notes that there is only so much to discover this way, since the product still requires the customer to “touch and feel” their choices before making a decision.

“The requests get filtered (mostly) to me, so I make the call, set up the measurement or appointment for the customer to come in,” says Locke.

The website has a “contact us” page where inquiries come through as emails, something that Tonn is quite familiar with from a prior job at a larger flooring chain. He has taken the philosophy of his past experience that demanded website inquiries be responded to within a few hours to his new small business. Customers are always delighted when their electronic request for information arrives so quickly, Tonn notes.

On the digital promotion side, Cypress Hardwood of Burnaby, B.C., is on Houzz, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as maintaining a website where visitors can ask for information or a quote electronically. Jeanette Martin, the sales and marketing manager, says that at least once a day someone leaves a message using the website. She explains that the 24-48-72-hour rule of thumb method is used to process these inquiries.

“Twenty-four hours to get back to say ‘thank you very much for your inquiry,’” says Martin. “Forty-eight hours in order to set something up and 72 hours to make sure the request has been dealt with.”

Customer service involves the homeowner experiences with installers, too. Wacky’s Flooring has a number of installers that have to meet a certain set of requirements to work for the business. “They wear shirts with our company logo,” says Locke, “matching pants and proper footwear that projects a good, professional atmosphere. That works well.

“Sales people also make a follow up call to customers to make sure that the job was done to their satisfaction. That way, if there are any questions or concerns, they are handled right away.”

Knowledge and professionalism come to mind when the level of customer service is compared to that a customer would experience at a big box store. There are so many things that can be purchased, from electronics and clothes to groceries and odd bits of flooring, according to Locke. “One thing you get with us is not only better buying power than most big box stores but that all of our products are current — not dropped (lines). So if a customer comes back in a year with a problem they have a much better chance of getting the same product again.”

Another factor in using a specialty flooring retailer is that there is also a much better chance of talking to the same person that the customer dealt with originally. “Even two or three years later that person is still going to be here,” says Locke.

Leonard Tonn, flooring specialist at Abbotsford, B.C.-based Town and Country Floor Design, says customer service starts with a “front line” visit. “Whether it’s a phone call, a walk in or meeting a builder out in the field. For me, if I say I’m going to call, I try to be timely with whatever I say. I always acknowledge their interest with a ‘thank you.’”

That Town and Country answers the phone with a live person is something that shows that the store is a small, family run operation and not part of a conglomerate or buying group, explains Tonn. “We’re in a slightly rural town with a lot of regulars who call in and ask for help by name.” The level of customer service over the phone reflects what the local market expects.

Town and Country has also recently become an authorized Shaw Design Center, however, in an effort to solidify its local competitive position. “They do more of their (website visitor) directing on the American side but they are now starting to see that through Canadian affiliate websites. We are seeing the results from this service and pay a little to be on the Shaw network. There is a lot of different internet support that comes from Shaw’s website.” One is a floor plan app provides a way to create flooring colours and another the Shaw ‘search by postal code’ website function puts Town and Country at the top of the returns if an Abbotsford location is used.

Home Depot, Lowe’s, Carpet One and End of the Roll outlets all provide competition to Town and Country in the area. Compared to the big box stores, Tonn explains, “we always have a flooring specialist on the shop floor ready to serve the customer — that’s what a family run retail store can offer.”

What the big box store can’t offer is massive selection, top Canadian and European quality and products that adhere to government standards, adds Locke from Wacky’s Flooring. “It’s a big process going into someone’s home. You want to make sure that you have the professionalism, the skilled trades people that go into your home and it’s treated as such. It’s just a better personal experience — not just some student working there for the summer who doesn’t know anything about flooring at all.”

Sales specialists at Town and Country can always consult with flooring reps or contractors to get a customer immediate answers, Tonn adds. “They’re not part time employees, they are dedicated, enthused flooring experts at our store.”

Town and Country has roster of dedicated installers that it employs on a steady basis. Tonn notes that if there is a conflict with a customer over an installation, the store has the customer’s back and will correct any problems, even using another installer if necessary. “The customer is well protected by Town and Country if something doesn’t go right.”

For Martin at Cypress Hardwood Flooring, “our customer service begins at the last job we did well.” She takes the old school approach the people still buy from people. “Someone sees a job you’ve done or goes on your website or Houzz or dials up the Better Business Bureau — then you start talking to the person about what you do.”

The Cypress Hardwood website also features information about the store’s lunch and learn program. “That’s targeted towards designers, architects and builders for them to gain more knowledge,” says Martin. The concept means that professionals don’t necessarily have to come to the store, but rather have a little bit of the showroom come to them — along with a free lunch. Cypress Hardwood has found the lunch and learn program to be a great success, with up to 18 sessions booked annually.

The program also acts as a way for the store to network with local professionals. “It’s worked wonders for me because it’s like I’m training a silent sales force,” says Martin.

Customer service is about “no surprises,” too, according to Martin, whether talking to homeowners or other flooring professionals. “It’s talking about subfloor prep, it’s talking about how that bill can seem really high, and telling them the reason why we have to do that prep. It’s introducing them to the different glues — there’s a lot to be discussed during that customer interaction.

“Customer service ends after you’ve installed the floor, you’ve walked the floor with them to say ‘this is what said we were going to be doing.’ You talk to them about care and maintenance, you talk to them about putting soft feet on (furniture).

“You leave it by saying, ‘you’ve had such a great experience so we’d appreciate a referral to your friends and colleagues.’” Cypress Hardwood also offers a lifetime installation warranty to help reassure customers.

A strategy that Martin starts off her customers with is to tell them that they are in control of the whole process. “My key question that sets me apart from anybody else — and I know people shop around — is ‘has anybody every asked you what is your lifestyle?’

“That’s going to help you chose what your floor will be. You don’t pick a floor by colour or species, you define your lifestyle and expectations.”

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