Getting Real with Retail: An Agency’s Guide to Inspiring In-Store Excellence

Getting Real with Retail: An Agency’s Guide to Inspiring In-Store Excellence

No marketing agency staffer feels good when they see a retail client getting reviews like this on the web. And, for some further inspiration, I’d like to offer a couple of anecdotes involving an Igloo cooler, a monk, reindeer moss, and reviews. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere. If it’s everyone’s job to access a free flow of information, use common sense, make the right thing happen, and change rules that don’t make sense, then: Inventory is known by all store staff, and my cooler can be promptly located by any employee, rather than workers appearing helpless. “He was a busy man, but he took the time to get to know each of us one-on-one, and to be sure that we knew him. And if a marketing agency should make it their business to confront the truth while also being the bearer of some better news, wouldn’t you be ready to listen? Organize and then translate the narrative negative reviews are telling about structural problems for the brand which have resulted in dangerously bad customer service. While there are going to be nuances specific to every brand, my bet is that the steps will look like this for most businesses: C-suites need to invest time in creating a policy which a) abundantly communicates company culture, b) expresses trust in employee initiative, and c) dispenses with needless “chain of command” steps, while d) ensuring that every public facing staffer receives full and ongoing training. The monk says good leaders make the time to communicate culture one-on-one. Chairs should be offered to sick people… where common sense is applied.

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A screenshot of a negative 1-star review citing poor customer service

No marketing agency staffer feels good when they see a retail client getting reviews like this on the web.

But we can find out why they’re happening, and if we’re going above-and-beyond in our work, we just might be able to catalyze turning things around if we’re committed to being honest with clients and have an actionable strategy for their in-store improvements.

In this post, I’ll highlight some advice from an internal letter at Tesla that I feel is highly applicable to the retail sector. I’d also like to help your agency combat the retail blues headlining the news these days with big brands downsizing, liquidating and closing up shop — I’m going to share a printable infographic with some statistics with you that are almost guaranteed to generate the client positivity so essential to making real change. And, for some further inspiration, I’d like to offer a couple of anecdotes involving an Igloo cooler, a monk, reindeer moss, and reviews.

The genuine pain of retail gone wrong: The elusive cooler, “Corporate,” and the man who could hardly stand

“Hi there,” I greeted the staffer at the customer service counter of the big department store. “Where would I find a small cooler?”

“We don’t have any,” he mumbled.

“You don’t have any coolers? Like, an Igloo cooler to take on a picnic to keep things cold?”

“Maybe over there,” he waved his hand in unconcern.

And I stood there for a minute, expecting him to actually figure this out for me, maybe even guide me to the appropriate aisle, or ask a manager to assist my transaction, if necessary. But in his silence, I walked away.

“Hi there,” I tried with more specificity at the locally owned general store the next day. “Where would I find something like a small Igloo cooler to keep things cold on a picnic?”

“I don’t know,” the staffer replied.

“Oh…” I said, uncomfortably.

“It could be upstairs somewhere,” he hazarded, and left me to quest for the second floor, which appeared to be a possibly-non-code-compliant catch-all attic for random merchandise, where I applied to a second dimly illuminated employee who told me I should probably go downstairs and escalate my question to someone else.

And apparently escalation was necessary, for on the third try, a very tall man was able to lift his gaze to some coolers on a top shelf… within clear view of the checkout counter where the whole thing began.

Why do we all have experiences like this?

“Corporate tells us what to carry” is the almost defensive-sounding refrain I have now received from three employees at two different Whole Foods Markets when asking if they could special order items for me since the Amazon buyout.

Because, you know, before they were Amazon-Whole Foods, staffers would gladly offer to procure anything they didn’t have in stock. Now, if they stop carrying that Scandinavian vitamin D-3 made from the moss eaten by reindeer and I’ve got to have it because I don’t want the kind made by irradiating sheep wool, I’d have to special order an entire case of it to get my hands on a bottle. Because, you know, “Corporate.”

Why does the distance between corporate and customer make me feel like the store I’m standing in, and all of its employees, are powerless? Why am I, the customer, left feeling powerless?

So maybe my search for a cooler, my worries about access to reindeer moss, and the laughable customer service I’ve experienced don’t signal “genuine pain.” But this does:

Screenshot of a one-star review:

This is genuine pain. When customer service is failing to the point that badly treated patrons are being further distressed by the sight of fellow shoppers meeting the same fate, the cause is likely built into company structure. And your marketing agency is looking at a bonafide reputation crisis that could presage things like lawsuits, impactful reputation damage, and even closure for your valuable clients.

When you encounter customer service disasters, it begs questions like:

  1. Could no one in my situation access a list of current store inventory, or, barring that, seek out merchandise with me instead of risking the loss of a sale?
  2. Could no one offer to let “corporate” know that I’m dissatisfied with a “customer service policy” that would require me to spend $225 to buy a whole case of vitamins? Why am I being treated like a warehouse instead of a person?
  3. Could no one at the pharmacy see a man with a leg wound about to fall over, grab a folding chair for him, and keep him safe, instead of risking a lawsuit?

I think a “no” answer to all three questions proceeds from definite causes. And I think Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, had such causes in mind when he recently penned a letter to his own employees.

“It must be okay for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.”

“Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the ‘chain of command.’ Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.

A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.

In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a ‘company rule’ is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.”
– Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla

Let’s parlay this uncommon advice into retail. If it’s everyone’s job to access a free flow of information, use common sense, make the right thing happen, and change rules that don’t make sense, then:

  1. Inventory is known by all store staff, and my cooler can be promptly located by any employee, rather than workers appearing helpless.
  2. Employees have…

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