Are you being served?

Tesco sales down for Christmas, John Lewis sales up. How can two similar organisations with a similar breadth of products perform differently in the same market? There are doubtless many competing factors, but if my experience of both stores this week is anything to go by, customer service is the key.
Here are Great Escape Classic Car Hire customer service is top of mind right now because we are going through a thorough review of how we work with customers - everything from booking confirmation to vehicle reliability.
Here's what happened. The other evening I rushed into Tesco to get a small trolley of provisions to cover us for a few days. After struggling around the store with a shonky trolley whose wheels wanted to go in four directions at once I arrived at the self service checkout tills. Anyone who has used these monstrous devices knows that they take longer to use than the manned tills, but each time I convince myself it must, through power of logic, be quicker. It never is. Why do stores imagine that customers, who are not trained to operate tills, will process their shopping through a till faster than a trained till operator? Hmm

As I queued for the self service tills with my small trolley a member of staff suggested I use the '10 items or less queue' where there was, ironically, no queue. I pointed out it was '10 items or less' but she said 'no problem.' Fantastic, I thought. Here is an example of good customer service - a member of staff using their initiative to improve the customer experience.

So I rolled up to the empty 10 items or less till. "Sorry, 10 items or less" announced the till operator. "But..." and I explained I had been directed to her. "Sorry, 10 items or less. I can't process you with a queue like this." I looked round to observe the absence of other customers queuing at her till. Having now lost my place in the original 'self service' queue I had to roll my recalcitrant trolley all the way back down the shop and queue up with the normal tills, feeling shame-faced because to other customers it looked like I had barged in.

That is a very good example of poor customer service from an organisation that is giving staff very poor direction. Either Tesco is a flexible, customer service organisation that enables its customer facing staff to make judgements in the best interests of the customer, or it is a more rigid, controlling organisation with rules that are designed to smooth the customer service process. Either are valid, but lacking clear direction means conflict.

Conversely, John Lewis. I have consistently been amazed by John Lewis' customer service, whichever strand of its business I use. Here is a smart, well-presented, professional organisation that knows what its customer service strategy is. On Saturday my wife and I went to buy a couple of blinds for the house. The assistant we approached immediately stopped what she was doing to look at us (in itself a minor miracle in some shops). After checking the stock she explained that they had one blind available in the shop, the other was out of stock. but, she explained, she would check the online status if we would like to wait and see if we could order it online. The blind was available and she proceeded to order it for us using John Lewis' online website and our payment card. 3 days later, the blind arrived.

Now that experience in John Lewis works for customer and company. She could easily have said 'sorry, computer says no' because her job is to work in a shop and sell the stock there. Or she could have said 'sorry, we don't have one in stock, you'll have to buy it online.' That option would have been acceptable but hardly dazzling customer service. Instead she ensured we walked away with exactly what we wanted - because somewhere in the John Lewis organisation she knew this would be a possible outcome and she could achieve it for us.

We walked away satisfied and impressed, more likely to use John Lewis again. John Lewis secured two sales instead of one.

How John Lewis achieves this level of customer service I'm not sure. Certainly it's training and incentivisation schemes must be superb. But I suspect it isn't rocket science - most people want to do a good job. But they need clear direction. Obviously John Lewis has a clear customer service philosophy that permeates through the business on the back of some decent training and management regimes. Equally clearly, Tesco doesn't.

On an emotional level, I don't like Tesco but sometimes I have to shop there. I do like John Lewis and I shop there when I have to and when I want to. Which one do you think will succeed?

As we evolve the Great Escape Classic Car Hire customer service proposition over the next 2 months, this lesson will be high on our agenda. Nobody has a right to custom, it has to be earned.

Comments