Customized Customer Service

It’s time to end the one-size-fits-all approach

Most specialty retailers are quick to claim that they provide outstanding customer service.

But what exactly constitutes “good customer service” for shoppers?

Consider this: Many retailers we know are terrific “people people.” Instinctively, it seems, they adapt their own personal customer service to each shopper they deal with. For some customers, they carefully explain the subtleties of recognizing high-quality products. With other customers, they quickly offer an array of choices. Yet, for another group of customers, they dispense with the small talk and “cut to the chase.”

These merchants understand that good customer service does not result from a one-size-fits-all approach.

At the Retail Owners Institute, we have developed a tool to informally sort customers into one of three groups, enabling retailers to truly customize their customer service. These three groups are: frequent customers, occasional customers and first-time customers.

The customer type is determined by their actual purchasing behaviors, and each category requires a distinct approach to customer service.


Frequent Customers: The Loyal Ones

Frequent customers are the most experienced and knowledgeable shoppers, and they’re often your most loyal customers.

What they need is answers — just the facts. What hours are you open? Do you have this item in stock? What is the price? Where do I pay?

They want specific information delivered in a straightforward manner. Consider conveying information with “shelf talkers,” factual signs posted on the shelf with the product. Or, consider placing computer terminals in kiosks in your store, with more detailed product information readily available. (Many frequent customers are drawn to self-service features like this that they can control.)

For these customers, it is essential the merchandise in your store is organized so they can quickly and easily find what they are looking for. They want to be able to walk in and immediately narrow down their search. Similarly, “price and item” advertising can be very useful to these shoppers.


Occasional Customers: The Fickle Ones

Occasional customers are familiar with your store, but they need to be persuaded to buy from you rather than someone else. What benefits do you provide that others cannot?

Here is your opportunity to emphasize the special products and brands you carry. Displays from manufacturers are convenient ways to convey these persuasive messages to occasional customers. If your store prefers a particular brand, or sells a particular brand more frequently, you may choose to subtly pass this preference along to customers by featuring a certain manufacturer’s signage, for example.

Think of all the qualities of your store that set you apart from your competitors. Here is where “institutional advertising” can be beneficial. Coordinate those messages to help attract occasional buyers (and to reinforce the decision of your frequent buyers to be such loyal customers).


First-Time Customers: The New Ones

First-time customers have no idea what to expect when they walk into your store.

They are not very familiar with your products, may feel intimidated and certainly will benefit from a staff member who will take the time to discuss their options. What these customers need is education about your products — and your store. They also need help comparing and contrasting products and deciding what is best for them.

These shoppers often are drawn to “objective” product reviews or even reprints from newspapers or magazines that provide overviews of your products. And they may rely on your staff to help them make their choices.

Here is your opportunity to put together “package solutions” for your customer, such as “good,” “better” and “best” choices. A knowledgeable staff member can provide this general introduction. Once the customer has made some basic decisions about the kind of products they need, shelf talkers or other displays can help persuade their final decision.

Keep in mind that first-time buyers will likely assume your store trusts and recommends the items accompanied by a particular manufacturer’s signage.


Study Their Habits

Analyzing your shoppers and sorting them into these three customer types does not need to be a formal or expensive project.

In fact, some retailers we know give names to each customer type: for example, Chris for the frequent shopper, Susie for the occasional shopper and Charlie for the first-timer.

They even develop brief back stories for each of these shoppers (where they live, what cars they drive, what pets they own, etc.). Having a personality in mind helps to match advertising, merchandising and sales programs with each customer type.

Of course, not every customer will fit neatly into one of our three customer categories. But those exceptions should not prevent you from enjoying the gains in productivity and efficiency of matching your customer service to your customer requirements.

Once and for all, it’s time to step away from the one-size-fits-all approach to customer service. You — and more importantly, your customers — will be glad you did.


Patricia M. Johnson and Richard F. Outcalt are certified management consultants and co-founders of The Retail Owners Institute. They are strategists for retailers, workshop presenters and publishers of a free and popular newsletter for store owners and managers. Sign up for The ROI News for free at They can be reached at 206-623-3973.



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