Retail Customer Service: 7 Tips for Providing Exceptional Shopper Support In-Store

Customer service is one of the biggest drivers of sales and loyalty in retail, yet plenty of merchants continue to underestimate just how powerful it can be. Head to the mall (or a look at review sites like Yelp) and you’ll see that many companies still fall short when it comes to serving and delighting consumers.

Don’t let your business be one of them. Strive to provide superb customer support and make sure that you and everyone else in your team are willing to go above and beyond for shoppers.

To help you accomplish this, we’ve done some research on the customer service practices of some of the world’s top retailers. We looked at customer support rock stars such as Trader Joe’s, Apple, Zappos, Nordstrom, and Amazon, and uncovered some interesting lessons. Check them out below and see if you can incorporate them into your business:

1. Start by hiring the right people

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: when it comes to recruiting for customer service roles, you’re better off hiring for attitude and training for skill. Some of the world’s best companies recognize this. Bruce Nordstrom, the former chairman of Nordstrom, famously said, “We can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but we can’t hire salespeople and teach them to be nice.’’

Trader Joe’s, the high-performing grocery chain known for its warm and happy staff, also hires based on attitude.

Mark Gardiner, author of Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s, talked about this very topic when he described the company’s training process on Zendesk’s podcast, Repeat Customer.

He said:

“It starts with everyone introducing themselves. Now, we’ve all heard these stories about how people fear public speaking more than death. But in that group of 50 people, all the hands went up. It was like, pick me, pick me, I can’t wait to tell you about me..The next really profound thing that happened after realizing, wow, these people are really not a random group of people. These people are all naturally empathetic…they want to listen to other people talking about themselves, they want to have conversations with other people.”

Action step: When hiring associates, consider focusing on their attitude first. Skills and experience are important but know that as long as someone is trainable and has a natural service-based disposition, they will perform better than a skilled employee who doesn’t have the right attitude.

2. Be smart about how you delegate customer service tasks

Your associates won’t be able to serve customers properly if they’re too busy doing admin work or restocking shelves. If it makes sense for your business, change the way you delegate tasks in-store. For example, instead of training everyone to do a multitude of tasks, consider letting people specialize in specific jobs (i.e., serving customers, fixing merchandise, etc.)

Poopsies, a quirky gift store in Galena, IL, did just that and has seen great results.

“[We] decided to move away from everyone being trained to do all tasks and move towards having certain staff trained to specialize in areas,” says Alana Turner, the co-owner of Poopsie’s.

“For example, instead of all staff helping with receiving every day in between customers, we now have one person that does 80% of our receiving for us.” She continues, “This has helped cut down on errors and inefficiencies in receiving, which as we all know equals lost profits, and it has allowed the sales staff to focus more on selling to customers.”

Why did they decide to do it? According to Alana, they started to catch employees doing other tasks when they should have been serving the customers near them.

“It’s not that they weren’t working hard; they just weren’t focused on the customer enough for us. So we started delegating certain tasks specifically to staff to tackle and it just took off from there,” she shares.

Action step: Are your employees juggling multiple jobs or do they specialize in certain tasks? If it’s the former, try testing Poopsie’s task delegation practices. You may find that when you have employees whose sole job is to assist shoppers, your customer service metrics (and sales) will improve.  

3. Use positive speech and body language

When training your associates, go beyond teaching them about your products and store policies. See to it that they’re also well-informed when it comes to the importance of body language and speech. Subtle changes in gestures and wording can make a big difference in how customers perceive and react to a brand.

Retailers such as Nordstrom and Apple are aware of this, which is why they have some specific policies for its store associates.

Just have a look at what Nordstrom is doing. According to a former employee, some of the company’s customer service policies include the following (emphasis added):

  • A Nordstrom salesperson rarely points. If you have a question about where something is located, they walk you there.
  • Salespeople can offer to ring up your purchase without you ever having to stand in line.This particularly happens a lot in the shoe departments.
  • Departments are generally trained to answer the phone on no more than the 2nd ring.
  • Salespeople are taught to walk your bagged purchase around the counter to you vs. just handing it across the counter.
  • You’ll notice even when names are called across the intercom, it’s done in a classy way,“Laurie Black, six six.” You’d never even know it, but often there are code words and directions being given to employees over the intercom system. So much classier than “KMart is having a two for one special on snow shovels!!!”

(Hat tip to Shopify. If you’re interested in learning more about Nordstrom’s customer service secrets, check out their  post here.)

Apple is another retailer that puts a lot of emphasis on speech and body language. The company has some precise guidelines when it comes to the words that Apple Store Geniuses can use.

For example, Geniuses are trained to never use terms like “bug” or “problem” and instead say words like “condition,” “issue,” or “situation.” They’re also taught to read the body language of consumers, and its employee workbook even has a cheat sheet of what certain movements and gestures mean.

Action step: Pay attention to the language (verbal and otherwise) that you use in your store. Identify words or gestures that may have negative connotations and replace them with more positive terms and movements. Do your research on body language and psychology and see if you can apply any lessons in your business.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet when it comes to the dos and don’ts of retail body language:

4. Encourage empathy

A dose of empathy can instantly take your customer service practices to new heights. Because here’s the thing: in many cases, customers just want to feel that they are being heard, acknowledged, and understood. In other words, they want to feel that you know what they’re going through.

Yes, it’s important that you fix whatever issues they’re having, but empathy is almost always the first thing they need from a customer service rep.

Empathy is so important, the Apple dedicates an entire section of its training manual to the topic. According to Gizmodo, “The term “empathy” is repeated ad nauseum in the Genius manual” and Apple encourages Genuises to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Apple provides the following example of what an empathetic interaction might look like. [Emphasis added by Gizmodo]

Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.

Genius: I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.

Action step: Encourage empathy in your employees. Train them to put themselves in the shoes of your customers and doing so develops compassion and ultimately leads to better customer service.

5. Make sure that everyone–from front-line employees to executives–receives customer service training

This lesson is brought to us by Amazon, which is not only doing phenomenally well in sales and innovation, but is also killing it in customer service. The ecommerce giant is always on Prosper’s list of Customer Service Champions, thanks to its customer-centric practices.

The secret behind Amazon’s success? Everyone in the company – from support reps all the way up to top executives – has a solid understanding of their customers. Amazon accomplishes this by encouraging all employees (including CEO Jeff Bezos) to attend two days of call center training every year in order to instill humility and empathy for the customer.

It doesn’t stop there. Amazon’s obsession with shoppers extends to staff meetings at the conference room. As Forbes reports, “Bezos periodically leaves one seat open at a conference table and informs all attendees that they should consider that seat occupied by their customer, ‘the most important person in the room.’”

Action step: Evaluate the customer centricity of your company. Is every member of your team in touch with the needs of shoppers? Would they benefit from additional training or regular reminders to be empathic towards customers?

6. Empower employees to keep customers happy

Zappos is famous for its award-winning customer service and the web is filled with stories and case studies about just how amazing its support team is. One of the ways that the e-tailer accomplishes this is by empowering reps to use their judgement and just keep customers happy.

As CEO Tony Hsieh said in an interview,  “We don’t have scripts, we don’t measure call times trying to get customers off the phone in the name of efficiency, we don’t try to upsell… we really just try to provide that human connection and deliver the best service possible.”

Action step: If you haven’t done so yet, encourage your staff to be helpful rather than salesy. See to it that they make each customer’s happiness a priority, and empower them to use their judgment when it comes to serving shoppers.

7. Be proactive in approaching customers

Encourage your associates to move from behind the counter and onto the sales floor where they can interact with shoppers.

True story: I recently went to an outlet mall looking for the perfect pair of high-waisted jeans. I must have walked in and out of 3 apparel stores without so much as a nod from the staff.

But I experienced a refreshing change when I visited Levi’s. As I was browsing the shelves, one of the sales associates approached me asking if I was looking for something in particular. I told her that I was shopping around for some high-waisted jeans, and she immediately directed me to the right section of the store.

She asked questions about the color and size that I wanted, then handed me some pairs to try on. I ended up buying a great pair of jeans, and it was largely due to the associate’s initiative to assist me.

Action step: Promote proactive customer in your store. Don’t wait until someone asks for your or your associates’ help; go out there and actively look for customers to assist.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Vend’s guide to increasing sales. This handy resource offers 10 proven tactics for boosting retail sales and improving your bottom line.

Specifically, you will:

  • Discover how to turn savvy shoppers into loyal customers
  • Learn how to add real and perceived value to each sale
  • Discover the most effective ways to set yourself apart from your competitors

    Learn More

Your take

What other customer service lessons can you share? Let us know by tweeting at us or dropping us a line on Facebook.



About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.