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What is good customer service in retail?

High standards of customer service are often broadly associated with the hospitality industry, where interactions are interpersonal and staff rely on receiving tips for great service. As the way people can shop changes and the range of what is on offer increases, good customer service is becoming increasingly vital in the retail industry.

Consumers now have more choice than ever before and the opportunity to provide feedback at the touch of a button, so it is important that the business you work for stands out – for all the right reasons.

By offering good standards of customer service, you can encourage positive feedback which can lead to increased traffic: happy, helpful staff means happy, repeat customers who continue to spend money. Ultimately, this pattern builds positive relationships and creates a successful business model.

What is good customer service?

Customer service is the service and support you provide to customers before, during and after a transaction. In March 2020, the ONS reported that online sales had reached a record high, totalling 22.3% of all retailing. Because of the way in which people can shop now, this means that good customer service in retail has to transcend traditional face-to-face transactions in a physical store and must also be provided online (including websites, review sites and social media pages), by phone or by post.

Good customer service goes far beyond the initial transaction. It is inevitable in any industry that sometimes things go wrong: items are out of stock, things break, deliveries get lost etc., but it is the way staff handle the situation when operations fail that is often just as important. If a transaction goes wrong but it is handled well, for example a prompt response to an email, a quick refund or exchange coupled with an apology, a customer can still feel satisfied with the service they have received.

Customer satisfaction can be measured in various ways: the more satisfied a customer is the more likely they are to return or recommend a business.

Twice yearly, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) is published by The Institute of Customer Service. It is designed to give an unbiased view of customer satisfaction across the UK, and in their latest report, over 271 organisations or organisation types received a UKCSI score. John Lewis and M&S (non-food) were ranked among the highest within the retail industry.

Customers are unfortunately more likely to share negative feedback than positive. It is often an instant reaction for people to wish to vent about bad customer service. This is another important reason why good customer service is so important and negative interactions with customers need to be kept to a minimum.

Butcher assisting customer deciding what meat to buy

How can feedback be shared?

There are different ways a customer can share feedback about a service that they receive, including:

Word of mouth – this can be particularly damaging to small, local businesses.

Online – review sites such as TripAdvisor host independent reviews from customers where they can leave comments about a business and a rating. Consistently low ratings bring down the overall score a business has and many sites give users the opportunity to filter the results they want to see.

This means someone could select to see all of the one star reviews on a business’s profile – a long list of poor reviews will look very bad. Similarly, if you have thousands of four and five star ratings and a handful of low ones, a potential customer will see that, on the balance of probability, you are providing great service and the negative reviews are not representative of the business at all.

This is where great customer service comes in – you will need several good reviews to counteract a few bad ones.

Social media – business pages on Facebook usually have a button that asks users ‘Do you recommend this business or not?’ and you have a further option to write a short paragraph about why. You want to be providing great customer service so everyone that lands on the page selects ‘Yes’.

People can also write posts, or make videos, on their personal social media accounts about customer service they have received. With the option to select an audience for each post, an individual can make a post about a business, set it to ‘public’ and it has the potential to be shared thousands of times within a very short time frame. Negative posts that go viral have the potential to do real harm to a business’s reputation as the information can be seen and commented on by such a large audience. It is then difficult to provide a suitable apology or recourse that addresses everyone who has seen it.

It is also important to remember good customer service is not just important from a business to customer (B2C) perspective, business to business (B2B) firms are also feeling increased pressure to adapt in a highly competitive market. B2B businesses have to provide great service and consistently build and maintain relationships within their local network and supply chains.

Cafe worker promoting good customer service in a cafe

What can happen if customer service is poor?

Poor customer service has implications for the customer, the business as a whole and on the member of staff who failed to perform as expected.

A large part of working within any service-based industry is managing a customer’s expectations. Staff can only perform tasks within their limitations and sometimes what a customer wants just isn’t possible. However, it is how this is managed, communicated and how the customer is made to feel that often informs whether they feel they have received good customer service or not.

For the business, poor customer service can mean:

  • Bad feedback received.
  • Damage to a business’s reputation which can lead to reduced footfall and loss of revenue.
  • Having to deal with a complaint or give a refund.
  • No repeat custom – the customer will go elsewhere.
  • Loss of morale with the staff (often bad customer service leads to the business as a whole being blamed by a customer instead of the individual so the whole team feel it).

A customer who has not received good customer service may:

  • Decide to shop elsewhere.
  • Leave bad feedback or write in with a complaint.
  • Tell others about the incident making them less likely to shop there.
  • Feel upset or angry, especially if the member of staff was rude to them.

A staff member who gives bad customer service may:

  • Feel upset or disappointed by the incident.
  • Have a complaint made about them.
  • Have disciplinary action taken against them.
  • Be less likely to be considered for promotion.
  • Cause their team to be unhappy with them.
  • In extreme cases, be dismissed from their retail role.

This threefold effect of giving poor customer service shows that it is best to avoid these situations and just try to do the best you can to ensure that you are providing the best customer service you can in retail. Each interaction you have is a chance to show yourself and the company you work for in a positive light and to make a customer feel valued.

Cafe workers placing orders through the till

How to ensure you do a good job with customer service

Service with a smile – customers do not want to be served by someone who seems unhappy or indifferent. They have chosen to spend their money at a particular store and except service that is friendly and upbeat. Smile and make the interaction with them as positive as possible.

If you are having a bad day or you don’t like your job, this is not the customer’s fault, so try not to let them feel that vibe from you. A positive interaction with a customer will likely boost your mood and make your workday better, so try to keep that in mind.

Be polite and approachable – if a customer is walking towards you, don’t turn your back or walk away. Similarly, if they look lost or confused you can ask them if they need help – pre-empt a customer’s needs before they even have to ask. If you are busy when a customer approaches you, let them know you will be with them in a moment. Always remember manners; say please and thank you – if a customer does not reciprocate that is their problem not yours.

Be empathetic – acknowledge a customer’s feelings – this is very important when a customer has found cause to complain about something. By saying ‘I am sorry you feel that way’, or ‘Unfortunately our service has not met your expectations on this occasion’, you are acknowledging that you are listening and understanding the customer, whilst not actually accepting blame on behalf of yourself or the company. This is often a safe position to take in these situations so you are able to appease the customer and make them feel better, whilst not incriminating the company or individual they are complaining about.

Stay calm and professional – if a customer is being difficult, remain calm. Do not raise your voice or let your professional demeanour slip.

Ask for help – there should always be a manager or supervisor that you feel you can turn to. Do not be afraid to either ask for help if you cannot answer a customer’s question or deal with a complaint. Saying ‘I actually don’t know but I will find a colleague who does’ is far better than simply sending the customer away without a resolution or giving out the wrong information.

Training is key – as a manager, you are responsible for ensuring staff are thoroughly trained in providing good customer service. Although you may think much of it is common sense, it is vital that staff understand what is expected of them and that they have appropriate training and support. Similarly, as an employee if you feel you need extra training in customer service you should ask for this – someone with more experience may be able to give you hints and tips that you have never considered and this will help improve your customer service skills and build your confidence for future interactions.

Online platforms – good customer service is just as important online as it is in person. This means responding promptly and professionally to emails or messages on social media, responding appropriately to reviews left online and ensuring your website is user friendly and safe to use.

Most people who have undergone any training for a customer-facing role in a high-end establishment will have heard the phrase ‘Go the extra mile’ – but what does it really mean?

We have covered the basics in providing good customer service in retail:

  • Smile and be polite.
  • Be friendly and approachable.
  • Be knowledgeable (ask for help when you need it).
  • Always stay calm and professional.

However, by going beyond the basics you can deliver really exceptional customer service which can make a customer’s day, boost the reputation of your retail store or shop and help to progress your career. Staff who go out of their way to deliver great service and assist customers are more likely to be given promotions, bonuses or considered for overtime than someone who consistently offers the bare minimum.

If a customer asks you where something is, you have the option to point and say: ‘It’s over there somewhere’, or the option to smile and say: ‘Follow me and let me show you’, and to take them to it. If you are asked a question you are not sure of the answer to, you have the option to respond: ‘I don’t know’, or ‘Look on the website’, or the option to say: ‘I am actually not sure, let me get someone from that department to help you’. If you ask yourself each time which outcome would be the most helpful to the customer and you go out of your way to achieve that outcome, then you are providing great customer service.

Showing an interest in a customer can be great, providing you are not being intrusive or invasive. For example, if you are ringing up various items at the till including sunglasses, shorts and swimwear, it would be appropriate to ask: ‘Are you going on holiday?’ and start a friendly conversation about that and say: ‘I hope you have a great time’, as they leave. Asking them which hotel they are staying or what time their flight leaves may be a step too far. Try to maintain a professional distance from customers, whilst treating them as individuals.

Making a customer feel valued is important. Comments like ‘I really love this colour!’ or I actually bought one of these myself’, can add a personal touch to the retail experience. However, it is also important to assess each situation you are faced with, as some shoppers prefer to be left alone to browse or may dislike small talk. The best examples of customer service tailor the retail experience to the individual.

The best advice for anyone who wants to consistently provide good customer service in retail is value the job that you do. Many people will work in customer service roles in the retail industry whilst studying or as a stopgap whilst making decisions about their future. The more you excel at your role, the more likely you are to get a great reference which will help you when applying for other jobs later in life. Learning how to manage conflict/resolution and provide consistently good, professional service also teaches valuable transferable skills.

By providing good customer service in retail, you are helping a business to thrive, a positive reputation to be built and a customer to feel happy. You are developing interpersonal skills and building relationships as well as nurturing a positive environment at work which benefits yourself, your customers, your colleagues and the business as a whole.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.



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