By  on October 24, 2012

Fast, free, personal — and seamless.

That’s what shoppers want from customer service in the increasingly competitive omnichannel world. And they want those characteristics wherever they shop, whether it’s in a brick-and-mortar store, on a smartphone or online.

“Customer service is very fluid and, at the moment, it’s very transparent,” said Blake Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom Inc., which is renowned for its service. “As a business, you’re not controlling the story or the message. The customer is in control. You have to ensure that with your actions and functionality, the customer is telling your story. We built this business on word of mouth and reputation, and more than ever, there are so many channels to communicate good and bad.”

An NRF Foundation/American Express Customer Service survey this year polled consumers with the open-ended question, “Thinking of all the different retail formats (store, catalogue, Internet or home shopping), which retailer delivers the best customer service?”

The top 10, in order, were Amazon.com, L.L. Bean, Zappos.com, Overstock.com, QVC, Kohl’s, Lands’ End, J.C. Penney, Newegg.com and Nordstrom.

Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail, has polled American consumers about what was important to them when they shop. At the top of the list were shorter lines at checkout, well-lit parking areas, knowledgeable staff and easy-to-navigate stores. Encroaching on all these more traditional service areas is “I want customized coupons directly to my phone, or Web sites that make buying online easy, or access to information when I’m in the store. The technology or the digital component now, from the phone or the computer, has begun to encroach on some of the traditional formats,” said Liebmann.

Shep Hyken, author of “Moments of Magic,” “The Loyal Customer” and “The Cult of the Customer,” is also the creator of The Customer Focus program, which helps clients develop a customer service culture and loyalty mind-set. He believes the customer has different expectations depending on the type of store they’re in. For example, a customer shopping at Marshalls or Nordstrom Rack doesn’t expect the same high-end service they’ll get if they shop at Nordstrom. “But the one expectation that doesn’t vary ever? When they need help they want it, they want it now and they expect to be treated well,” he said.

But there remains lots of bad service — and customers are becoming ever-more vocal about revealing it on retailers’ and their own Facebook pages, via Twitter or Instagram or simply through word-of-mouth. According to the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer, 79 percent of Americans cited one of the following “Big Four Gripes” when it comes to customer service: rudeness from an insensitive customer service representative (33 percent), passing the buck (26 percent), the waiting game (10 percent) and being boomeranged (having to keep following up on an issue, 10 percent.)

“Customer service across channels can be a source of big frustration for customers,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Many people now get information and shop across channels, and the problem is very often they expect similar policies and service across the channels, but often companies don’t deliver that.”

One of the big problems arises when a customer buys something online and is unable to return it in a brick-and-mortar store. “The problem is people don’t draw lines between online and physical presence,” said Calkins. “When a consumer thinks about a brand, it’s all the experience associated with that brand. Consumers logically form their opinions based on all these different channels. Inconsistency can really damage your brand long-term.”

Calkins noted that people’s expectations are shaped by the big players. “Amazon has a big impact on how people think about buying online across all sorts of categories. Amazon’s policies create norms that other companies need to follow or respond to,” he said.

Nor is retailers’ competition in customer service restricted only to companies that sell fashion or beauty — it’s everyone. “People are comparing them to Amazon,” said Megan Burns, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “They are comparing you to Zappos. Even if you are an insurance company or a bank, the expectations are there.”

According to Forrester, for the third year in a row, retailers and hotels had the highest average scores for customer service across all respondents in its Customer Experience Index — an 81 for retailers and a 76 for hotels. Once again, health insurance plans (55), TV service providers (56) and Internet service providers (56) were at the bottom. For the first time in the five-year history of Forrester’s CXi, the top scorer was not a retailer. It was USAA’s banking business, with a score of 89. Joining USAA in the spotlight were retailers Kohl’s (87), Amazon.com (86), and Costco Wholesale (85), which scored the three remaining spots in this year’s excellent category. And unlike last year when nine of the top 10 scorers were retailers, this year’s top spots included hotel chains Hampton Inn (84), La Quinta Inn & Suites (83) and Courtyard by Marriott (83) as well as credit unions in the banking industry (83).

Asked how the fashion industry and department stores rate, compared to other industries, WSL’s Liebmann observed: “I think the fashion retailers are doing a better job.” She cited Nordstrom with their app, and some of the things Macy’s is doing. “You’re certainly seeing in the department stores a more aggressive use of technological enhancements for service. You also see it, in beauty, what Clinique does. Clinique has a very interesting service model now. If you go to Bloomingdale’s, you can pick up a basket like a drug store; that says, ‘Don’t bother me, I’m going to do it myself.’ Or, you can choose to use the iPad or you can ask the beauty adviser to help you. Some of these models are changing the way you think about service,” said Liebmann.

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