Close up of a happy customer's smile

All of us that are in business need customers. Right? Without customers, we have no business. We just have a business concept. Once you have a customer you have a business.

Ideally, we actually need quite a few customers – to spread the risk and make our business more resilient to the outside challenges the world may throw at us. The most successful businesses serve hundreds, thousands or millions of customers every year (dependent on their size and scale).

I think I speak for the vast majority when I say that we all would like our customers to be happy customers. Happy customers, after all, are much more likely to come back again and repeat their custom regularly, spend more with us or tell others about the great service they receive.

Emojis in a row with the smiley one in focus

So, what makes a customer keep coming back? What makes a customer happy? What makes a customer smile? If we all knew the answer to this then wouldn’t all of our businesses be performing much better – higher purchase frequency, higher average spend, increased referral rate, lower customer churn?

You could argue that many customers purchase out of habit. They have always used company X for product or service Y, and it is easier just to keep doing it the same way. However, if the smile is starting to fall from their face, beware. That habitual customer you took for granted could soon be beaming again at one of your closest competitors.

So what is the secret?

So back to the blog topic, what is the secret to keeping customers smiling? The good news is that as a business owner or director you are in 100% control of it. You may not always feel like you are, but you are. Your customers will keep smiling, if your staff keep them smiling!

All of the people within your business are your responsibility. You ultimately hire them, train them, lead them, inspire them and, if the need be, fire them. You will have heard of the 7 P’s in marketing – and one of the most crucial to customer retention is the PEOPLE.

It is true that others such as PRODUCT, PRICE, PLACE & PROMOTION are critical to winning the customer in the first place, but if the people are wrong, if they can’t keep the customer smiling, then they just won’t come back.

A fallen giant….

Last week a retail stalwart, an institution that has been on British high streets for over 226 years, was voted, by the Which? annual shopping survey as the worst high street shop. It wasn’t WH Smith’s staff alone that earned it this unwanted title, value for money and standard of stores were also influencing factors. But the factor that played the biggest part was its poor customer service.

Exterior shot of WH Smith

When asked what consumers enjoyed about shopping in physical retail stores generally, the third most popular answer (39%) was being able to ask staff questions. At the other end of the scale, those Which? ranked as the best high street retailers, Smyths Toys were amongst them, due to their “friendly and cheerful” staff.

So, they are both called Smiths (albeit different spellings), they both sell toys/games, and one is bottom of the pile and one is near the top – mainly due to the customer experience with its staff. One shop makes their customers smile, the other doesn’t.

Customer service insanity…

I personally had a run in with WH Smith a year ago when I had researched a specific book I wanted to buy on their website. I popped down to a local store to buy it and discovered it cost £1 more in-store. I explained to them I has just been on their website and it was cheaper and I was told in a deadpan face “that is our online only price”.

I suggested that one of the options online was to “click and collect” from this store (which would have meant I was picking up the same book I had in my hand for £1 less). She replied, almost robotically, “yes but you would have to come back tomorrow to collect it”.

Dumbfounded, the dialogue continued…

“Why? It is here, in my hand?”

“But you wouldn’t be having that one sir. Our central warehouse would be shipping one out overnight to the store.”

“But why are you charging me a pound more for me to pick up in the store now when there are no logistics costs involved” (I may have lost her here)…
“It’s on a different system sir”

I ended up going to Waterstones and paying the higher price anyway because WH Smith had annoyed me so much. Now, if she had been correctly trained, we could have joked about what a ridiculous situation it was, and I may have still left the store smiling (with the book). However, because I was treated like an annoying inconvenience (and I am not saying I wasn’t) the only reason I ever shop at WH Smith now is if I am at a railway station and I want a newspaper (and it is the only option).

Writing on the wall

The sad news for WH Smith is that is has been in the bottom two in the Which? survey for the last eight years. If that is not enough to spark them into action, you do wonder whether, by this time next year, they may be joining other retail giants like ToysRUs and Maplins in the retail graveyard.

It is no surprise to see Sports Direct languishing near the bottom of the table either – grunts significantly outweigh smiles in there, with “I don’t know” their most popular customer service response from my experience.

Although I have focussed on the retail sector in this article, the principles remain no matter what line of business you are in. If your customers have a positive experience with your staff, and their “service with a smile” generates a smile, then you have given yourself the best chance to retain them.

We are undoubtedly going to be going through an uncertain trading period over the next few months and years. So, ensure you keep your staff smiling. And no, nervous smiles won’t suffice, we want full-on sincere beams!

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Ian is the founder of Opportunity Marketing marketing, with over 18 years of experience in successfully setting up marketing departments, creating marketing strategies and implementing these strategies across a wide number of SME companies in both the B2B and B2C sectors through a variety of channels.