How to Put the Customer First in Retail

Making customers the top priority in your retail strategy can hone a business model that encourages consistent demand, at comparatively low acquisition costs. In fact, a study conducted by Bain & Company revealed that customers buy 67 percent more from retailers they've shopped with for three years than they do within the first six months of the relationship, due to increased shopping frequency and higher average order values. Here are a few simple ways you can ensure your retail strategy puts the customer first.

Measure satisfaction-related metrics obsessively. Prioritize customer-centric metrics such as retention, fulfillment rates, self-reported satisfaction and net promoter scores (the likelihood they would refer your business) as much as you do internal measures such as sales, costs and margins. Define "baseline" satisfaction thresholds that you and your staff strive to meet when making business decisions. If you dip below your stated threshold, address the issue, even if it means adjusting your policies and giving up a bit of profit. In today's competitive multichannel retail environment, what's best for you (the business owner) and the customer might be at odds, specifically when it comes to 100-percent satisfaction guarantees, free shipping and no-questions-asked return policies. Though such customer-centric features can cost your business money, they're about the long-term opportunity. Ultimately, these benefits can help you build a competitive edge - despite the products you sell, or at what price. Consider that a customer-based ideology is what has allowed retailers such as Zappos and Amazon to dominate the online retail space, despite competition from hundreds of similar retailers that sell the same products, often at a lower price. 

Approach your hours and locations with the customer in mind. Owning a customer-friendly business isn't about running an operation that's convenient for your schedule; it's about staffing and setting business hours that are convenient for your customer's life. Monitor when your peak call volumes, email and live chat requests take place; staff your team to be available when the customer is able to engage - even if it means outsourcing some customer service support to a third party in a different time zone or part of the world. Similarly, consider whether your business is equipped to serve all of the geographic locations in which your target audience resides, even if that means expanding your warehouse locations or delivery footprint.  

Offer support in the channel they wish to transact. Giving customers the ability to find your business, search for products, ask questions, order, and pay in the channel they prefer gives customers exactly what they want. If a customer emails your business, reply that way. If a customer finds your business through online search or social media, allow them to complete an order and contact a representative of your company through online means as well. Similarly, if customers choose to speak to a live representative, equip your business with the tools that allow them to transact and pay by phone - even if you process their payment using a mobile payment provider and "live rep" who completes the transaction by phone.

Be dependable. In Bain & Company's study, dependability (which includes getting an accurate order on time, and being made aware of an item's stock levels) is a key driver of customer loyalty and satisfaction across retail environments, including apparel, electronics and grocery stores. The consultancy firm explains the simple reason why:  "Because satisfaction in these areas is not a given on the Internet." If you sell physical products, invest in the technology that allows you to show accurate, real-time inventory counts before the customer completes his or her purchase. Communicate when an order ships, and provide tracking numbers for packages. Include the information and labels the customer needs to return or exchange a product so that he or she can seamlessly complete the transaction if needed. Lastly, follow up on every transaction (again, in the preferred medium he/she has demonstrated is preferred) to confirm that the customer is, in fact, completely satisfied.

Kristen Gramigna is Chief Marketing Officer for BluePay, a credit card processing firm used by a variety of retail businesses, and also serves on its Board of Directors. She has more than 20 years experience in the bankcard industry in direct sales, sales management, and marketing.