Customer service. The elusive competitive advantage.

If you know anything about Zappos then you know that it’s a successful online retailer that built its brand not only by selling a great assortment of footwear, but by delivering an exceptional customer experience. Perhaps that’s why Amazon paid so much leather to buy them. Zappos proved that if you deliver winning customer service you get back loyal customers who spread the love about your company. So then, why are retailers so reluctant to spend money to recruit better employees, provide ongoing training, and delivering great customer service at the expense of paid media and other marketing initiatives?

If you listen to Pete Blackshaw, Nielsen VP and author of “Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000,” it’s the failure of retailers in deeply understanding emotional psychology. That’s probably true. But I also think that C-suite executives living in the lap of luxury are so far removed from the “real” world that they have forgotten what it’s like to walk into a store as an “average customer” and sense how little their own stores offer in the way of service. Walk into Sports Authority and try to buy a pair of athletic shoes.
No one is there to help you find your size among a wall of boxes. (Chances are, they don’t even have your size in stock) Nor will a store associate try to locate it from another store, or order it for you and have it shipped. You’re much better off buying from them online and skip the expectation of in-store customer service altogether. Which is precisely what many retailers today are pushing their customers to do.

Not so at Apple. I have had nothing but great things to say about them to dozens of friends and colleagues. Why? Exceptional customer service. The staff is motivated and interested. They’re knowledgeable and accommodating. And they surprise and delight customers at every turn. From the Genius Bar in the store to their “expert” online. In fact, just a month ago, I went to their store because my 2-year old battery was shutting down at 14% remaining capacity.
The tech gave me a new battery…free!

Of course, good customer service extends beyond brick n’ mortar to a merchant’s online store, as well. Take Best Buy for instance. I recently purchased a 46-inch Toshiba at and 3 days later saw a competitor  with a much lower price. So I contacted and was told that the Best Buy Price Guarantee was only valid on purchases made at the store, not online. What? You’ve got to be kidding me? I’m not entitled to a “store policy” because I purchased  the item at your online store?  What’s more, the price guarantee is only valid if you find a lower price at Best Buy, not a competitor’s. Here’s the language of their policy: “The Price Match Guarantee does not apply to other retailers or other websites. It also does not apply to Best Buy Retail Stores or” Shame on you Best Buy. You have lost a customer forever!

It’s instances like these that make me love Apple even more. But the real question is:  Does exceptional customer service cost so much that other retailers can’t replicate it and still earn a decent profit?  Why can’t Office Depot do it? Why can’t Macy’s do it? Why can’t Walgreens do it? Why can’t Best Buy do it?

Blackshaw thinks customer service is a competitive advantage. I couldn’t agree more. But I think retailers, especially the brick n’ mortar stores, need to get much better at this.  I fear, though, as the recessionary pressures continue to weight heavy on retailers like Best Buy, even Nordstrom, you may even begin to see these great customer service models begin to unravel.

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