$1.6 trillion.

It’s a big number–and unfortunately, not a good one. It’s approximately what U.S. businesses lose every year because of poor service.

expert customer service tipsHow can retailers decrease this number and actually design a customer service program so good it actually converts?

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We sat down with Alex Vlasto, VP of Marketing at Stella Service, a company that uses a combination of proprietary data and insights to help companies boost customer loyalty and grow sales–to discuss the biggest challenges retailers are facing now, and how they can adjust in 2017.

Q. What’s the biggest difference between customer service online vs. in bricks and mortar?

A. Ecommerce is really focused on service. In-store it’s more focused on sales. In both instances, the brand believes they are just delivering service to the consumer.

But if you ask them, in-store employees are less likely to think of themselves as working in service, and more likely to say they’re working in sales.

That [inconsistency] has implications, and that’s why a lot of brands are struggling in the omnichannel world we’re living in now. There’s a lack of consistency in brand experience for the customer online vs. offline.

It doesn’t help that the individuals who have been hired into those different environments are totally different. People who work in-store can be pushy because they often work on commissions.

Online [customer service employees] are more interested in helping the customer out and providing great service.

But customers don’t walk into a store and expect a different experience than what they had online.

A lot of brands still need to crack that code–how do they hire [and train] into those difficult environments, and the technical limitations, because CRM doesn’t cross both.

Q. I know we talk a lot about omnichannel as online vs. brick and mortar–but what about call centers? How can they be more effective?

A. Call centers are usually disconnected from the beating heart of a company–they’re in lower cost areas of the country, thousands of miles apart from the corporate HQ.

Companies usually see a call center as something they have to have, but they’ll allocate as little budget as possible for training and tech. And it shows.

It’s important to make your call center people apart of the culture. You can still do it with an outsource center; they don’t have to be in the office. But when [they are in a remote call center], training becomes way more important.

Brands should make sure their call centers are 100% aligned with the core brand values–even things as simple as they way they address customers on the phone, whether that’s “Good morning, madam”, or “Hey man, how’s it going?”. Unless the brand is involved in positioning those things, there will be a massive disconnect and that will really harm the business.

The switching cost today is really easy, so it’s super important to get it right. Brands that perceive their contact center operations as just a call center–let’s do this as cheap as possible, and cut the training budget–those companies today, especially selling to millennials–they won’t survive.

Q. What’s one way to bridge the gap between aggressive in-store sales and helpful online service?

A. Well, let’s go back to call centers, which are seen as more service than sales channels.

When you’re on the phone with a call center specialist, how often do they do things like offer to complete a transaction for you immediately? In that sense, the call center could become more geared toward sales than just service. The more a call center can claim direct sales [for a company], the more budget they can ask for.

On the flipside, from a store perspective, there are those employees who spot customers in a second of weakness when they look up from the rack and swoop in unwanted, or do something like spray perfume in a customer’s face.

For them, service should be more important–being more able to read the customer, but also being able to step back and be more helpful when appropriate. It’s fine for in-store salespeople to push people to make sales, but in a more respectful way.

It’s about making sure there’s a level of consistency between the channels.

Q. If the aim is consistent service, should retailers try to use employees across several channels–say, email and chat?

A. Actually, no. One of the mistakes we’ve seen is brands thinking that “well just employ a service person, and that person can do phone AND chat.”

That’s a big mistake because different people have different skill sets. Some people don’t have a good tone or grammar over chat, and other people hate talking on the phone and don’t come across in the right way to a customer.

Don’t assume one employee can work across multiple channels. Make sure you’re scaling [your company] with team members who can excel at the specific channels they’re working on. Just make sure you’re ensuring consistent training across all of them.

Q. How are most retailers communicating with customers right now? Any trends?

A. A lot of brands are dropping email, and the primary reason is because an email exchange generally takes longer to execute.

The customer will send an email, the brand will reply, then the customer may take a long time to reply back. In that time, the person handling that issue may have to pass the person off to another coworker. It’s different than phone or live chat where you’re dealing with one person.

Q. What’s the biggest difference between serving a preexisting customer vs. a brand new one?

A. It’s a well-known fact that it’s cheaper to keep hold of an existing customer because you spend more marketing dollars to attract new customers.

On top of that, a loyal customer also becomes a brand advocate who can refer new customers to your brand and do your marketing for you, which is super important.

Good customer service doesn’t just help your customer return–it also helps customers return and bring their friends.

From a service perspective, this is where we straddle the line between the soft skills–individual affinities–and the technology powers of the team.

Retaining an existing customer doesn’t just rely on delivering consistently good service and products, it comes through making that customer feel valued as an individual–like when you walk into your favorite bar or restaurant and they know who you are and what you want to order.

With a brand you shop with all the time, you want them to know who you are and to treat you in a way that’s consistent with the way they’ve treated you in the past. Your data should show up when they receive your call–they should be able to see what your most recent purchases are, and know your preferences.

In that sense, it becomes about the technology as much as the people.

Q. How does a poor customer experience impact retailers?

A. In the same way that a customer who experiences good service becomes an advocate and shares the word about your brand, a customer who experiences bad service could turn away potential customers.

You haven’t just lost a potential sale, but you’ve lost a customer’s lifetime value and the other customers that customer could have brought in.

In this day and age of social recommendations, it’s a huge impact–and social’s a key part of it. Happy customers will share their experiences across social, and we’ve optimized Stella Connect to do that–if someone gives 5 stars for an experience, we ask them to share on social. We see share rates of 5-10% from that.

Before, those poor customer experiences could exist in a vacuum, but now that person can take that experience and share it on social with their friends and family.

Q. How does good customer service complement digital marketing campaigns?

A. One of the biggest ways it affects retailers is through Seller Ratings on Google.

Google has actually tightened up their standards on reviews in general–in fact, they raised the number of reviews you have to get before they can be counted for Seller Ratings. They want to have as many ratings as they can for a more unbiased review.

At Stella Service, we gather data from over 100,000 mystery shoppers who interact with brands via phone, live chat, and in-store. We have a super tight list of questions the shopper has to answer, like “How long did it take to connect with someone on the phone or live chat?”, “Did they answer the question I was asking?”, or “Did they answer the question and provide answers with suggested upsells or cross-sells?”

The data we collect in the Stella Index is syndicated by Google to contribute to Seller Ratings–so the quality of customer service you provide can have a direct impact on scores, which can have a direct impact on CTR.

Q. What do customers expect from retail service now compared to ten years ago?

A. Well, it’s not driven by customers as much as it is by brands that have moved the whole industry forward. I call it “The Zappos effect.”

Look at Amazon Prime and that rapid order fulfillment. [They] moved the bar for consumers in terms of service expectations. If you have to pay for shipping now, it seems crazy–and it had better arrive in two days.

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About the AuthorLeanna graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University (NJ) in 2012 with a BA in Creative Writing and lived in NYC for two years. In 2014, she returned to her home state of California where she enjoys eating too many fish tacos, skipping winter, and writing quality web content for CPC Strategy. Follow her on Twitter @slylikeasmeagol. See all posts by this author here.