MANILA, Philippines -- Retail market players have long realized that with the plethora of choices in the market, with one product looking almost exactly like the one next door, it is in service where the real difference lies.
Of course, there are benefits to keeping prices low to ensure customer loyalty.
But with margins squeezed by competition, especially extremely cheap imports from nearby China, there is not much room to be flexible.
Excellent customer service, thus, provides a vital revenue stream because customers are willing to pay a bit more for service they deserve.
Extending customer service, however, is easier said than done. It involves so much more than simply greeting customers when they come into the store and helping them make purchase decisions.
There is a virtual science to it and top names in retail in the Philippines know they have to study it well and be masters of the subject.
The Robinsons chain of retail outlets, the second largest in the country after the SM group, has set up the Robinsons Academy for Customer Service Excellence last year as part of its strategy to win customer loyalty.
?With the number of retail outlets in the country, one area we can strongly differentiate ourselves in would be customer service,? explained Adrian Bondoc, training manager for the Robinsons retail group.
The academy is defined as a holistic program where store managers and supervisors go through different modules designed to inculcate values of customer service.
These modules cover topics like complaints handling, leadership training, basics of selling, how to approach customers and service standards.
The participants are expected to pass on their knowledge to the frontline staff members who make that vital first contact with customers.
The Araneta group, which operates the award-winning Gateway Mall in Cubao, Quezon City, took pains to improve its offering to cater to the upscale retail market.
Araneta marketing consultant Grace F. Magno noted that Gateway, named Shopping Center of the Year by the Philippine Retailers Association, invested in training in hotel service because the group looks at Gateway as the mall industry?s equivalent to a five-star hotel.
Gateway, for instance, has a concierge service counter that helps customers get tickets to shows, movies and car rentals. The desk can also arrange dinner reservations, provide wheelchairs for the handicapped, and even give complimentary shopping bags -- the type of service normally found only in hotels.
Magno explains that Gateway invested in the five-star service because it believes that it is the only way to stand out in the crowded mall industry in Metro Manila.
?For us, service also means having the right temperature in the mall, sparkling clean restrooms, wide corridors, a 40-seat LaZyboy cinema, excellent mall interior, external décor and ambience that gave Gateway Mall its Merit Award from the International Council of Shopping Centers,? she says.
In specialty retail outlets, frontline staff members need to have extensive product knowledge to make a sale. Customers expect no less.
Take Hobbes and Landes, a specialty retail store chain with nine branches, that specialize in educational toys and science equipment, such as puzzles, science kits and educational board games.
Hobbes and Landes chief executive Patrick Pesengco says the sales employees are regularly informed on the nature of the products so they can help customers make an informed purchase.
Most of the questions from customers, he explains, are on the features of the products that it sells.
?Our products are not cheap at all, but customers do come and purchase because of how our people explain our products. Our products are not the type whereby customers can just read the box and understand the features right away. Our staff members have to explain the features to them,? Pesengco says.
He adds that Hobbes and Landes management tries to simulate the retail experience by applying customer service to the staff members themselves.
Pesengco says Hobbes and Landes mounts events to promote the family bonding lifestyle.
?We have numerous board game competitions and for pet caring, we have fundraising events for pet owners and their pets,? Pesengco says. ?We also have a loyalty discount called Team Hobbes discount. We also give them a newsletter from time to time,? he adds.
Gadget and appliance store Avant, a unit of the Abenson group, also says that customer service is its first priority and that it defines the brand.
?Our definition of superior customer service is encompassing: an excellent customer experience in the store by having excellent store atmospherics,? explains Avant Greenbelt store manager Jaqueline Penera.
These ?atmospherics? include having seat areas that allow customers to enjoy the products; ?gadget bar? for customers to choose from a wide range of products including accessories. Product training complements the facilities.
?We have 12 selling steps that start with greeting the customer and ending with thanking the customer, whether they buy or not,? Penera says.
?We also have morning and evening meeting sessions with the personnel in the store before we open and close our stores to ensure new information are cascaded. Also, we conduct motivational conversations daily to make sure that everyone will be inspired to work and deal with the customers for the day,? she adds.
Penera says Avant puts that extra touch of calling customers up on their birthdays, and other simple but meaningful gestures that customers appreciate like giving out wine during Christmas; serving popcorn and drinks in the stores while customers wait and products are being demonstrated. At no charge.
?Good customer service makes people remember the store. You can then be sure that when they need a product, they will go to you again,? she says.
And that is every retail outlet?s dream.
This is the message shared by the Philippine Retailers Association, which has set up the Asian Retail and Services Institute Foundation to provide needed training on customer service to small and medium-scale enterprises.
?We provide seminars and training on customer service because it is more difficult these days to get customers,? explains PRA vice chairperson Alegria Sibal-Limjoco.
Topics of the seminars include implementing sound return/exchange policies, and proper handling of complaints.
Even the size and feel of the dressing rooms of clothing chains are being studied for customer satisfaction.