HIGH POINT — In a year unlike any other, home furnishings retailers are grappling with safety protocols alongside increased consumer demand and product shortages. But that is not all. New research shows that customer service demands may be the toughest challenge of all.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more than 80% of consumers in the U.S. now expect customer support to be more empathetic or more responsive, and in some cases, both, according to the findings by global customer service solution provider Hiver.
“A few years back, you could make customers feel taken care of by sending automated replies and just by convincingly stating that you are doing your best,” said Niraj Ranjan, CEO and co-founder of Hiver. “That does not fly anymore, as customers are more educated and better connected. Throw a pandemic in the mix, and you have very high customer service expectations.”
According to that same report by Hiver, a whopping 89% of participants said they would likely make their poor experience known to friends, family and colleagues by either “advising against buying the product” or “leaving negative reviews on social media.” Additionally, 30% of consumers said they would not give brands another chance after even just one bad customer service experience.
“This is why the focus has to be on building relationships, and the key to that lies in looking at customer happiness as everyone’s responsibility,” Niraj added.
When it comes to furniture
On the furniture retail side, maintaining customer happiness through the pandemic has been easier in some respects than in the past, as many retailers report that consumers are more willing to wait and are more understanding about the extended wait periods being experienced as the industry works to catch up on increased order demands.
“Customers are willing to wait a little longer right now mostly because they’re seeing increased wait times everywhere they shop for furniture,” said Lane Hamm, president and CEO of St. Louis- based Weekends Only.
To make the most of that understanding and to stay in customers’ good graces, Hamm said Weekends Only has focused on making its shopping experience — online and in-person — easy and accessible. Also, it has increased its communication with customers, alerting them more quickly when things change and giving itself a larger window of time when estimating arrival for out-of-stock items to customers.
“No one is upset when they can get their order earlier than expected, but they will be disappointed if it’s late,” Hamm noted.
Ready with a resolution
But what do you do when an issue occurs, an order does come in late or something does go wrong? Marketing experts suggests that businesses get personal, keep communicating and come with a gift or giveaway in apology for any mistakes.
“I think the best practice is to include any reward for the misstep,” said Debbie Green, owner of Bringing In The Green, a strategic marketing consulting firm. “For example, ‘We are sorry for the inconvenience this has caused; please take XX% off your next purchase.’ Or, ‘Please accept this XX as a free gift.’
“Always offer to receive a personal phone call from a key staff member,” she continued. “If it’s a very small business, a personal call from the owner themselves is gold.”
At Miskelly Furniture, a Mississippi-based retailer with seven locations, a new gift initiative at the retailer is combining all those points, and it is having a big impact on its customer relations. The retailer has come up with new gift boxes, given to customers who have faced extended wait times due to product shortages and extended lead times being seen across the industry.
“It’s just a gesture to say we know that things are challenging right now and recognize what that means for them,” explained Alan Vonder Haar, director of strategic development and growth. “We are recognizing their feelings, not diminishing them, and letting them know that we are there for them and doing everything we can for them.”
To do that, the team chose to put together a gift box, something a little bigger than a letter or call from their salesperson, something to thank customers for their patience and show them that their purchase and business matters to the retailer.
Inside the box, consumers found three Mississippi-made gifts — cheese straws, a bath bomb and candle — along with personal note from the customer’s salesperson and a letter from Oscar Miskelly, CEO of the business, thanking the customer for their business and explaining the larger challenges being faced by the industry.
Customers are chosen to receive a box by their salesperson, who was asked to identify five of their customers who have waited the longest for their orders, and the customers were not told ahead of the time about the package being sent.
“We want to get ahead of the disappointment,” said Betsy Tabor, marketing manager for Miskelly. “If you are proactive enough and you get them that gift before they’ve even thought about getting mad or calling, it will go a long way to helping our customers understand Miskelly is trying.”
The retailer chose to include gifts made locally in Mississippi as a way to support local businesses, with whom Miskelly already had ties, making the purchase of these items simpler for the retailer and to more fully thank consumers for shopping locally.
“We are a local business, so thanking our customers for shopping locally with gifts from Mississippi just made sense,” noted Tabor.
Over and above
In addition to the boxes, salespeople are being encouraged to “over communicate” with their customers throughout the process, aiming to always be in contact with a consumer about delays and other possible issues before the customer has to call them about it.
The retailer is putting together a video explaining the delays. It will share the video with customers on its website and social platforms to help people better understand the situation.
Miskelly also is undertaking new charitable initiatives, such as a recent blood drive giveaway, which alerted customers to the local blood shortages and offered them a free pillow gift by coming to a Miskelly location after donating blood.
“We feel that customers are going to remember how they were treated during this challenging time,” concluded Vonder Haar. “They are facing a lot of disappointments from a lot of different sources, and so those companies that recognize that and figure out ways to address that disappointment and go above and beyond to make it up to them will be remembered.”