Customer service is arguably an independent’s biggest advantage over the mults. Our C-Store Champions reveal how they keep up standards

Sid Ali, four Nisa stores in Aberdeenshire

Good customer service not only helps to keep business buoyant, says Sid, but provides you with that feel good factor

Gregory Cochrane, Hendersons Spar stores, Kilkeel

Gregory believes shoppers expect excellent service in today’s competitive market, and mystery shops keep levels high

Vic Grewal, Budgens Thames Ditton

Teaching staff by example is Vic’s philosophy; he also makes sure his employees are happy at work so keep a positive attitude

Tracie Horner, EuroSpar Carrowdore

Last year’s Sales Assistant of the Year winner makes a point of knowing shoppers’ names and treating everyone with respect

How important is customer service to your business, and why?

Sid: It’s the be all and end all. I think there are two things that set us apart from the mults. One is our location in the heart of the village – that’s the case with all four stores. The second thing is the customer service. I tell staff to always give customers their time and attention, especially if it’s an elderly customer who might need a hand with their shopping or who simply might want to talk to someone, as often we are the only people they get to speak to all week. Without a doubt, I’d say some elderly customers come in just for a chat and we know these customers so well that if they don’t come in on days they usually come in we will go and knock on their door to check they’re okay. You might not directly make money out of service like that, but you get the feel good factor that you are doing the right thing and watching out for the people in your community.

Gregory: It’s the most important thing to our business, because customers have so much choice now and are constantly re-evaluating where they choose to shop. Whereas in the past they would always have been loyal, now they are constantly looking for the best service and they expect to get excellent service.

Vic: It’s the top priority for us. If you have good customer service then customers come back. Even though we might be more pricey than other stores, if you provide good service and shopping experience then the customers will be happy to pay that bit more. It also provides us with a feel good factor if we know customers are leaving happy.

Tracie: Customers need to feel valued in order for them to keep coming back to the store. Knowing people by their first name makes a big difference, and being treated with respect is very important.

How do you monitor the level of customer service provided by staff?

Sid: Nisa does a mystery shopper visit and we get a report. We are nearly always in the high 90s out of 100, but you can always improve. If there’s anything mentioned as an issue in the report then we will take that member of staff aside to inform them they didn’t do the correct thing on that occasion and we’ll give all the staff a general reminder. Something that sometimes comes up, which really annoys me, is when a member of staff isn’t wearing the right uniform, such as the right colour trousers. I always think that if the staff look smart, then they will feel more proud and will act more professionally.

Gregory: We have a mystery shopper come in every month and they provide us with a very in-depth report of the service they’ve been provided and who provided it. It will inform us how smartly dressed the staff were on the visit, whether they greeted them and how friendly they were, what questions they asked, whether they offered assistance, exactly how they responded to different questions about products and much more.

Vic: I don’t have an official way that I monitor it, but I get all the feedback I need from my customers. I went to the estate agent the other day to talk about renting out the flat above the shop and the man said to me straight away that he always has fantastic service from all the staff in the store. When you receive that sort of feedback without even having to ask for it, you know you are on the right track.

Tracie: There’s a mystery shopper that comes in and we have Hendersons’ Tell us First scheme in which we encourage customers to tell us about their experiences of the store online to be in with a chance of winning £100. One person gets £100 every month.

How do you ensure you and your colleagues provide a high standard of customer service?

Sid: I have two main rules. The first is that the customer is always right and the second is when the customer is wrong, read rule one again. Without customers we are nothing and so we must always try to accommodate their requests. Every customer should be acknowledged and greeted when they walk through the door. The best way to know how your customers feel is by looking at the store through their eyes. I always go into the store through the front door and walk around trying to look at it as a customer would. Staff also have to complete Nisa’s online training within three weeks of their probationary period as this gives them key training in customer service.

Gregory: We’ve just introduced the Tell us First initiative. That provides us with another great source of feedback. Shoppers provide some good ideas as well, such as smaller portions for children at our hot food counter, which we now provide. Staff have a lot of training about the products when they first start, but we also have a board up which provides information on all the new products and it’s up to the team leaders to ensure their colleagues have a thorough understanding of their new products. I also have champions for different areas of the store and these members of staff know the ins and outs of the department they look after. They speak directly to head office about the products, what’s in season, what’s new, and they do the orders; they know what’s selling and what’s not and how the department is performing. They provide valuable knowledge and can speak to the customers about their category with confidence.

Vic: I always lead by example. The staff will never see me come into the store looking angry or shout at anyone, even if someone has done something wrong. I am always polite and understanding. I also make sure to ask the staff how they are and that they know they can talk to me if they have any issues. I know that sometimes people might be having a tough time at home and so they might not feel in a good mood at work, and so if I see or hear that they have not provided great customer service then I will take them aside and have a quiet word and check that everything is okay and let them know that they have to be professional when they’re at work. If anyone has any issues and they need help with time off or a change of shifts then I will always do my best to help them. You can’t expect your staff to be smiling at work if they’re not happy and so the key is to make sure they are happy at work.

Tracie: If there’s a queue at the tills I always encourage staff to stop what they’re doing and help out as it’s important customers aren’t kept waiting too long and that they get good service at the till, rather than someone who’s stressed and rushing.

Can you give an example of exceptional service carried out in your store?

Sid: We had one lady who was doing a 30-mile round trip just to get some Heinz gluten-free pasta from our store. I realised that we have family who live near to her and I told her we could arrange to have the pasta sent to my brother-in- law’s restaurant for her to pick up there, rather than having to do the long trip. She is so grateful for that. One customer asked me if I could sell him Pepsi Max any cheaper. I explained to him what I buy it for and how much profit I need to make on it. Then I told him if he were to buy a case of 24 bottles then I could meet him half way between the cost price and the rrp. Now he simply orders 24 bottles when he wants them and we hand them straight to him, so it’s win-win. We have one customer who can’t get out of the house often so has to phone-in her order and we bring it to her home, but every now and then I’ll go and pick her up so she can do the shop herself and then I’ll drop her back home, and I think that’s the highlight of her month. We always go out of our way to try to stock the products they want.

Gregory: We get telephone orders come through, we send taxis out with people’s orders and to pick people up. I do shopping for people personally and we also send new lines out to those shoppers who can’t come to the shop and ask them to try them and let us know what they think. It just makes it a bit more interesting for them and gives them a chance to try something they haven’t had a chance to see.

Vic: We always take time to help a customer, even after we’ve closed. If we are closing up and a customer comes over saying they just needed baby milk or whatever, we will always go back in and get the item. It’s only five minutes of our time, but it means a lot to that customer as you would never get that with a large corporate store.

Tracie: We had a lady come in the other day who wanted compost and it was three bags for £10, but being an elderly lady she wasn’t able to carry all of that so we carried it out to her car for her. She wasn’t a regular customer, but she has been coming in to do all her shopping since then and we’ll always help her carry her shopping to the car.

How do you work to help colleagues/members of staff improve their skills in customer service?

Sid: We do lots of role-playing so that the staff can practise the best ways to respond to different types of customers. I might pretend to be the obnoxious and rude customer wanting to buy cigarettes without ID, or the frail old lady needing a hand with shopping. It helps put staff at ease and learn different techniques for handling these situations.

Gregory: The mystery shopper report allows me to sit down with each member of staff and talk through areas they need to improve on and explain how to do this.

Vic: I teach by example. If they are being rude with customers within their first few weeks on the job then we will give them a warning, or get rid of them. We expect staff to learn from the example given by the rest of the team.

Tracie: I always try to get other members of staff involved in conversations with customers and I’ll always introduce new members to the customers that I know. That helps to bring down any barriers and gets them acquainted.

What do you do to make customers feel appreciated?

Sid: We like to do things outside the store. We host an annual pumpkin competition with the local school where the children do different designs on their pumpkins and we award the winners with prizes. This year we have partnered with Lucozade to provide orange prizes.

Gregory: We have a Joe’s Hot Melt, which is a chicken, cheese & chilli sauce roll which a customer called Joe came in and asked for. We are going to keep selling that for as long as it sells and it provides a nice personal touch and a bit of humour.

Vic: If a regular customer comes in and has forgotten their purse or wallet then we will say they can come back and pay next time they are in. We trust our loyal customers and they really appreciate that trust. You know that they go home feeling special that we trusted them. We’ve never had anyone not pay us back.

Tracie: Remembering the conversations you’ve had with them in the past goes a long way to making them feel appreciated. If you ask them how they liked the product they bought on their last trip or how their plans went, it shows you’ve remembered them and that you care.

What are some top tips for putting smiles on customers’ faces?

Sid: My top tip to owners is to serve on the shop floor. No matter where it is, people like to see the owner of the business on the ground, speaking to customers and showing they care about the service they’re providing. Listen to people and ask them how their day’s been and always ask if they got everything they needed. Always give the customers an opportunity to make suggestions, whether it be via a suggestions box or a Facebook post. You should always be open to suggestions and genuinely try to make the changes where possible.

Gregory: I think it’s very important to be open and honest, and to ask for customers’ feedback and genuinely listen to that feedback and try to act on it.

Vic: By ensuring the staff are happy in their jobs and they are smiling then they will be able to smile at the customers. It’s not something that is taught, but something that is automatically instilled in the staff when they start working here, as they see that the other members of staff are always happy and polite and friendly and so they know to be the same.

Tracie: Keep smiling, because no one wants to be greeted by a grump. If you smile, people will smile back.