Customer service under the microscope
Five stores, five locations, each timed for customer contact
There you are. Big store, huge aisles, no one to help you.
Or big store, huge aisles, lots of people to help you, but no one does.
Sound familiar? It just might be the common saga of shopping retail in big box stores. To find out just how retailers measure up when it comes to customer contact, Local 6 visited 25 stores, five retailers in five different locations, across Central Florida.
We timed out how long it would take for a store employee to make meaningful customer contact. Not just a hello, but an offer to help.
Our supermarket visits included Publix and the groceries at Walmart and Target.
For Home Improvement, we went to Lowe’s and Home Depot. There was a huge range of customer contact results, from a rapid-fire “hello” and offer to help in two seconds at Home Depot, to a mind-numbing 40-minute-plus wait at Target and Walmart.
We spent a fair amount of time in all of the stores, at all of the retailers, largely ignored by workers.
Watch the video above to see what it’s like to be ignored, in case you’ve never run into this problem where you shop (watch it anyway; if for no other reason, it’s affirming).
Below are the results of our customer service challenge. The times represent how long it took a store employee to acknowledge us, engage us, and offer to help.
College Park :51
Port Orange 6:15
Publix average 9:33
Port Orange 40:21*
Walmart average 16:34
*we exited the store at 40:21 after no sales associate made customer contact
Winter Garden 12:15
Palm Bay 10:15
SODO Orlando 43:00
Port Orange 8:00
Target average 18:15
Winter Garden 5:30
W. Colonial Orlando 2:20
Port Orange 5:40
Palm Bay 17:25
Lowe’s average 6:53
THE HOME DEPOT
Lee Rd. Orlando 3:45
Port Orange :02
The Home Depot average 4:24
Publix is regularly a top performer in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction that surveys about 70,000 consumers annually. In the last survey released, Publix beat all its supermarket competition and the industry average.
To see more results from the ACSI for other retailer types, including the rest of the stores we visited, click here.
“It’s certainly true that it’s important for the customer to feel there are employees willing to engage them,” said ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg. “But beyond that there are other elements: knowing when you do need help, you can find someone, and once you do find someone, that employee is courteous, professional, knowledgeable and helpful.”
Our footage raises the question of whether consumers should have to ask for help if sales associates are nearby, available, and able to help. It also raises the questions about workers who are stocking shelves and their role in customer contact. On multiple occasions, at all stores, we were ignored by workers stocking shelves.
VanAmburg viewed clips of our footage at the 25 retailers we visited.
“In a lot of cases retailers expect us to be savvy about our shopping, that we know where things are at, that we will ask for help,” VanAmburg said.
Walmart was unhappy that we did not include its greeters in our calculations of customer contact.
“We have a long history of greeting customers when they come into our stores, and our greeters, many of whom are recognizable figures in their community, do a great job,” said Molly Philhours, spokeswoman for Walmart.
We did not include greeters because we wanted to assess a level playing field of what happens when a consumer crosses the threshold of a store and needs help on the store selling floor.
Of the five Walmarts we visited, only two had greeters present, and neither one offered to assist us in finding a specific area of the store or product.
Greeters, according to Van Amburg, don’t necessarily have an effect on the overall shopping experience.
“If a greeter is immediately asking you what department or what area of the store they might be able to direct you to, that has practical value to the shopper,” VanAmburg said. “If a greeter is simply giving you a smile and a hello, as nice as that gesture might be, there is no practical value in terms of your ability to shop efficiently at the store.”
We sent video clips of all our visits to the respective retailers, along with the following questions:
- What does your company consider "customer contact"?
- What are the customer contact goals for your stores? For example - customers should be in the store, on average, no longer than (x) mins/secs before having contact with a sales associate?
- Are there metrics to measure customer contact?
- Are employees engaged in stocking shelves exempt from those goals?
- Are employees engaged in stocking shelves trained not to engage customers?
Here are the responses, in full, as provided to us from each retailer:
“Thank you for the opportunity to review your hidden camera footage and for the opportunity to respond."
"With more than 1068 Publix locations across five states, focused on customer service and quality products, we sincerely hope that you captured additional footage of stellar customer service in our stores, and while we recognize that the focus of your story was not on exemplary service, we strive every day to deliver on our service commitment."
“Like you, we were surprised to see the lack of service in some of the identified locations. We assure you that the lack of service captured by your hidden camera footage is not an accurate overall representation of the exemplary customer service and engagement practices we have been acknowledged for by our loyal customers and peers in the retail industry, year after year."
“Publix has scored higher than any other supermarket for customer service satisfaction in a national survey conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index for 18 years (1995-2013). We strive to create a superior shopping environment at all times."
“We have several systems and performance indicators in place to measure customer engagement and satisfaction measurements to benchmark performance factors throughout the entire store, from the service counter in the Deli and other service sub departments, to engagement on our sales floor and at check out."
“We also acknowledge that training is continuous and we can always strive to do better. Your footage allows us the opportunity to reinforce our company culture, policies and practices to assure we are meeting and exceeding the expectations of you and all of our loyal customers on each and every visit.” Dwaine Stevens, Publix.
“We appreciate you letting us know about the customer service you experienced at the five Lowe’s stores you’d visited.
“We place a high premium on providing excellent service to our customers. This entails everything from a friendly greeting when meeting a customer to offering expert assistance with more complex projects. We provide incentives for stores and employees who provide outstanding customer service, and, regardless of their role in our stores, expect all employees to engage with our customers. There are always opportunities for improvement. In the spirit of ‘Never Stop Improving,’ we plan to use the information you’ve shared about your experience as an additional training tool to better our employee interactions.” Karen Cobb, Lowe’s.
“Our associates work hard every day to offer our customers the experience they come to expect while shopping at Walmart. We have a long history of greeting customers when they come into our stores, and our greeters, many of whom are recognizable figures in their community, do a great job. It’s unfortunate they were not included in this story.” Molly Philhours, Walmart.
THE HOME DEPOT
“Meaningful interaction we have with our customers through our stores, our associates, even our online storefront is ‘customer contact.’ That's why we provide our associates with a specific process for assisting customers, as well as training to ensure they are clear on that process and expectations.
“Unlike most retailers, our customers come to us with a problem they need help fixing or a project they need help with. Our goal is to solve their problems and the first step in doing that is to seek out those customers and ask how we can help. It's hard to put a time stamp on customer service. That's why we have greeters stationed at our entranceways to make contact with our customers right off the bat and help direct them to the right department for what they need. From there, we have sales associates stationed at the front of each aisle during Power Hours - our peak times of the day - to identify customers that need help and assist.
“Every associate has a set outline of behaviors under our Customers FIRST training. That way, for example, cashiers and sales associates know exactly what their roles are and how that role impacts a different part of the customer experience from shopping to checkout. All associates are trained on Customers FIRST and are expected to provide excellent customer service whenever on the sales floor. And in fact, we've worked very hard to reduce tasks in our stores - such as stocking shelves - to give our associates more time to spend with customers.
"All Home Depot associates are trained on Customers FIRST and are instructed to follow the appropriate protocol for their position. For example, our associates on the Merchandising Execution Team who stock the bays are expected to approach customers who are close to the bays that they are working and to ask if the customer needs help. For easy questions ("where do I pay?") our MET Associates help the customer themselves. For more complicated questions ("how do I re-tile my bathroom?") the MET Associates find the right store associate and ‘hand off’ the customer to a person who can better assist them.” Katherine Ellison, The Home Depot.
Target did not respond to our video clips and customer contact results. The company declined to comment for this story.