Customer service critical to bottom line
Body language is extremely important – staff must be friendly, polite and smiley

Customer service critical to bottom line

Gill McShane

Customer service supermarket produce aisle
Consumers today expect retailers to offer a personal service

The level of customer service a company offers is often linked to improved performance over a period of time, and grocery retail is no different. So Produce Business UK speaks with the experts to find out what they think of current standards and how shopper satisfaction levels can be improved

Following its most extensive research into customer sentiment, the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) claims customer satisfaction in the UK has plunged to its lowest point since 2010. After analysing the experiences of nearly 40,000 customers, the results show many UK companies – across a wide variety of fields – are failing to keep up with the rapidly changing customer environment.

“The UK is shifting from a transactional economy to a relationship economy, customers expect a dialogue with organisations rather than monologue, and they are using a mixture of new and existing channels to engage,” explains Jo Causon, CEO of ICS.

“They demand transparency, are increasingly service savvy and focus on ethics and sustainability. The UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) results show there is huge potential for companies to drive growth and brand loyalty by improving customer service. With so much information at our fingertips, business leaders need to start measuring the success and impact of customer service.”

How important is customer service to grocery retailers?

Napoleon famously referred to Great Britain as “une nation de boutiquiers (a nation of shopkeepers)”, and the tag could still be applied today if François Hollande felt like stoking the Anglo-French fire. More than 70% of the UK population is employed in customer-facing roles, and, as such, Causon believes service is absolutely critical to a company’s bottom line.

Indeed, she says research shows customer service has a direct impact on company performance over a longer period of time. And for the food retail sector, in particular, shopper satisfaction is especially critical since it drives retailers’ market share and sales revenue.

“The dramatic changes in the retail food sector in recent months has been reflected in the index [UKCSI], with companies such as Lidl, Waitrose and Aldi that have improved customer satisfaction scores experiencing growth in sales and market share,” she says.

Ocado, Marks and Spencer (food division), Waitrose and Aldi rank among the top 10 companies for customer satisfaction in the UKCSI, while Asda, Sainsbury’s and Lidl lie further down the scale.

Two thirds of customer satisfaction comes down to service

67% of customers will return to a business if their customer service is good

85% of customers who have a bad experience will never go back

95% of customers will go back if the business deals with a problem immediately

It costs five times more to get a new customer than to retain an existing one

Considering the current challenging climate in the food retail industry, customer service is now more crucial than ever, says Jonathan Winchester, managing director of mystery shopping company Shopper Anonymous, which works with 850 clients across various UK sectors, including northern retailer Booths Supermarkets, around 100 farm shops and some of the big brand food retailers.

“Some of the bigger brands are struggling because really they’ve done the same old thing year in, year out,” Winchester states. “They haven’t done anything unique with their service, so it’s standard.”

Although it’s true Aldi and Lidl have surged in the UK, Winchester says it’s not just about their prices. “Their products are good quality and their customer service is really good too,” he states. “The food is cheap but the experience isn’t – it’s probably better than at some other supermarkets. Statistically-speaking, 67% of customers will return to a business if the service is good, whereas price only determines 15-16% of the overall experience.”

Northern upscale retailer Booths, which has used the Shopper Anonymous service for seven years, has seen its sales rise this year too. “It’s because Booths offers a good quality proposition and their service is excellent,” says Winchester.

He believes the big brand grocery retailers must re-assess their customer service. “Grocery retailers have been so focused on their products and prices that they’re going to continue to struggle until they start realising they’ve got to put their head above the parapet and introduce more fun and interesting ways to get their team involved,” Winchester says.

What is good customer service?

Richard Beevers, a director at customer experience consultancy Customer Plus, agrees that quality products are no longer enough to satisfy shoppers since really good products that look fresh and well presented are now expected.

“There’s another level of service,” he points out. “Think of it as two concentric circles; at the centre is the core (the product) and around the outside is the added value – the way you’re treated, the ability to find the right product, the checkout staff etc. All of the added value has almost nothing to do with the product.”

Ultimately, Winchester believes good customer service comes directly from the staff on the shop floor. At Booths, for example, he says staff have the enthusiasm, cheerfulness and helpfulness to allow their customers to become their friends, whereas a lot of the major retailers struggle with such staff qualities.  

“Their product knowledge [at Booths] is outstanding so they’re really able to build a rapport with customers about items like fresh produce in terms of how to use it, what to cook with it etc,” Winchester comments.

Another big message, according to Beevers, is that customer service is relative to expectations. So, although service today at a grocery retail level is probably better than five years ago, it hasn’t kept pace with the faster rise in shoppers’ expectations due to other influences – like Amazon.

“These retailers are taking a more personalised approach,” Beevers says. “People are getting amazing service online through customers like Amazon, so their expectations are rising all the time.”

At Amazon, customer satisfaction is all about making it easy to do your shopping, according to Beevers. “Not everyone wants to be delighted; most people actually want low effort,” he claims. “You can shop at any time of the day on Amazon, plus you can buy items and they arrive quickly. Whereas at some supermarkets you can’t park, you have to find £1 for a trolley and there are long queues. It’s a messy experience and people want a smoother experience.”

Mobile phone retailers are also offering a more personalised service that is working. “They’ll meet and greet you into the store and sit next to you rather than across from you,” Beevers explains. “A grocery retailer can’t sit with you and discuss their products but a personal service is expected. However, in reality the experience at most major retailers is somewhat disappointing. Most staff won’t automatically take you to the aisle of the product you’re looking for anymore – it depends on the individual staff member.”

While companies can learn from the principles of Amazon and other retailers the application has to be right for your environment. Equally, your service has to deal with huge differences in the population too. “Some people want all the bells and whistles, while others want to be in and out quickly – it’s about tailoring your service to your clientele,” Beevers comments.

For instance, the move towards more self-service checkouts in supermarkets may be good news for those people who like it, but for others it can be damaging. “We’re often taught in life to treat people as you want to be treated yourself, but that’s essentially useless in customer service because what one person thinks is right isn’t necessarily what another thinks,” Beevers points out.

“Also, it’s not only different people – the same person can be in a different mood on a different day. Part of the personal skill for staff is to understand what’s in front of you, so you can empathise with your customer.”

How can you improve customer experience?

Causon at ICS says some brands are already improving their customer satisfaction levels by operating in an agile and innovative way, but overall she says it’s clear that a new approach is required for this new environment. “Businesses need to take a look at the experience they are delivering to customers and identify how it can be improved,” she notes.

To that end, ICS has outlined four key strategies that it believes will allow companies to ride the storm and improve their overall customer satisfaction scores.

Leadership: put customer service at the heart of your business strategy;
Understand your customers: gather insight to find out the changing behaviours and use the results;
Ability to respond: be agile to respond to changing demand in this complex environment;
Staff skills: train and develop employees to deal with difficult situations which require higher levels of emotional intelligence, technological skills and commercial awareness.


With most people defining customer service as the people on the shop floor, Winchester at Shopper Anonymous says retailers must start making the changes from the inside out by focusing on recruitment and reinventing the service role within stores.

“At the end of the day the shop floor is a stage, so you need people who can consistently perform at a high level all of the time,” he explains. “It’s not just a case of who can work the hours; you need the right personality.”

As far as retail is concerned, the experts say the right personality comes down to certain traits and factors, which give them the ability to create good rapport, be enthusiastic, believe in the brand and deliver great service. However, because those skills are inherent in certain people, you can’t just train anyone to be good at service.

“You need to find out about the backgrounds of potential staff members,” Winchester says. “We’ve found there’s a trait – those who have the right skills for customer-facing roles are creative (did art or drama classes at school), outgoing and sociable (are members of sports or musical groups).

“About 78% of communication skills is body language so it’s important that staff are friendly, polite and smiley. If the character and personality of staff is good then customers enjoy being in that shop because it’s not a mundane experience, which is often the case at the big box retailers.”

Beevers at Customer Plus advises retailers to avoid relying on answers during interviews, and instead to find staff with a customer-minded personal value system. To dig deeper, he says his company offers psychometric assessments that can be used as a tool to quickly find out if a person will be good in a customer-facing role.

Another interesting recruitment method is being used at handmade natural food chain Prêt a Manger, where prospective staff have to work in one of the outlets for a few days before colleagues decide whether they get the job or not.

“This company gets it,” states Beevers. “They’ve got a great product but they realise that you also need great service with small personal touches like giving people their change into their hand rather than putting it on the counter.”

While having the right staff is key, the environment for those workers must also be engaging, say the experts. “ Don’t just sit the customer service team behind a desk – get them out on to the shop floor,” Winchester says. “Let them help and assist customers, they can help sell and be ambassadors for the business. It’s a cultural shift and it takes time. But if you do it right it can certainly happen.”

Beevers agrees there is an issue with staff interaction, adding that uninterested staff are probably the result of their leadership channel. “It’s either their immediate boss or the top executives who do not look for the right person for the job, i.e. they’ve put a square peg in a round hole, or that person wants to do a great job but somehow they’re prevented or they’re not necessarily trained,” he explains.

Brand and product education

To be excited about demonstrating products and providing information on the shop floor, Winchester says supermarket staff also need to be engaged. “Consumers do appreciate being given information and talking is the best way to get across the message,” he explains. “I used to work at Harrods and once a week we had 40 minutes of enthusiastic training where we talked about the products and how we’d sell them. We all sold more.

“How often do produce buyers go out and train their staff in their products today? Meanwhile, farm shop staff are getting training direct from the local growers in how they produce their crops, what they taste like and how to prepare and cook them, so staff can do demonstrations and engage with customers.”

Both Winchester and Beevers agree it’s not just about the training, however, but also about staff being interested in the brand and its products in the first place. “People who have bought into what the business is trying to do are the start of the chain,” Beevers states.

“You need to engage your staff to provide great customer service. Waitrose invests heavily in its staff recruitment and they’re big on staff engagement – they have a common ethos across the board; it’s all part of the reason why they’re doing well.

“Recruit the right people – educate them in your business goals in what you’re trying to achieve, keep them motivated and engaged and then recognise and reward them. One analogy we often use is sports-related – the best in any field spends the most time and effort on training. Regular training is not a negative, it’s essential.”

Staff worth

Leadership also has to motivate and reward its people both financially and verbally, according to Beevers. “When people feel cared for, looked after and engaged at work they start treating other people well. Equally, if management treats staff quite badly and doesn’t pay them terribly well the staff are not going to be masters of empathy.”

Aldi, for example, offers the highest paid graduate management role, says Beevers. Those on a gap year also receive a “tremendous salary”, while store assistants earn £8.15 rising to £9.75 per hour. Even Aldi’s recruitment website talks about nurturing happy, productive teams that are rewarded and supported rather than just offering a job.

“It shows that they’re thinking through to staff engagement too, i.e. they pay them well,” Beevers explains. “And the scores on the doors show that it’s working.”

Winchester says Prêt a Manger has a “brilliant culture” too since every staff member earns an extra £1 for every hour worked that week if they score over 80% by their mystery shoppers, who frequently visit the stores.


In general, grocery retailing needs to see more open and accessible managers and operate a less top-down management style. Across all sectors in business Shopper Anonymous has found that leaders under the age of around 54 years old have a greater appreciation for customer service and are pushing change.

“In a family-run company, the dad might struggle with customer service whereas their children get it,” claims Winchester. “It’s probably down to today’s education, social media and exposure to the Richard Bransons of this world, which younger people follow.”

Winchester believes leadership in the grocery sector needs a new lease of life in order to get new ideas flowing from the top down to the shop floor. “It all about the top management – they need to change too,” he says. “The ones that do well have their leaders in store rewarding, congratulating, sharing and discussing with their staff. Those with lots of layers of management struggle to get their message down.”


“From our results we’ve seen the experience of mystery shoppers can vary from 40% to 80% across stores under the same brand,” says Winchester.

Once you’ve found your success model, you must replicate it across your store network so customers everywhere experience the same service – there’s little point in being excellent in one store and poor in others. “You have to put in place a process of standards by which to measure the staff. Then if the staff performs well, then reward them and they will generally step up and the service across the brand generally improves,” he says.

Retailers like Booths have done this successfully, adds Winchester. “Booths has always been very family orientated, with a great culture and staff but what they’ve done is make that consistently very good across all their stores,” he notes. “This is really key. If you have a brand you have to be consistent across your store network.”

Other tips

Experts agree there many more factors which can determine good customer service from bad. Offering a simple returns policy is one, while reduced queuing at the checkout, good cleanliness and parking that’s easily accessible and sufficient are others.

Finally, the worst thing you can do is to make a big promise and do nothing. “Retailers are generally raising people’s expectations through adverts but they should be careful as you can create a world that’s not necessarily reality,” points out Beevers. “A wiser investment would be to focus on the experience in store rather than raising the awareness.”




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