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[Editorial] "The Thick Slice"

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This is my editorial from the March 2011 edition of InternetRetailing Magazine. You can see the digital copy online on our March 2011 Digital Edition.

With both sustainability and customer service in the air at Etail Towers, Ian Jindal has been wondering how we can delight customers in an age of bare, cold "efficiency" and increased capability. His thoughts have settled upon the notion of the 'thick slice'...

For this issue of IR Magazine we've been looking at Sustainability and, in the supplement, Customer Service. While we've covered the 'green' aspects of sustainability as a starting point, throughout we have also recognised the importance of economic sustainability and the improvements in profitability from managing costs.

A further dimension of sustainability inferred from our supplement on Customer Service: sustaining customer relationships over time is vital to the profitability of an enterprise, and therefore its viability or sustainability. In order to fully engage with a customer we need to conceive of the relationship as more than a one-off, a purchase or a single opportunistic transaction. We need to have a long-term view of the costs of maintaining that relationship (an investment) in order to reap the benefits.

Growing up in Wales in the 1970s, service was personal and familial. Personal in that everyone knew you and you knew the shopkeepers and their foibles. Equally, the shopkeepers knew your parents and grandparents, and had a view of the overall family expenditure and custom in a 'dynastic' timeframe. Some stores and relationships can echo this, even in the churning humanity we see in London or major cities - the local corner store, one's favoured specialist store or a hobby retailer where a shared passion is supported over the years. A new retailer will not have the track-record to allow such a view, and indeed perhaps not to cash to sustain the learning, and so this sort of retailing becomes a matter of attitude and approach. One treats ones customers as if they're going to be with you for life and the service immediately improves.

Jonathan Wright, our Supplement Editor, mentions "All of us, even if we're just buying a newspaper or a pint of milk, expect to be treated with courtesy" - something the long view encourages.

An important, related aspect is "giving" to your customers. Improvements in staff training, technology and systems have led to an homogenised high street experience. Competence in service is now taken for granted and, despite the eye-catching horror stories, is wide-ranging. The correlative of this is that customers are no longer grateful for good customer service: they expect it. There's no prize for good practice, simply a penalty for poor service. Good service of itself is no longer a differentiator - there needs to be something "more".

In previous issues we've profiled Zappos.com who had not only made customer service a mantra ('we're a customer service company that happens to sell shoes') but encouraged customers to share random acts of kindness with customers, from flowers to special delivery surprises. However, sustained and profitable customer delight is not an extravagant action, but altogether more subtle.

Mr Williams, the butcher, would wink as he gave a thicker cut than the scales indicated. "It's between us", his wink would say. Jones the Dairy had a similar wink for the generous slice of cheese - partly for me, but also for the family, Gran's 40 years of patronage and my potential 40 further years. Now in London Jo at Mak's News slips three small chocolate frogs into the Bag For Life containing the empty-fridge pre-breakfast food run - winking (of course!) at the kids conspiratorially. Vicky, at the Royal Oak, treats the measure line on a wine glass as the time to slow, rather than stop, her pouring.

The consistent element in these small gestures of generosity is that they're a form of 'sharing'. Neither a sucker's promotional discount, nor too good to be true (or sustainable), these small tokens are a personal and intimate gesture, and reflect a sharing of the profits.

These underlying attitudes of taking a longer view, treating customers as if they'll be with you for decades, sharing some of the profits and connecting with them in the moment, are vital to bring customer service to life, rather than aiming for compliance with good practice. The latter is a form of efficient, institutionalised non-caring.

In considering both the sustainability of our business and the impact upon our customers, we might think of Williams, Jones or Jo's winks and give our customers a thicker slice.
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