John Lewis is the business world's equivalent of Stephen Fry: quintessentially English, universally loved, and infallible in the eyes of almost everyone. Already this year, it has won the Which? Best Online Retailer 2010 and been voted Britain's Favourite Retailer 2010. Its perfectly on-brand 91-second advert has created sentimental ripples in the national papers as well as in homes everywhere, reaffirming its place as a love-brand.
And it had a much-lauded documentary made about it a few months back called Inside John Lewis - that warranted nothing less than three hour-long episodes of prime BBC2 viewing time.
All these accolades are driven by one recurring theme: John Lewis gives customer service that consistently outshines its competitors.
Luckily for you, customer service is the one thing you can do that massively differentiates you from rivals small and big, without costing you a penny. Want to know how to follow John Lewis's golden example? Read on.
None of the 70,000 people who work at John Lewis is an employee - they're all 'partners', who jointly own the business. (It's officially called the John Lewis Partnership.) They get a profit share based on how much profit is generated by the business as a whole, so they all feel really involved and really incentivised.
This encourages them to give dazzling service because they feel such a sense of ownership for the business. The documentary had no shortage of beaming employees extolling John Lewis's virtues and radiating pride. The partnership scheme makes them feel valued, which makes them happy. And happy staff equal good staff. As executive chairman Charlie Mayfield puts it: "We're based on the notion that if we treat our partners well, it will lead to good customer service." Hear, hear.
Follow John Lewis's example by: giving your staff shares or tying bonuses to the achievement of the whole business to make them proud of where they work, and happy to work hard for it.
New members of staff at John Lewis are sent on mass customer service training days before their first day. After that, there's ongoing training for employees to make sure everyone's giving the same brilliant service. Want the short-cut to all that insight? Mark the words of the chirpy new recruit trainer who sums up John's six founding principles of customer service thus: "Be honest; give respect; recognise others; show enterprise; work together; achieve more."
The 'showing enterprise' point is interesting, because it's not all about playing by the rule book. Partners are encouraged to make customer service decisions themselves on-the-spot. This means that that most despicable of retail irks - having to wait for ages while the person you've complained to fetches their manager - is neatly avoided.
Allowing employees to think for themselves also gives them a sense of responsibility - which, as a rule of thumb, they tend to want to live up to.
Follow John Lewis's example by: teaching staff how to deal with queries and complaints, then stepping back and letting them make decisions for themselves wherever possible. Also, invest in proper training for your people and don't be shy about sharing your vision and expectations.
Victoria Simpson, development manager for customer service at John Lewis, recommends talking to customer-facing staff regularly and getting them involved in improving the way things are done. "They have insights no one else can form." Partners ask customers what they want and what they think, and record results. Then, they act on it. "It's tempting to feel that once the information has been gathered, the job is done," Simpson says. "But your processes and culture need to be altered as a result."
Follow John Lewis's example by: getting customer-facing staff to find out what customers are feeling, then using results to improve your service.
Every now and then, some rare occurrence happens that lets a business take one of two paths: be ordinary, or be extraordinary. When a deluge of snow blanketed the country in December 2009, a certain John Lewis in Buckinghamshire realised that closing its doors as normal and sending customers into the blizzard would be callous. Instead, it decided to host an impromptu mass sleepover. It made up its beds and let more than 100 people stay the night, laying on food for everyone and opening up toys for the kids to play with.
Now, opportunities like this don't come along all the time. But because of lesson number two, the John Lewis partners could decide for themselves to make the most of happenstance. And they got a good PR kick out of it too (check out this video from the BBC) - not to mention a lot of happy customers to spread the word in their community.
That's not to say you can't be exceptional day-to-day. The expertise of John Lewis's in-store staff is one of the business' strongest selling points. "If you don't know your stuff," one partner confides in the documentary, "the customers can see straight through it." These partners are the walking talking encyclopaedias of their niches - and that fosters a sense of authority and trustworthiness that customers can't resist.
Follow John Lewis's example by: making sure your team know your products inside-out and embracing every opportunity you can to bend over backwards for customers.
Selling online isn't an excuse to let standards slip. Quite the opposite. It's much more difficult to retain any of the personal touch of offline service, so you need to work even harder to make sure online customers still feel listened to.
John Lewis has an impressive and user-friendly website, sure. But more importantly, it makes sure its customers can contact a real person as soon as they want to. It offers phone numbers and the names and addresses of its customer service manager and head of online selling.
It also works hard to make sure online customers don't feel short-changed. "The crucial part of service online is the last mile," MD Andy Street explains in the documentary. "We have to bring the service into online." He does this by making delivery options perfectly tailored to customers' wants and by making sure the standards of expertise are carried through onto the website. So the site has loads of handy podcasts and advice guides.
Follow John Lewis's example by: making sure that when customers shop online they feel they have a real person on-hand to help if needed, and that your brand values are carried over onto your website.
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