Working on First Impressions

Mystery Shop participants discuss operational, service elements that win customer loyalty

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- In its several years of existence, the CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop has evolved from a special project that rated chains' operational compliance to one that highlighted the power of stellar customer service.

In a Tuesday morning breakfast panel at CSP's 2011 Outlook Conference moderated by CSP chief editor Mitch Morrison, three retailer participants in the annual mystery shop joined Darcy Paulsen, senior director of business development with Service Intelligence, in parsing through the many factors that, combined, win a customer's loyalty.

Dan McMahon, executive vice president of operations with Sheetz Inc.--winner of the 2011 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop--said the chain's strong showing is indicative of the culture established inside each Sheetz store.

"You can't rule-book everything," McMahon said. "You have to make sure the store environment is conducive to that behavior." Sheetz, Altoona, Pa., led a field of 10 chains in customer service and exterior cleanliness. It also ranked in the top three or four brands for most of the 27 metrics examined in the mystery shop.

"We have to use empowerment," said John Zikias, vice president of sales and marketing with Thorntons Inc., Louisville, Ky., although he noted that retailers must give their employees the tools. For Thorntons--which clinched third place in the 2011 mystery shop--delighting the customer is a core value. In the past, however, store employees did not know what they were allowed to do to meet that objective. To make it easier, Thorntons added a "delight the customer" button to its POS so employees could account for any discounts or merchandise gifted to unhappy customers.

Paulsen with mystery shop provider Service Intelligence, Charlotte, N.C., agreed that "you can't rule-book everything," but said that employees do need to be coached on customer service. "Connect the dots between what their role is and what the company is trying to accomplish," he urged.

The Pantry Inc., Cary, N.C., has been building customer loyalty through promotions aimed at supporting the military and celebrating college sports. Dave Henninger, vice president of marketing, said both are examples of "passion points." The "Salute Our Troops" donation campaign is on track to generate more than $2 million to support the USO, Wounded Warrior Project and military support organizations.

Meanwhile, the Battle for Bean Street coffee promotion--where customers buying a cup of coffee can choose between a Duke University, North Carolina State or University of North Carolina basketball themed cup--has proved another success. The company's Kangaroo Express brand ranked tops for having the cleanest coffee areas in the 2011 mystery shop.

"If you can find a passion point, you can take buying a cup of coffee to a whole new level," he said.

When asked to share their "Achilles' heel" of the customer experience, Henninger highlighted restroom cleanliness. "We have to find people who get hospitality. We have to build a people culture that has great restrooms."

Zikias of Thorntons said suggestive selling is an area for improvement. The chain actually ranked first in suggestive selling, although its rate was 38.9%. Indeed, all of the participants in the 2011 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop scored below 39% for suggestive selling--although some, such as QuikTrip, have a policy not to suggestive sell.

McMahon said speed of service needed some work at Sheetz. "We're trying to balance customer friendliness with speed," he said, noting that most customers will tolerate slower service as long as employees apologize for the wait and keep them informed. Part of the challenge is the inherent time-consuming quality of Sheetz's made-to-order sandwich offering.

"It's like being the tenth car in the drive-through," he said of waiting for a made-to-order product; that is, you sacrifice speed for another benefit--in this case, a custom-made product; however, customers still expect service to be "fast enough."

Paulsen observed that from the perspective of a customer waiting in line, each actual minute feels like three minutes. "Once you build the customer experience, they're more flexible with that."