Symposium delves into digital, retail ‘Customer Experience’
By Lou Fancher
In retail commerce conversations on the ramifications of online shopping, shuttered storefronts, 21st century consumers and more, “The Customer Experience,” a free Lamorinda business symposium, was like a breath of fresh air.
Four panelists cut to the chase, endorsing old-fashioned ideas about what it takes for a business to succeed and offering swift, no-nonsense appraisals of industry challenges ahead.
Although the panelists differed in their perspectives, they have all studied their consumers’ habits. Sneha Patel, operations manager of 150 UPS franchise stores in Northern California and Nevada, said people entering her UPS stores are educated; statistics show that 99 percent of customers have already researched them online.
“The interaction starts right there: online, not in the store,” she said. Customers are frequently busy on their phones during transactions, making them impatient and distracted. Ironically, online reviews show that individual attention and personal connection are customer priorities.
“Strong training that leads to good customer service can’t be overlooked or shortchanged,” she said at the symposium, presented by the Moraga Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 14, at Saint Mary’s College. It was led by moderator and SMC director of community and government relations Tim Farley.
Tom Frainier, CEO/president of Semifreddi’s Bakery, echoed the idea that employee training and satisfaction and face-to-face interactions are the core of a strong company.
He advocated retro-like themes and operations — classroom employee training that includes tests, internal promotions (85 percent of current management has risen from within the company) and profits shared with employees (Semifreddi last year returned to employees $650,000, roughly one-third of the company’s pretax dollars).
External counterculture practices include “never spending a dime on advertising” and relying on word-of-mouth, quick response to negative customer feedback, real people — not machines —answering phones and product giveaways.
“We donate half-a-million dollars of baked goods to school events, crab feeds. People try the bread and get locked into the company. Give it to them at 8 years old, you have a customer for 80 years,” he said.
Algorithms and data don’t provide effective customer service, he added.
“People make it too complicated: if you have a product people want, backed by good service, they’ll come. By treating the employees really well, customers will see the difference,” Frainier said. “Kill the customer with kindness. Take the high road. Give people a reason to come into your store: lively employees who know what they’re doing.”
Jay Kerner, president and CEO of U.S. Realty Partners, said media’s “retail apocalypse” stories inaccurately portray reality. While some malls or stores grew too large and declined due to poor upkeep, or inadequate, uninformed staffing, businesses that offer seamless bricks-and-mortar combined with online presence do well.
Supermarkets, drug and cosmetic stores, discounters like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s and restaurants and malls that mix entertainment and shopping are most successful.
“The bottom line is that retail is not going away,’ said Kerner.
The message from Lena Waters, vice president of integrated marketing with DocuSign, that the digital system exists and businesses simply must use it, was made plain when she asked people to take out their phones.
“Your business is already in customers’ hands through Yelp, maps, Facebook, Instagram, search results, any interface you use.”
Asked about the difficulties cul-de-sac areas like Moraga experience in their efforts to attract new businesses, panelists said inadequate mass transit makes it difficult for employees, let alone customers, to access the area.
Kerner said the current focus for the Rheem Shopping Center, which has struggled for years, is non- or small-chain restaurants. Oddly, the best tactic used to win new tenants is familiar big chain catalyst Starbucks.
“You have to show tenants other tenants who do well in a location. Starbucks is a good one because they become a hub. They pull in a lot of foot traffic.”
Frainier, while agreeing that jumping on the digital wagon is a no-brainer, said tried-and-true guerrilla marketing, like during the early years when he’d hop out of his bread truck, approach a driver in a car, bang on the window and offer the person a free baguette, still carries a certain charm — and creates hundreds of lifelong, repeat customers.