What a year of change has taught me: retailers’ five top tips and mistakes revealed

Hazel Davis
·5-min read

The last year has ripped up the rule book and made companies big and small rethink how they do business. We asked three company owners about the most valuable lessons they’ve learned when it comes to delivering great customer service: what went well, what went wrong, and how they put things right. Here are five key learnings from a year that made students of everyone.

Keep communicating
If one thing has been necessary (and not always forthcoming) in this tumultuous year it’s good communication. With shops closed, staff furloughed and orders upended, customers needed clear explanations like never before.

When the artisan cheesemaker the Bath Soft Cheese Company lost more than half of its business after the pandemic closed restaurants and cafes, the team looked to quickly grow its online home delivery sales, meaning that direct communication with customers was more important than ever.

“Letting customers know how they could still get our cheese, reassuring them it was safe, selecting courier companies that could text and email customers to tell them when deliveries were due, and learning how to use online advertising to get our offering known was crucial,” says Hugh Padfield, the managing director.

Cover all the bases
Altering customer habits isn’t always easy, as the Dorset-based store Coconut & Cotton – which sells plastic-free goods and sustainable home, beauty and health products – found out.

One of its plastic-free services was to provide refills of products such as shampoos and conditioners to customers who supplied their own containers. But as lockdown went on and Coconut & Cotton’s online business grew, it decided to transfer the refill business to another shop nearby, says founding director Lucy Barfoot. “Even three months after the change we still had people coming in with bags full of bottles to be filled. It’s difficult when people have made the effort to come and what they want isn’t there any more.”

The shop learned a valuable lesson about reaching out to its customers. “I realised that updates on services needed to be displayed and delivered on every possible platform, from the shop door to mass emails, social media, Google My Business, on our website in multiple places and pages, and on local radio,” says Barfoot. “It was so hard to make sure our customers knew what we were changing as the year went on.”

Transparency matters
In “normal” times a business might try to fix a problem before even informing the customer there is one. But the past year has often called for a different approach. For shoe designer Sargasso & Grey, transparency about difficulties helped build customer support.

The company’s bread-and-butter business is occasion shoes but, says owner Katie Owen, “given there have been no occasions this year, it hasn’t been easy and we have had to think on our feet”. The company did this by introducing a range of casual shoes, which included flats and trainers.

Even then, with supply chains impacted and stock delayed, customers had to wait longer than expected for shoes to be delivered, says Owen. “But we were very open that we were experiencing challenging times, and we kept communicating with both new and repeat customers.”

The company sent personal emails to all customers to thank them for their support and patience, and to offer them the opportunity to cancel their orders. “As soon as the shoes arrived we mailed them via express shipping,” says Owen. “All of our customers were amazingly supportive. Covid has certainly made people feel that we are ‘in it together’.”

Related: ‘If firms aren’t agile, they’ll be left behind’: five ways customer service has changed forever

Go the extra mile
With consumers spending more time communicating online, word of mouth is proving vital – offering opportunities for businesses that are able to step up and give customers exactly what they want. Sargasso & Grey found that an above-and-beyond approach to customer service made all the difference to repeat business.

“When Covid first hit, there was so much uncertainty about whether weddings and parties would go ahead,” says Owen. “We immediately extended our returns policy to 90 days and backdated it to include customers who’d purchased shoes in the previous month.”

This meant that customers who’d already bought shoes were able to return them. While this initially hurt the company financially, many customers subsequently bought again and many others said they would do so. “We also got new customers who were more confident to purchase shoes for an event that might not happen,” says Owen, who has decided to keep the policy in place.

Low price can be high-cost
In the scramble to retain customers, businesses have ended up making pricing errors. Initially, the Bath Soft Cheese Company offered a low price-point for free delivery, which led to it running out of cheese. To address this, the company increased the minimum order for free delivery to £25.

Padfield says: “It’s only a small change, and still represents great value for the customer, but it means we are making some money.”

The strategy ultimately paid off – online sales went from being a tiny part of the business to being a quarter of all sales.

The world has changed – and your customers’ experience needs to change with it. To navigate this challenging landscape and champion good customer service, visit Zendesk.