What brands can learn from supermarkets’ service

Supermarkets are the surprising leaders in a new poll of customer service ratings, with financial services, energy and telecoms brands falling far behind, suggesting there is a great deal marketers can gain from looking outside their industry and personalising interactions.

Online and high street retailers, supermarkets and hotels are top of mind for the best customer service experiences, compared to mobile network providers, utilities and financial services, which are lagging behind.

New research by agency Simpson Carpenter surveyed 1,547 consumers and shows the experiences of customer service by sector. It reveals that 17% of respondents have experienced the best customer service at a supermarket.

The supermarkets’ position among the top performers might be considered a surprise given that the big four – Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda – are experiencing a decline in sales and profits. However, in recent months the supermarkets have sought to differentiate themselves on customer experience over big-budget, price-led advertising, while grocery is also among the most mature sectors in terms of providing hassle-free online services.

It is the contact with consumers, however, that puts them in a top position for service, according to Katya Vukcevic, customer experience specialist at Simpson Carpenter. She says: “Supermarkets and other high street retailers are perfectly positioned to do well – they have the frequent, personal face-to-face interactions with their customers, which are such a strong driver of customer satisfaction.”

Online retailers provide the best customer service for 13% of the sample, and 12% say hotels and high street retailers are top in their experience. This compares to almost a fifth (19%) of consumers saying their worst customer experiences have been with a mobile phone or broadband company, which is only slightly worse than 18% for the utilities sector and 11% for financial services. Brands that are mentioned for the best service include Amazon, Tesco and Asda, while the worst are BT, TalkTalk and British Gas.

Vukcevic says that it was no surprise that telecommunications, utilities and financial providers were at the bottom of the list as they are “known to be the black sheep of customer service”.

She adds: “They need to invest in raising their standards. At least some companies are aware of this and are taking action, as demonstrated by a recent BT announcement to move some of their call centre jobs back to the UK. But from the customer’s perspective the pace of change is too slow.”

Top performers excel because of how problems are resolved. The study shows that even if a consumer’s initial experience is negative, there can be a positive outcome depending on the service that the customer subsequently receives.

Yet brands need to be aware that when the initial experience is poor, consumers are likely to discuss it with peers more than a positive one, and that negative experiences also elicit a more detailed narrative about the issue.

The research reveals that more than half of consumers have posted online reviews about their experiences, both good and bad, but the average number of friends and family that people share positive experiences with is six, compared to 13 for negative reviews.

The study also uses cultural insights and semiotics to identify trends that are influencing customer service today. These include ‘hyper-personalisation’, where companies need to anticipate and identify needs based on customer behaviour and create deals to suit those needs.

Other trends include ‘instant gratification’, where providing instant feedback and asking customers for ideas will heighten the experience, and ‘new luxury’. This is where consumers are trading up for products that possess a greater level of quality and style but are not out of reach, so high levels of knowledge and product upgrades are expected from brands.

The future of customer service for the survey respondents therefore lies in expertise, tailored rewards and personalisation across sectors, while speed of response and convenience play an increasingly important role.

Vukcevic says: “Customers coming through the door are armed with in-depth knowledge. They expect staff not just to match this but be able to give advice and guide them further. Companies need to arm front-line staff with knowledge and platforms to be able to access and relay information instantly and efficiently to customers.”

She warns that this may be particularly challenging in more complex environments such as car dealerships, DIY, homeware stores and technology retail.