In the July 8th issue of The Wall Street Journal, was an article, “Walmart Scrambles to Reinvent Itself as Sales Slump.” Why the hurry? Even with nearly half a trillion dollars in revenue, the company reported its fifth straight quarter of negative sales in the US with dwindling traffic heading into the next.
Walmart has a new CEO; Doug McMillion. At one of the first meetings with top executives, he assigned homework. Everyone had to read, The Everything Store, by Brad Stone about Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon initially replicated Walmart’s business model of acting fast and experimenting often and now Walmart is learning from its protégé in preparation for the company’s new strategic plan. Today, one of the basic foundations of Amazon is customer service; it is the differentiator. Is improving customer service part of Walmart’s new initiatives?
So how is Walmart going to reinvent itself? For the first time in its history, Walmart is going to open smaller and convenience type stores rather than supercenters. The thought is that smaller is better. My thought is that no matter what the size, personalized customer service is what will make a difference. Smaller doesn’t mean better unless the formula for service delivery is changed.
About ten years ago, I went to our local Walmart in Northern New Jersey to look for plastic storage units. I found the bins, but no tops to go with them. I searched high and low for a person to help me, but to no avail. It was like a game of hide and seek. Unfortunately not only did I lose, so did Walmart. I walked out and thought to myself, why would I ever go back again? I found exactly what I wanted with some assistance from a person at Target.
About six months ago, I was on vacation in a small city in North Carolina, where Walmart is the only major store in town. I wanted to get some board games the family could play together. I checked the aisles and found what I wanted – Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble. But, I was unimpressed when I got to the check–out counter with my purchases. The staff was indifferent and just robotically took my money; there was no interaction, eye contact, or a smile.
A few days ago, I went to another Walmart in rural Massachusetts where the experience was a repeat performance; no one to help me and disinterested employees. I’m still baffled. Most of us reading this blog already know that in our competitive world customer service is and will be the primary driver that differentiates one company from another.
I have five recommendations for Walmart to personalize customer service for their new, smaller and more intimate store models. I’m sure that all of us could offer Walmart other suggestions.
- Insure that many of Amazon’s customer service strategies to improve the customer experience are incorporated into their strategic plans. (just adding additional staff here and there is not enough to insure repeat business)
- Don’t replace people with self-service options that not every customer wants. (I love when I see frontline associates operating self-service machines that frequently don’t work. It would make more sense to have those same staff members just check out the products themselves for the customer, thanking them for the business and loyalty too)
- People hate long lines (have management available to fill in when lines get too long. A line with three people is long enough in my opinion.)
- Hire people who want to build relationships with their regular shoppers and treat them like neighbors and friends. (customers will return, again and again to cashiers who know their name and get to know them personally. Selling grocery products lends itself to frequent store visits which is one of the reasons Walmart stocks them. They want people to go into the store for milk and end up seeing a TV on sale that they can’t resist. I know I will go out of my way to stand in a cashier’s line who recognizes me, gives that big smile and asks about my recent vacation)
- Have easy to find intercoms throughout the aisles where customers can ask a simple question or get a front-line associate to assist them as soon as possible. (People get frustrated when there is no one in sight)
In a recent blog I wrote, 5 Reasons to Pay Employees to Stay, Not to Go, I was impressed with the number of thoughtful comments people wrote. Some said I was right on target and others felt I simplified a complicated subject. I’m not suggesting that Walmart can double their business by implementing my suggestions or any others that people like me might recommend. But, maybe they should experiment by replicating the personalized service at one of their new smaller stores to match the service of a neighborhood coffee shop, shoemaker or hair salon. It might open some doors they haven’t envisioned. Smaller is better when the customer’s expectations for more personalized service are met or exceeded.