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One Step Ahead
| Anne-Marie Hardie
>> Published Date: 3/26/2014
A customer comes in with a dead plant that’s obviously not from your garden center. What would you do? Traditionally, most garden centers would advise the customer that the plant could not be replaced. 

John Kennedy, a Customer Experience Consultant and founder of Upselling Green, shared a different ending to this story. In this particular situation, the garden center employee not only replaced the plant, but offered a second one for free. When asked why, the employee responded that he wanted the customer to have a positive experience. The customer not only became a loyal customer, but has also shared his experience with others, bringing several new clients to this thriving garden center. This employee created a memorable customer experience, creating both a loyal customer and bringing potentially thousands of dollars into the garden center.

There has been an evolution in the retail garden industry. The practices that were profitable a decade ago are no longer the best business tools for our retail staff to use. Profit is the ultimate objective for most garden centers and customers are the source of this profit. So how do you achieve and ideally surpass profit goals in today’s market? Well, according to John Kennedy, the key is to provide your customers with the optimal experience.

Providing customers with this type of experience requires the company to take a step back and reflect on their practices. Garden center employees should constantly be asking the question: How does this enhance my customer’s experience? And if the answer is “it doesn’t,” then what will?

In order to understand the concept of customer experience better, it’s important to know how it came about. “The economic challenges of the last five years have dramatically changed the expectations of the American consumer. For a period of time, our customers’ focus was on their wallet and their need-based spending [gas/groceries],” John says. “The pendulum is now shifting back into the want-based spending, but the shift has had an impact in customers’ perceptions. Customers are not looking for customer service anymore, but a customer experience.”

According to John, the answer is fairly simple—if you give and ideally surpass customer expectations, then they’ll return. The economy is driving consumers back into the want-based spending. In order for garden centers to maximize on this situation, garden centers need to be trained on how to offer a superior customer experience.

Traditionally, offering quality customer service was simply responding to a problem. When customers were upset, the representatives were trained to give them exactly what they wanted. But what happened to those customers who didn’t communicate their concerns? Most likely, they shopped elsewhere.

Providing a customer experience is a proactive tool; employees are offering customers this experience on each and every contact (not only the negative ones). It works by training employees to anticipate their customer’s needs and provide what they want.

“If you give them a positive customer experience, they will return for it,” John says. “Customers are looking for more in their garden centers; they want events, training, a unique kind of plant or perhaps simply to be remembered.” Quite simply, providing customers with an optimal experience gives them a strong reason to return. 

According to John, there are four basic customer experience expectations. Each of these expectations is critical to develop a positive and profitable garden center.

Expectation One:
The Perfect Product

Customers are coming to your garden center looking for the perfect product. When customers see only beautiful products, the garden center communicates to the customers that “you can grow this, too.”  Conversely, having dying product tells your customers that “if the professional can’t grow this, how could you?” Having perfect products shows customers that the garden center is run by individuals who have high standards and are committed to quality. Committing to offering only the perfect product means no longer discounting the less-than-perfect product. Remove it from your floor.   

Expectation two:

Customers don’t want to wait for their products to arrive. If customers have to order their products, they will most likely leave and buy the product elsewhere (to the garden center that has the product in stock).  Anticipate your customers’ needs and ensure that the garden center is stocked accordingly. 

Expectation three: 
Caring and Friendly People

Each and every one of your employees should be well trained, caring and friendly. “You are only as good as your worst employee,” John notes. “Whomever it is that you have, whether they are not trained or they have a poor attitude, is the best that you will ever be. That person will set the bar.”   

John emphasizes the importance of training each and every one of your staff not only on the mechanics of their job, but on providing an incredible customer experience. It’s important that each employee, from your veteran full timer to your seasonal staff, receives regular training.

“You make 70% of your income in 90 days, why wouldn’t you want to have the sharpest, most well-trained team imaginable,” John responds when asked whether fully training temporary staff was critical. 

Expectation four: 
World-Class Problem Solving

John emphasizes that customers want three things when distraught—to be responded to quickly, an authentic apology and for the situation to be fixed.

“Lead with a yes. ‘Yes, I understand your situation and here is what I’m able to do to fix it,’” he says, adding that he recommends empowering employees with lines of acceptability that can help them both resolve the customer’s issue and enhance their experience. In order to enhance the customer’s experience, the employee must surpass their expectations. Instead of simply replacing a plant, offer a box of fertilizer to help it grow. John emphasizes that most customers don’t want to speak with a manager, so by empowering your staff to resolve these issues you can avoid escalated problems.

In order to create an environment that fosters an optimal customer experience, everyone in the garden center needs to be invested. There should be training involved in helping manage and surpass customer expectations even before they get to the shop. And John emphasizes that if a customer ever asks, “Can you help?” the answer should always be yes. As a last step, John advocates that a company create a list of standards of excellence that are done consistently each and every time. These standards must align with the company philosophy and be deliverable on a daily basis. GP

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer/speaker from Barrie, Ontario, and part of the third generation of the family-owned garden center/wholesale business Bradford Greenhouses in Barrie/Bradford, Ontario.

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