Could better customer service have prevented Debenhams decline?

Could better customer service have prevented Debenhams decline?

One upon a time at Christmas

It’s time for another good customer service story and this time it again involves my mum.

She was going to a Christmas party at an organisation where she does voluntary work and needed a Christmas jumper. She looked online and found a jumper in Dorothy Perkins but their online system wouldn’t accept her payment card.

So she went into town and visited Debenhams and spoke to somebody in the Dorothy Perkins outlet in there who was very polite, very helpful but wasn’t able to do anything as they didn’t have the jumper in stock. Karen, an assistant said that she was going to another store and she would get my mum the jumper. My mum must have an honest face as she took her details and a few days later contacted my mum. She said that she had bought the jumper and that it would be delivered so that my mum then went in and paid for it.

That would have been all well and good but actually the jumper never arrived, so my mum had to ‘phone up again and let Karen know. Karen was very apologetic. She said that they had had lots of problems with the couriers. She ‘phoned up and eventually the jumper did arrive in time for the party!

So, short and sweet but actually an example of very good service. The staff member did not need to get the jumper from another store that really is over and above the call of duty. She spent her money on a gift card which could be used at another store.

Going the extra mile

When staff go the extra mile in doing more than what is expected of them, I always think it is worth sharing. I feel that staff should do the job that they are paid for but when they go over and above, that’s when praise is due and praise is due here. Businesses should take note that the good interpersonal skills shown by this member of staff, and her going the extra mile, (literally in this case) actually meant that next time my mum went  shopping she was very likely to go into the store again. This is the kind of service that will keep our high streets going because it doesn’t happen like that online.

What went wrong for Debenhams?

Sadly, it looks like customer service in one Debenhams wasn’t enough! The Debenhams in the shopping centre I use does not have such good customer service. For example, I have experienced staff being rude when I pointed out my consumer rights. Just a small contributing factor regarding the quality of customer experience.

Natalie Berg, Retail Analyst and Founder of NBK Retail, agrees. She says

“There’s no room for mediocre experiences in retail today. You need to be on top of your game. You need to save customers’ time or enhance it. But enhancing time goes beyond a few instore gyms or beauty bars, retailers need to give shoppers a very compelling reason to ditch their screens and come into the store.”

Emphasising the priorities, she continues:

“This means first and foremost fixing the basics around price and range, then ensuring your proposition is consistent, experiential and service-led. (In a world where you can access billions of products at your fingertips, high street retailers simply can’t compete on product alone.) But this requires a huge cultural shift – staff must be both knowledgeable and empowered to offer a superior customer experience.”

Many a retail analyst says that Debenhams was simply not selling enough to match its huge overheads. Why wasn’t it selling enough? Was it not keeping up with trends? Did it not have its own USP?

Andrew Busby, retail analyst founder & CEO of Retail Reflections Ltd, says that Debenhams had been in decline for many years:

“It’s important to remember that their fate was not sealed in the last 12 months but over a period of time stretching back as far as 2003. That was the time when the new leadership team sold and leased back 26 stores.

And over the years, more and more juice has been squeezed out of Debenhams in the form of cash, loading it with debt whilst investing very little. In the end all they had left to squabble over was the pith.”

But more than that, during that same period, Debenhams, in the face of competition from the likes of Primark, Asos and latterly such as Boohoo, Missguided etc. it has simply lost its relevance.

A department store with no compelling reason to visit; and only then by their largely ageing customer base. BHS revisited.”

What is the future for Debenhams?

I am a fan of Debenhams. I’ve shopped there. I liked the fact that there was variety and one could have choice when shopping in store and online. They were good for sales (really good for sales actually) especially in their stocking fillers at Christmas and wide range of clothes available. But I agree that they may not have kept up to date for younger shoppers. Natalie Berg describes Debenhams as having a relevance problem. “They completely underestimated e-commerce, assuming their core categories were immune to the digital shift. Instead, they prioritised store expansion at exactly the time online and mobile shopping began to take off.”

When I compared prices, particularly for a range of different items, it frequently worked out cheaper to buy from Debenhams. Last year and the year before I bought items in the Black Friday week. I monitored their Black Friday weeks and those bargains were genuine.

So what does the future hold for Debenhams? Andrew Busby thinks it looks pretty bleak. After all, it seems unlikely that anyone would wish to take on the debt pile and as the first batch of 22 store closures is announced the question is just how many will they close in total? His feeling is that for the business to have any chance of survival they need to be radical and achieve a store estate of around 50 in key locations, compared with the current 165. “But when have we ever witnessed a retail business cut itself to success?”, he asks.

There may be hope though. When Dave Lewis started at Tesco he cut the expansion programme, sold off parts of the business and cut management positions and more recently jobs on the shop floor. Tesco’s fortunes have seemingly been turned around.

Can the High Street survive?

Yes the High Street can survive and even thrive. The commonly talked about proposed reductions in rents, rates and parking would obviously help. But the community groups, the small businesses, are all reinventing the High Street, providing something different whilst the huge chains are still struggling.

What do these small businesses offer that is different? Some offer innovation and creativity, some offer something specific to their locality. But there is one thing that they all have in common, the personal touch and good old customer service. When it comes to selling they know their products and the locality and their customers. They care and when something goes wrong they deal with complaints personally and appropriately.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the long established chains could learn something from those newer to the High Street. It boils down to what I always say “Listen to your customers”. Listen and deliver.

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Author: Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow

Consultant | Author | Speaker | Blogger | Presenter | Journalist Helping to make, prevent and deal with complaints

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