At the same time, in this sector more than any other, appearances are everything and impact directly on the customer's bottom line. So whether it's a town centre or an out of town mall, a supermarket or a department store, an immaculate appearance is as critical to commercial success for the retailer as the products on the shelves.
Increasingly, the facilities services provider must be more creative and yet more buttoned down, mirroring the polished performances of its customer base. Just as the retailer must know and understand their customer, the FM provider must understand the retailer to be able to give them exactly, not approximately, what they need.
Insider knowledgeGetting inside the mind of the retailer is vital. We have to understand how their businesses work so that we can provide a genuinely helpful service that supports the retailers' own business strategy. Primarily we need to understand what considerations they must make in providing a location that will draw shoppers back through the doors again and again.
Most retailers are under increasing pressure to provide value for money, and they are looking for no less from their facilities services provider. This doesn't necessarily mean that the cheapest service will be the most ideal for them. They want high quality, too. Continuous improvement can be made by increased efficiency and by establishing a genuinely national infrastructure. Consistency is a frequent bugbear for retailers. Many operate truly national operations, but find it hard to source a truly national service provider.
Retailers must make critical decisions between using valuable space in the most profitable way and providing the kind of uncluttered relaxed environment that will persuade the shopper to part with their money, preferably on a regular basis. This feeling of space must be matched with high standards of cleanliness. Efficient cleaning tangibly adds to the ambiance of a shopping experience, just as a dirty location will positively detract from it and discourage business - often permanently. Presentation is everything, and our task is to ensure that the fabulous outlet provided by the architect and interior designer stays fabulous despite the visits of millions of shoppers each week.
Outstanding customer serviceThe retailer knows the value of good customer service, and appreciates it when it's delivered, too. Time is money, and the time between problem and solution is often a source of anxiety. We need to know before the customer, if possible, if something occurs, whether it's the result of an action of our customer, their customer or just wear and tear. We also need to provide a rapid response to deal with it before it's noticed. In short, the only thing our customer should notice is the resolution. Every member of the FM team, from toilet cleaner to concierge, from grounds care staff to safety officers should understand the importance of customer service and should live its values. Retailers absolutely should be able to buy politeness, good manners and a helpful attitude. It should be ingrained in every member of the team and embodied in the unwritten part of the contract. They expect it of their own staff and they expect it, quite rightly, of the service provider too.
Safe and soundHealth and safety is a huge issue in this sector where so many working hours are spent face to face with the general public. This is an all-ages environment, from the newborn to the very elderly, and all should be able to shop safely and without hindrance. Our routines need to be designed with these factors in mind and geared towards maintaining the highest standards at all times. With increased opening hours, especially in the demanding 24-hour supermarket setting, cleaning routines need to be run with the precision of a military operation, and contingency plans must be in place for every other eventuality.
Shoppers are, with the rapidly increasing pace of life, more demanding and less tolerant than ever of poor service and mistakes, so it's small wonder that retailers feel more pressured. Our services need to make them look good, support their image and build brand loyalty. We are an important part of making their customer feel comfortable, important, cared for, and safe. Making sure equipment is properly maintained, cleared away and used correctly is down to training. Cleaning is often seen as a low prestige job, and we need to get over this. A clean floor or an immaculate changing room can mean an extra sale for the retailer, and we need to be building up the esteem of the people who enhance the retail environment. Dedicated teams with pride in their work result in spotless premises and successful businesses.
Keeping the customer satisfiedCommunication is the lifeblood of the retail sector. At home we are constantly bombarded with extravagantly worded selling messages, through television, on the phone, in the media and even through our front doors. And at work it's even worse. The retailer is absolutely swamped with communication. The average supermarket stocks tens of thousands of product lines, and every one of them demands some form of communication, whether a price increase, a special promotion or even a price hold. The last thing the retailer needs is more waffle. We need to forget flowery promises and tell them exactly what we will do for them. Then we need to do it, and let them know it's been done. Not one of them needs another corporate message; they just need to know that the aisles are clear and clean and the customer toilet is clean and working. Essentially, their time is precious and they need a single point of contact for everything.
Consistency of approachA store in Leeds works in much the same way as a store in Bristol, Maidstone or Edinburgh - so why are the service offerings different? A jar of coffee is the same everywhere, so why does the retailer need to deal with lots of service providers who work in different ways in the various regions? The reality is that they don't, and they wouldn't choose to if they could avoid it. There's no reason now why they can't. We quite literally have the technology to replicate our facilities services everywhere, so why are so few of us doing it?
Consistency of approach helps the service provider just as much as it does the retailer. It aids buying power, makes us more efficient, and therefore more profitable, and it helps us to win more business. By providing a truly national infrastructure, we can provide a consistent high-quality service, with a genuine single point of contact, and central accountability, all of which actually helps us to better understand our customer's industry. This in turn makes us more valuable to the customer and encourages repeat business.
Track recordThere's no substitute for experience. Most of the successful retailers of today have learned their skills over a number of decades, even if their retail outlets no longer resemble those of long ago. Track record is no less important for a facilities services provider. Retail is an industry that requires confidence in its suppliers. It's a competitive business and the retailer is a spectacularly important client for any service provider. Proven competency cannot be faked; it has to be earned.
The right processes, honed and refined over years of hands-on management in a challenging environment, can make the difference between success and failure. Providers can score highly here when they can draw on experience in other sectors - airports, industrial, commercial, public organisations - all of which have challenges that can be learnt from and translated into new ways of addressing issues and creating solutions. Although superficially these are very different worlds, valuable lessons can be learned and the retailer appreciates this. He in turn has taken ideas from the hotel and leisure industries and deployed them to advance shopping to one of the world's favourite leisure activities. We need to be no less smart, and we shouldn't be afraid to be innovative, provided we can view new ideas with an experienced eye.
In their shoesThe most important thing that a service provider can supply to their retail customer is an understanding of their business. There is simply no point our trying to convince them how brilliant we can be at a host of services that aren't relevant. First learn the market, then offer the services you know that customers need; and don't waste their time trying to get them to understand your mission statement. You build a reputation in the retail sector by getting to know the retailer. It's all down to putting yourself in their shoes, or clothes, cornflakes, paint tins, PCs, curtains, books...
About the author
Rob Cattell is Chief Operating Officer for MacLellan Retail Services. Please visit www.maclellan-group.plc.uk
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