Changing attitudes in the retail sector have raised the calibre of contestants, with this year's competition attracting a top field IN THE INTENSELY competitive retail market, customer service has become the key driver of business growth and has also raised overall standards in the sector. The Hong Kong Retail Management Association's Service and Courtesy Award, which has served as a benchmark for service quality over the past two decades, this year attracted applicants of the highest calibre from a wider range of companies. 'The emphasis on customer service used to apply more to the high-end luxury brand category, but with increasing customer expectations every retail business has now embraced customer service. It is no longer a value-added service but the backbone of every retail business,' said Bankee Kwan, chairman of the HKRMA. As an example, Mr Kwan said it was no longer just the five-star restaurants that asked customers if they enjoyed their meals. Regular restaurants were trying to adopt this service mentality too, thus eliminating the old concept of 'you get what you pay for'. Giving customers a good impression of your brand has never been more important. 'This is a good sign and shows a trend that customer service has become part of the retail culture,' Mr Kwan said. The importance of a good impression has been driven, in part, by tight product pricing structures that leave little room for retailers to raise prices after meeting soaring rents and higher operating costs. 'Retailers, as a result, now depend very much on volume business, which means the demand on repeat customers is a lot higher. Businesses are keen to make a good impression by using approachable and friendly service to keep market share above the standard,' Mr Kwan said. With customer service education initiatives led by the HKRMA and government advertisements highlighting what is deemed unacceptable service, the mindset of frontline professionals has been changing over the years. Better-informed customers have in tandem pushed the service bar even higher, with the internet and media equipping them with the relevant product knowledge. 'What customers want now is for sales staff to tell them more about the product and refer them to other products that are similarly comparable in price and function,' Mr Kwan said. This knowledge trend, coupled with the popularity of online shopping, has meant that customer service has become the number one differentiator between buying products in a virtual environment and in a store. It is hardly surprising, then, that retailers have adapted to this need and adjusted their training style, focusing on an interactive approach and product knowledge. 'Apart from just teaching staff sales techniques, training has now been extended to include the handling of different customer service scenarios to ensure staff receptivity,' Mr Kwan said. With the retail environment set to get even more competitive in the future, one of the major challenges is for retailers to integrate their IT infrastructures to support an efficient sales and customer service force. Stores also need to ensure their outlets are renovated from time to time to meet the comfort expectations of customers. In the longer-term, the focus was is likely to be on visual merchandising, including more mix-and-match retail elements, and inducing customers to buy more as a result of their initial purchases. With the outlook rosy, Mr Kwan said the HKRMA should expand the competition to meet the growing number of participants.