Phil Staub is the executive chairman of General Pants, a retail group which owns Surf, Dive & Ski, Jetty Surf and Billabong, which together operate more than 70 fashion and surf stores nationally. The group employs around 1000 staff and generates over $250 million in annual revenue.
In this Q&A interview with Alex Pirouz, Staub discusses how retail has changed over the years, why customer service is so important, how to quantify and measure service across a company and what to look for when hiring staff to ensure they have great customer service.
Can you briefly describe to us how you started and the path the business has taken you to where you are?
I had always been involved in youth marketing. I used to operate dance parties, night clubs and a restaurant. We bought General Pants 16 years ago when it was a much smaller business, NSW only, and it kind of all made sense because youth marketing is what we did so well. Our general mission and vision has never really changed but how we attack it is always changing due to the market.
How has retail changed in the last five to seven years?
I think the change in the last 5 years has not been as intense as the last two years. The last two years has been a significant change in retail due to the whole social media piece really taking off.
Our entire marketing department has been totally shifted.
So the whole way we approach business has really shifted because not only are we talking to our customers but more importantly our customers are talking to us. So the way we do things when marketing is incredibly different. It’s no longer about preaching to the customers, it’s about listening to what they want and doing just that.
How would you define customer service?
Simple really: just give the customer what they want. It’s about being intuitive and aware of all the different personality types. Some customers like to be left alone till they need help, some want fast service and others do it all by themselves. So as a representative you need to take an intuitive approach and be aware of the signals your customers give you.
How important has that been in your success in the last 16 years?
We are consistently being told by our customers that they really enjoyed the experience they had when they last walked into one of our stores. Customer service is a real differentiator for us. We pay our staff well, they are all on incentives, we have lots of staff functions and provide extensive staff training for all different levels of employment.
This is where we teach them not only about sales, but also awareness, interaction with different styles of people and how to grow as an individual. This ensures staff are happy and motivated, which then reflects on our customer service in store.
When recruiting new staff, how important is it to hire staff that are aligned to your customer service objectives?
It all starts at recruitment. Hire slow and fire fast. If you have the right people with the right attitude and energy that fit what you’re all about, then the job becomes easy to execute and all that is left is refining of the process to continue improving. At the end of the day it all boils down to attitude. You can teach someone how to use the computers within the stores but you can’t teach someone how to have a good attitude.
How do you quantify and measure customer service?
It all goes back to each individual salesperson, we look individuals and the store to see if they are hitting their targets and by that we know that the system is working.
You said before that the retail industry has shifted dramatically in the last two years, how have you stayed ahead of the game in terms of customer service with things evolving so rapidly?
Have a lot of people in the organisation who are doing different things at all different ages. We have people in the office who are 18, 24, 30, 40, which gives us a great blend of people who have the experience and people who are developing their experience. This gives us a balanced perspective of where we are and where we are heading.
For someone who has just started their business, how do they define customer service?
If you are going into business you should know what your customer wants. If you have a mission of what you want to accomplish, you just need to break that down and that will provide you the customer service strategy.
Where do you see customer service heading in the future?
I think customer service will become a combination of online and bricks and mortar. By combining the two, you are providing the customer trust, a fast and immediate service and certainty knowing that they can get what they want when they want by using your brand.
The changing piece of customer service is all about technology and how businesses use them.
Depending on your business and industry, bricks and mortar in my eyes will still be the prominent way for customers to purchase products or services because people are social beings and they need interaction.
How important is customer service when you compare it to all the other sectors within the business?
The customer in my eyes is the king. I can’t run my business successfully if I don’t have happy customers. Customer service is a huge part of what we do and the success we have had in the past 16 years and will continue to be moving forward.
Customer service always has been and always will be a key focus to our success.
I see so many people cutting training budgets when times are tough, but I say let’s add to the training budget because if someone has limited money they will want to shop with the best.
What are the top 3 things to keep in mind when planning a customer service policy?
Concentrate on the customers’ needs, have an intuitive approach and an educated team.
If you could offer one piece of advice to a business owner looking to provide great customer service, what would that be?
I think it goes behind customer service; it’s about having a really clear strategy on what your business is about. Once you have identified this your customer service policy will naturally come together. You can’t have good customer service with a bad system and poor product/service line. You need to have a holistic approach to your entire strategy.
These days you need to have a more scientific approach, so if you have a good plan your customer service approach is just another section of that which fits in to the whole circle of what you’re about.
Alex Pirouz is the founder of RIDC Advisory Pty Ltd. A Business and Sales Advisory firm partnering with Australia’s largest and fastest growing companies to further increase their revenue. Visit www.ridcadvisory.com.au for more details.