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Every day, you and your staff spend time talking with customers. You greet them when they come into your store, ask them how you can help, and chat with them while you wrap up their sales. While you're at it, why not ask them what they think of your tea and coffee business?

Whether you casually interview customers at the till, send them a questionnaire, or conduct formal focus groups, there's nothing more valuable than obtaining shopper feedback. When you know how customers perceive your store environment and its products and services, you can better serve them. Then they're more likely to return to your tea and coffee establishment again and again.

It's helpful to know what existing and prospective customers think of your store, so you can best respond to them. You may believe you're delivering superior service, but that doesn't matter if your customers don't agree with you.

Make your shopper feedback system an integral part of your total customer service program. Stan Pohmer of Pohmer Consulting Group, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based consulting firm, says, “Add customers' viewpoints to the data you collect from POs, inventory and profitability reports."

However, information from these other methods evaluates only what your store currently offers, not what it's lacking. Comments from customers can make you more aware of the tea and coffee trends that they've read about in magazines, heard of through friends or seen at your competition. Encourage your staff to casually converse with customers, inviting their opinions about your store's quality and selection of products and services.

Shopper feedback can also reveal successes and areas needing improvement. Businesses that give service above and beyond customers' expectations are the ones that thrive. And the ones that thrive know what their customers think.

Before you choose your method, involve your staff. Since they interact closely with shoppers, they can offer an accurate perspective to help you arrive at specific questions to ask them. Invite employees to join you in rating your business. Pose questions you'd like your customers to answer, and find out how well you're doing regarding:

* Store environment. Ask about parking availability and signage, merchandise display and restroom cleanliness, noise level and store lighting. Can products be found easily? Is your tea and coffee store a pleasant place to shop? Is it wheelchair accessible?

* Products. Consider quality, selection and price. Should you carry more candles? Do you have a good variety of picture frames and stoneware? What does your competition sell that you don't, and maybe should? Are you up on current trends, to stay one step ahead of customers' desires?

* Service. Evaluate how you and your staff greet customers, answer the phone, encourage browsers and close sales. Are you neatly dressed? How are your telephone skills? Do you make prompt deliveries? Do you follow up with customers?

When you direct questions to customers, be sure to respect their privacy. Allow the option, not the obligation, to give name, address and phone number. If they want, they can also answer how often and why they shop your tea and coffee store. And while other stores' survey forms may request ethnic background, sex, age, occupation and income bracket, ask yourself if the benefits of obtaining this information outweigh the risks of possibly alienating those customers who may be offended.

Unless they're clearly dissatisfied, customers normally stay mum until you blatantly ask for their opinions. There are a number of ways to gather information from customers, depending on your customer service style, store size, financial budget and time allowance.

  • Informal conversations. Take a moment to ask customers how they heard about your tea and coffee business, what brought them in, and if they found what they needed. Let your sales people get to know your customers by giving one-on-one, personal attention. That makes it more possible for them to share their experiences with you.

    Collect customer comments from your employees, regularly. "Your staff interacts daily with shoppers, and know what they're asking for," says Pohmer.

  • Questionnaires. Come up with several questions, calling for scaled, multiple-choice or yes/no answers, that address the most important aspects of your tea and coffee store. Leave room for additional comments. Keep questionnaires at the till for customers to voluntarily complete and mail back (with return postage paid).

    Include a survey form when you bag up customers' purchases. To entice response, offer an incentive, such as a 10%-off coupon. You can also distribute surveys at the door, as customers are leaving, not arriving, once they've had a chance to experience your store.

    If you mail your surveys, send them only to those in your customer data base. Sending them cold won't yield many results unless you offer a huge incentive, and then it looks like a sales gimmick.

    Finally, you can recite your questions as customers exit your store, or by phone. Though an anonymous response yields more information, verbal surveys can be effective if you keep them convenient and brief.

  • Special phone line. Designate one just for customer comments and complaints. Print the number on wallet-sized cards, and leave a stack at the register.

  • Focus groups. Invite several customers to meet with you at your tea and coffee store, to discuss (30 minutes max) how they perceive your business. Choose a cross-section of customers - loyal and new, regular and occasional. Again, offer an incentive, such as a gift certificate for lunch or a store discount. "It shows that you value their time," says Pohmer. "They'll feel good about contributing, and want to do so, again."

  • After-sale follow-up. Reserved for large purchases, this gives you an opportunity to also ask customers how they feel about your tea and coffee business, in general.

  • Your vendors. They can provide you with product sales trends and demographics of your customer base. And since vendors deal with multiple retailers, they can pass this broader market perspective on to you.

  • Outside research company. If your tea and coffee store size and budget allow, hire someone to survey your customers and/or people who shop your business's geographic area. Though the latter will give you more general results, the information may reveal how much they're shopping your competition.

  • The Internet. Eventually, e-mail will be a common customer information-gathering method as the technology becomes more a part of our shopping lives. Even then, people are more apt to respond this way only for big complaints. Those with compliments aren't inclined to go out of their way to tell you.
Generally, customers give feedback when they're dissatisfied. When dealing with unhappy customers, it's very important not to get defensive. Complaints, though unpleasant to hear, can serve as valuable information toward improving your store.

Indeed, any information is better than none. And if you're going to take the trouble of asking customers their opinions, be sure to make the best use of what you get. Look for a trend among the responses. Do most of your customers want you to carry more varieties of tea? Are they annoyed by the AM radio blasting away? Even if only one person speaks out, listen up. He or she probably isn't the only customer who feels that way.

Develop and implement a superior customer service program to respond to your customers' concerns, and include it in your tea and coffee store's mission statement. Says Pohmer, "You've got to analyze the information and then apply it to improving your business, either by adding, modifying or eliminating products and services." He advises doing a cost-benefits analysis, to judge whether you can afford the suggested action. Once you've made the changes, observe and measure your progress. In several months, survey your customers again, to see how well you and your staff are doing.

You can never collect too much feedback from customers. Make it easy for them. Keep survey forms short and sweet, phone customers during convenient hours and, as they shop your store, engage them in unpressured, casual conversation. Everyone wants to be heard. Let your customers know you care when you listen to their thoughts about your tea and coffee store. Then be prepared to respond and make changes.

As owner of your store, only you can analyze and respond to customer feedback. Learn what's best for your business when you let your customers tell you what's best for them.

Claire Sykes is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Tea & Coffee - November/December 2002

Theta Ridge Coffee

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