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Three retail secrets from the “Queen of Shops”

All hail the queen, the “Queen of Shops.” The queen here, of course, is Mary Portas, the woman who rules the British retail industry with her sharp wit, creative ideas, and impeccable service standards. In 2005, Mary started her column Shop! in the Telegraph Magazine, then starred in her own BBC television series, Mary Queen of Shops, and in 2011 was commissioned by her government to write the Portas Review–a tough commentary about Britain's high streets. In 2016, she was interviewed by Relate Editor, Sarah Reed about how to recapture spectacular customer experiences in retail. From embracing Millennials to hiring for empathy, here’s what the queen recommends to her subjects.

Make empathy part of your cultural DNA

Real empathy makes a difference in customer service—especially when the business has made a mistake. In a customer crisis, Mary points out the power of honoring a customer’s frustration, “When someone takes the time to say, ‘I am generally sorry, how can I help you?’ it does something to improve the interaction.”

By her mark, one business is nailing customer empathy—Pret a Manger, a British coffee and sandwich chain. Mary says, “ It’s a busy period, people want to be in and out—the place has the right level of music playing, it greets you like a great Irish bar in Dublin. At Pret, it’s all about putting the customer first.” When Mary noticed Pret’s consistently empathetic customer service, she asked a Pret manager about his customer service policy. His answer was, “I don’t really have a CS policy. I only have one rule, “I only employ happy people.”

This resonates with Mary who believes that personality and relationships are what most people buy into. “If you don’t have empathy and care in your brick and mortar, how do you expect it to come out in the service?”

“If you don’t have empathy and care in your brick and mortar, how do you expect it to come out in the service?” - Mary Portas

The goal is a relationship with your customers

In today’s economy, the sale is just the beginning of the customer relationship. Real value comes from repeat customers—and that is accomplished by delivering consistently pleasant customer experiences. Work on giving joy to customers even if the action doesn’t lead to an immediate sale. For example, Mary points to Virgin Atlantic’s delightful reaction to customer theft. For a decade, Virgin outfitted their planes with plane-shaped salt and pepper shakers. They were so cute that many people nicked—“accidentally” took the shakers home. Instead of halting the production of said shakers, Virgin started inscribing “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” on the bottoms. A simple move that shows they really understand their customers, and they want to create a joyful experience.

Mary believes that everything about the customer experience should beat with the heart of the brand. And that it should speak to the individual customer. In her work culture, Mary employs a policy she refers to as “Freedom of Responsibility.” As she explains, “We need to be responsible to our customers, but you are free to do that in the way that you want.” She empowers her staff to take the extra step to personalize a situation or make a customer’s day special. Similarly, at Pret a Manger, every manager has 50 GBP (about 60 USD) to give away daily. It’s a special amount of responsibility that allows them to create unexpected moments of joy for customers.

Focus on your future customers too

Millennials do things differently—from working to shopping. Businesses need to understand the next generation in order to provide them with the right experience. As Mary puts it, “If you don’t understand Millennials you won’t be successful. Millennials are thinking about stuff that feeds their soul instead of just stuff. They are not going to be able to accumulate wealth in the same ways as past generations so they are collecting experiences.” Brands must provide retail experiences that feel valuable and feed the social connection that Millennials crave.

This is actually good for business, as Mary has found that people will spend more money if they’ve social engaged with a person during their purchasing journey. She points to Zappos which has a policy where the customer service agent is encouraged to speak to people for as long as necessary. Their record for a customer service phone call is 10 hours and 43 minutes!

Millennials also like to socialize with brands via Twitter and Facebook. 52 percent of 18–34-year old consumers have used social media to ask a customer service question (compared to 31 percent of consumers overall and 13 percent of age 55+ consumers). Understanding how to talk to customers on social media is key to embracing future generations of consumers.

Royal bonus: the most important piece of advice

If there is one thing a retailer should do to improve their customer relationships, Mary suggests, “Find out what you can give as a business, She says that retailers must remember their true value—hint, it’s not your product. Your value is providing an experience that lasts much longer than the thrill of a purchase. That is what keeps people shopping with your brand.

“Find out what you can give as a business, and you’ll get a lot of return.” - Mary Portas

People love to have a story about where they bought what they bought. But, Mary warns, you have to be careful as a brand to make sure that the story is real, that you aren’t just jumping on a buzzword bandwagon. For example, she talks about a major British grocer, who as a brand, says they are 'Serving Britain's shoppers a little better every day'. However, the customer experience doesn’t line up. The food, customer service, and store design doesn’t feel like it’s better than other stores. In sharp contrast, is Whole Foods, as she says “You go into a Whole Foods and the staff is practically singing, you walk into our option and they are apt to walk out with you.”

Retailers are starting to realize that it’s all about building branded customer experiences for the people who shop with them. The biggest worry that Mary has is that the businesses will be lead by efficiency instead of by a culture of customer care. When asked to consult on an ailing retail brand, the first thing she does is to see how it can provide a more caring and emotional experience. Fix that and everything else will fall into place, says the queen. All hail the queen.

For more on retail, check out this infographic on innovations in effortless retail experiences, and our in-depth look at omnichannel support for retailers.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.