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Comment & Analysis
- 11 Sep 2009

Rewriting the Optimum Service Manual

Give your customers what they want before they know they want it — and make the process so effortless they simply can’t resist.

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LONDON – During the overheated boom years, luxury brands sometimes mistook star-studded store openings and sponsored events for superior service when in fact these were often just pleasant distractions. Although invitations to special events and other forms of pampering commonly encountered in the luxury industry may flatter customers, one senses there is much more to optimal service than this.

Not surprisingly, many luxury customers became turned-off by what they perceived to be a deterioration of the overall service package at the expense of offering a few “extras”. Now that luxury brands and retailers are struggling to regain their footing, many within the industry believe that a renewed commitment to optimum service may hold a key to thriving once again. The challenge, of course, is that “optimum service” is such an elusive objective. So what exactly is it and what does it take to achieve?

Place Vendome veteran Van Cleef & Arpels is an excellent place to start. Along with its innovative designs and unparalleled stone setting prowess, the brand has long made the pursuit of optimum service a cornerstone of its reputation. But, as is clear to anyone acquainted with Van Cleef & Arpels, service excellence is no fluke and takes more than merely staffing stores with attractive, well-intentioned personnel to get right. It is the result of careful design, sustained commitment and a willingness to go the extra mile — sometimes at considerable expense.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ signature Mystery Setting, a patented stone-paving technique that uses no visible claws, illustrates well the extraordinary lengths the brand is willing to go to ensure absolute customer satisfaction. The technique is especially exacting in that the quality of the jewel depends on the clarity of the stones and the evenness of their colour. Stones from a particular lot used to create one jewel with this technique are kept indefinitely so should the client eventually need repairs or wish to add to their collection, a perfect match in intensity and colour is guaranteed. Thanks to this practice, even Van Cleef & Arpels’ heirloom “Mystery Setting” pieces can be repaired or married to modern pieces at the whims of its discerning clientele.

While it may not seem like much, the burden to Van Cleef & Arpels is significant. The company has to archive, store and insure thousands of precious stones and keep them on their books indefinitely for the sole purpose of satisfying an eventual request that may never materialise. It is precisely this level of commitment to service that makes them one of the most coveted brands in the world and makes customer loyalty at Van Cleef & Arpels a multi-generational affair. Richard Baker, founder and CEO of Premium Knowledge Group, a Dallas-based luxury consulting firm, agrees: “According to our research, one of the most important components of the luxury experience for high net-worth individuals is personalised service tailored specifically to their needs. There is no substitute for it.”

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Technological innovation can also offer new tools for providing optimal service. The enviable rate of growth of online fashion retailer Net-A-Porter is testament to this. While Net-A-Porter is busy racking up impressive sales figures, it also happens to be redefining the standard for online service in the process. Like for most successful internet-based businesses, there is considerably more to the smooth online customer experience than what meets the eye. Behind the scenes, there is a complex operation in place to guarantee that all customers have an enjoyable experience from the moment they log onto the site to when a beautifully wrapped package arrives at their door. To achieve this, stringent quality controls were built into the operational model from the start and the company continues to invest heavily in employee training.
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Perhaps more importantly, creating an optimal customer experience has been its corporate mindset from its inception. “Customer-centricity is absolutely an inherent part of the Net-A-Porter brand’s DNA,” explains V.P. Sales & Marketing, Alison Loehnis “Anyone who works at Net-A-Porter understands that it is the name of the game. We have an entire team of women, for instance, whose sole function is to try on every single piece of clothing sold on our site to determine fit so that customers don’t struggle with sizing.” None of Net-A-Porter’s direct competitors come even close to obtaining this degree of precision in fit and sizing. Net-A-Porter is generally recognised by industry leaders — including Alex Bolen, CEO of Oscar de la Renta — as having set a new standard for online fashion retailing. As Richard Baker notes: “There is simply no substitute for an organization making the decision that they will put the customer first. None.”

To a certain extent, Net-A-Porter has to adhere to these exacting standards because customers’ expectations are much higher online than in a traditional retail setting. In other respects, however, the internet gives them a definite edge over traditional retailers: "Because we’re web-based, we get a much greater volume of correspondence from customers,” concedes Loehnis. “We also have complete access to customers’ shopping history as well as traffic patterns for the site that tell us how they shop, where they spend the most time on the site and what they’re interested in. It’s very valuable information that gives us a deeper understanding of our customer.” Perhaps even more important to its success than the capacity to collect information about customers’ habits is Net-A-Porter’s ability to decipher that information and use it to plot its next move.

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Net-a-Porter’s innovative ‘Net-App’ and iconic shopping bag

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Another way Net-A-Porter ensures optimal service is through a high level of service integration. The buying and personal shopping teams work in tandem so that customers walk away from their experience entirely satisfied. “We work very closely with our buyers who in turn have a great relationship with our vendors. We try very hard never to say ‘no’ to our clients, so if there is a way to fulfil their requests, we find it,” explains Lupe Puerta, Net-A-Porter’s Personal Shopping Manager. In one instance, a client attending Paris Fashion Week was left with only the clothes on her back after her luggage was lost in transit. Puerta and her team set to work and were able to replace her travel wardrobe in its entirety and have it delivered to her hotel the very next day.

But as revealed by the recent launch of Net-App, an iPhone application that permits customers to peruse the latest fashions and shop from the convenience of their iPhone from anywhere in the world at any time, Net-A-Porter is keen to take customer service a measure further than most. “Ideally, we want to be one step ahead of customers. We want to give them what they want before they even ask for it. Since our customers are increasingly mobile, it makes sense for us to offer them mobile shopping opportunities,” explains Loehnis. In other words, at a time when luxury retailers are struggling to lure customers back to their stores, Net-A-Porter is finding innovative ways to bring the store to customers, so to speak. Perhaps herein lies the essence of “optimum service”: give your customers what they want before they know they want it — and make the process so effortless they simply can’t resist.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of service to the luxury experience, especially during challenging times. While service alone may not save a struggling brand, no brand can afford to leave it to chance either. Moreover, while parties may provide a fleeting distraction, nothing makes a more lasting impression than a satisfying luxury retail experience. Brands like Van Cleef & Arpels and Net-A-Porter understood this from the beginning and have made it part of their corporate culture. Others would do well to follow their example.

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Helene Le Blanc writes a blog at " target=“_blank” title=“http://www.theluxechronicles.com__”>www.theluxechronicles.com

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