How listening helped this Alberta business transform customer service
By ATB Financial 29 January 2021 7 min read
Ryan Boles, co-owner of Shoe Solutions in Lethbridge, remembers the moment that transformed how he delivers and teaches customer service to his eight employees.
"About 14 years ago, I had an elderly woman with significant mobility issues come into Shoe Solutions. My heart really connected with her and I knew I had to do everything I could to help."
Co-owner of Shoe Solutions in Lethbridge
Boles started by measuring her feet. He invited her to take a seat and he kneeled in front of her. He unlaced her shoes and sized her feet. Then he asked her to stand up and walk so he could assess her gait while he asked questions about her needs.
“I pulled a few styles and realized it’s going to be difficult for her to tie her own shoes, so I got down on my hands and knees again, grabbed a shoe horn and put the shoes on for her,” says Boles.
When he looked up, the woman was crying.
“I said to her, ‘Did I do something I shouldn't have?’ And she said, ‘No.’ It was just that no one had ever sat down and listened to what she had to say. That was kind of like a dagger in my heart,” he says.
From that experience Boles realized exceptional customer service involves deep listening, humility and opening your heart so that both the customer and you can be enriched and rewarded by the process. As for the customer, she has been a loyal patron and an ambassador of Shoe Solutions ever since.
This approach to customer service is what earned Shoe Solutions the 2020 Excellence in Customer Service Award from the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce, which celebrates a business that provides exceptional customer service on a consistent basis.
Expertise-led customer service
Boles never dreamed of owning a retail shoe store in his hometown of Lethbridge. He was pursuing a career in music in Vancouver, working part-time at specialty running stores and competing in ultra distance races when a friend suggested an opportunity.
“I saw a ton of potential in the idea of Shoe Solutions. It is about marrying the foot health profession with high quality technical footwear and making it accessible to a wider mix of people,” he says. He joined the small team turning the idea into a business model.
Soon after, Boles began studying to become a certified pedorthist, which is a healthcare professional that focuses on the biomechanics of the feet and lower limbs and can provide comprehensive foot assessments, custom foot orthotics and modifications to footwear. Once Boles started studying he was hooked. He was inspired by the opportunity to combine his knowledge with practical solutions for everyday people, so he bought into the business.
This level of expertise is another element to the exceptional customer service at Shoe Solutions. Customers can not only get an accurate foot measurement and fit assessment, they can get 2D pressure analysis, 3D volumetric scans, pedorthic assessment, custom devices for pain, and footwear modifications. Plus, the store has a selection of shoes to meet a wide variety of needs.
What is customer service?
After his transformative experience with the older customer, Boles asked himself if it was possible to have that experience again and again and again. He wanted to create a teachable, repeatable customer service experience that would be unique to his store and memorable.
“It took me a while to quantify what that experience was, but it came down to a few things: listen, offer to take off shoes, offer to size the customer, offer to make informed choices for them, offer to put on the shoe as it should be worn then offer details around how it should fit,” he says.
While it sounds simple, Boles says the heart of the process is listening, loving and serving each person. He believes he never would have been able to grow the business and get recognition without this approach to customer service.
Training employees to deliver an ideal customer service experience
Boles says he spends more on ensuring the customer service experience at Shoe Solutions is consistent, high quality and continually improved than he does on marketing or other kinds of advertising.
A majority of that investment goes to training employees. All employees go through a three-month training course co-developed by Boles (and his cousin, co-worker and Canadian Certified Pedorthist Tanille Neufeld) to become fit-tech certified. This training includes all the technical details of measuring customers, learning about products and providing recommendations. It also includes mastering the fundamentals of Boles’ approach to service—humility, listening and human connection.
The goal of the program is to create an environment where people feel valued, respected and heard, he says. It is possible to tick every box when it comes to providing pedorthic information or making a shoe recommendation, he adds, but the experience can go wrong if you don’t actually listen to and connect with the customer.
Transforming a bad customer service experience into a good one
Listening to the customer and embracing humility is also key to turning a bad experience into a positive one, says Boles.
“Shoe Solutions does not always get it right. We have a team of leaders that is committed to recognizing our deficiencies and telling the truth,” he says. “In retail, sometimes it is tempting to justify yourself or hide or deficiencies when a customer isn’t happy or you’ve made a mistake. What I’ve realized that is you just dig yourself a deeper hole.”
Instead, Boles recommends the following when working to resolve a customer issue:
- Humble yourself, listen to the person and don’t be offended by what they are telling you. “It’s not listening if you’re not willing to have your mind changed,” he says.
- Reinforce a customer’s feelings. “Even if you know that you’re right in the situation, the customer is always justified in their feelings and should be heard,” he says.
- Come up with a plan to make things right. “In most cases it involves you losing. You have to be prepared for that,” he says.
- Focus on converting that angry or unimpressed customer into an advocate for your business by the time they leave. “You might take a monetary loss in that moment, but the goal is to build relationships for the long term,” he says.
The unique approach to customer service at Shoe Solutions has had the added benefit of attracting high quality talent to the business, says Boles.
“Professionals believe in and are attracted to the model. I now have another board-certified pedorthist working at Shoe Solutions because they totally connect with the human side of what we do,” he says.
Three foundational parts for delivering exceptional customer service
Boles says three things helped him ensure Shoe Solutions was consistently offering exceptional customer service:
Be clear on your values as a business.
Boles says if your business doesn’t have a purpose and a goal beyond the bottom line it is really hard to connect with customers and employees on a human level.
“If I wasn’t connected and totally sold on the idea that if I genuinely love and serve every single person that comes through the door, I’d be more stressed out than I am when it comes to growing the business,” he says.
Fill in your leadership shortcomings.
Boles says that in order to grow and develop as a business owner, he had to look beyond himself and his skill set. He learned the hard way he needed to be better at managing employees, dealing with admin tasks and promoting the business. So he started working with a business coach (Kelli-Rae Tamaki of TMH Business Coaching and Consulting) who helped him grow and bring his vision for Shoe Solutions to the reality it is today.
Guard and protect your culture fiercely.
Boles says to deliver a consistent experience it is critical to quickly recognize when an employee or partner is not on board with your culture.
“It’s the mindset of hire slow and fire fast,” he says. “When you see someone isn’t buying in, do everything you can to get them there, but if they don’t, move quickly to remove them so they do as little damage as possible to your customers, service and business.”
With his dedicated team, Boles is committed to delivering a unique experience to every person that comes into Shoe Solutions.
“We have the opportunity to impact people's lives with even just a 15-minute interaction when they come in and we open up a whole new world of comfort or performance for them,” he says. “It becomes less about shoe sales and more about the heart condition of serving people. My ethic is to double down on that individual experience at all costs.”
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