Tales from the sharp end #1: M&S Food

Starting an occasional series in which I report back from the front line of customer experience. As well as an obsession with the minutiae of customer experience I have an obsession with keeping things as simple as possible (but no simpler as Einstein once put it) and so a recent experience with M&S Food reminded me, once again, how introducing even a small amount of complexity into a transaction can result in a poor customer experience, despite the heroic efforts of front line staff…

Midday Saturday and my wife and I make a shopping trip to our local M&S Food, which we’re lucky enough to have almost on our doorstep. Clasped in our hands – well, technically on my wife’s mobile – is a £5 discount voucher courtesy of the Sparks loyalty scheme, the ‘catch’ being that we have to spend £25.

With a bring and share buffet at a local choir concert and some Eurovision-related snacking later on this seemed like a good chance to cash in and a swift tour of the deli section resulted in a modest basket with at least £25 worth of goodies. My wife queried the total to see if it included the discount: apparently not – had we activated the code? We had. Perhaps the basket included too many offers which, according to the terms of the offer, were not included in the total? I returned to the shelves for more goodies, however, an attempt to remove the discount and re-key the goods proved impossible.

A manager was called – the checkout operator was determined we should get our £5 – and still no joy. After some consultation with the store manager, the £5 was applied – albeit not via the loyalty voucher.

‘I don’t know why we can’t just take the money off ourselves’ said the checkout operator, who’d remained a model of unflappability throughout. I was inclined to agree. As she printed off the till receipt she laughed – ‘ You’ve been chosen for a feedback survey!’

Sadly, the customer survey didn’t allow my wife to identify the heroic checkout operator: instead it suggested we contact the store manager to let him know – disappointing that the feedback system doesn’t allow this as it’s quite common in other companies.

My experience – trivial in some ways, but that’s the point – illustrates what happens when the customer proposition takes precedence over customer experience. Here’s what went wrong:

  1. the £5 off works as an incentive to get me into the store but the terms and conditions make it complicated to use in practice
  2. the processing of the offer is over-complex: it has to be activated by the customer and the systems don’t allow it to be cancelled and reapplied
  3. the resolution of this problem caused a small backlog at the till and a quick shopping trip doubled in length
  4. there was no empowerment: the till operator could have resolved the situation by applying the discount to resolve the situation instead of tying up three people and delaying things further.

M&S Food could improve customer experience by:

  1. making the conditions simpler
  2. having offers applied automatically, kicking in when the appropriate thresholds are reached
  3. making the transactions reversible, as they would be if no voucher was involved
  4. empowering front line staff to resolve difficulties without referring up two layers of management

None of these would cost any more than the current approach and would make their loyalty scheme create more loyal customers. And more generally, as a recent post by Gerry McGovern made clear, saving time is one of the best ways to improve customer experience.

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