How to Excel at Customer Service
Gold Medal winning retailers tell us how their stores continue to deliver great customer service and excel in a hyper-competitive environment. Challenges, advantages, top tips & more.
How to Excel at Customer Service
Gold Medal winning retailers tell us how their stores continue to deliver great customer service and excel in a hyper-competitive environment. Challenges, advantages, top tips & more.
“Customers have endless options but most of them are based on convenience, not service. You can buy a pair of shoes at anytime and anywhere… but too often they are the wrong size or completely wrong shoe for their foot shape, ailments, or needs. Our approach to ‘Knowledge Based Selling’ techniques enables our team to look at each guest in our store, ask them the right questions and come to a solution that looks good, but is the most comfortable shoe they have ever had.”
—Chris Bentvelzen, SHOES-n-FEET
“Personally, I feel like the retail environment is getting less competitive. Yes online retail continues to be relevant and will continue to grow and access new customers. But ‘Better Footwear’ retail stores like the ones being highlighted in this issue are few and far between. The biggest advantage we all have is the opportunity to provide an exceptional in-person fitting experience. Shoes all fit differently, and every customer and their feet/needs are unique. I strongly believe that continuing to lean into the service values of professionally fitting shoes and providing solutions for people who have bad feet will allow our type of retail to continue to thrive amongst the online competition.”
— Dillon Dardano, Dardano’s Shoes
“Getting input from everyone in your organization is key. Making everyone feel part of the team goes a long way in creating an environment that is committed to our company’s overall goals. It is important to have a team that isn’t afraid to ask a question or ask for help with certain customers. Things like that show the customer that we genuinely care about getting them into the best footwear not just to the register and out the door.
We’ve built our company to value family first and instilling that culture in our business shows in the service we provide. When you are able to create that type of environment, word of mouth becomes your top form of marketing. We love when a customer asks for a specific salesperson. It holds meaning. Leaving a positive impression on a customer goes further than any marketing ad ever will.”
— Andy Vanderloop, Vanderloop Shoes
“Customer service has always been our top priority since my great-great grandfather started Murray’s Shoes in 1875. We know if our employees have the tools and education to help customers, they will be able to deliver great customer service. All our employees are trained by my father and myself, and we are around helping customers along with them to ensure their success. I believe many of our competitors have had to cut costs to stay in business and that cost has had an impact on customer service.
The biggest challenge is always finding the right individuals that are willing to take the time to help customers. Once we find great employees, we do what we can to make sure they stick around.”
— Alicia Murray, Murray’s Shoes
“We specialize in comfort footwear and providing shoes and orthotics for customers with specific foot problems. This generally requires us to spend more time analyzing the problem and presenting the customer with the appropriate inserts and/or shoes. Therefore, time management is definitely a challenge. Our greatest advantage is that we have been in business for over 60 years, have very knowledgeable fitters and are well known for helping people with their foot problems.”
— Steve Vettel, owner, Kassis Bros. Shoes
“We strive to deliver an elevated customer service experience which can’t be duplicated. We always greet our customers promptly upon entering our store and make them feel welcome. After giving the customer a moment of breathing room without making the customer feel like they are in a store with aggressive salespeople, we kindly ask how we can be of assistance and as quickly as possible offer a foot measurement. We collect information from each customer by asking what shoes make them feel great and what shoes they can’t wear to gather an idea of the type of comfort that delivers for their individual body. This also allows us to make suggestions of shoes to try outside of the particular shoe they had in mind upon entering our store.
The biggest challenge we face is not having an item in stock if the customer’s heart is set on it and they can order it from the internet for delivery within a few days. Otherwise, the way we service our customer is 100 percent to our advantage,”
— Andrea Allen, Pegasus Footwear
“Chiappetta Shoes just relocated to a new building in February of 2023 and tripled our overall size. Other than our amazing retail venue, having a well-educated and motivated sales force has been a recipe for consistency on the floor. With our new location, we added a lot of new staff and implemented a better middle management structure, focusing on the customer experience and keeping our soldiers accountable for our policies. One initiative we’re looking forward to for 2024 is having three new Pedorthic apprentices on the sales floor, helping continue to grow our custom orthotic business and partnerships with local medical professionals. The Pedorthic profession has been a dying trade for years and ABCOP finally got some schools re-certified after about three years of having zero options on the education front. Pedorthics is the golden goose of footwear customer service... I’d love to see a resurgence.”
— Tony Chiappetta, Chiappetta Shoes
“Stouts’s is able to continue to deliver great customer service because of our commitment to quality and our amazing, dedicated employees. If we did not have such a great staff consistently creating those relationships and positively representing our brand none of this would be possible. Our biggest challenge is beating the larger online marketplaces’ lead times, but that can be our biggest advantage as well. With our commitment to customer service, quality, and fit, our customers don’t mind the wait because they know they are getting a great product that fits and wears well.”
— Stephanie Stout, Stout’s Footwear
“We got into the business of footwear with the idea of helping people, not selling products. Our store’s orientation is to meet a client’s needs. It can be as simple as someone needing a dress shoe to attend their son’s wedding. The goal is to be comfortable for the entire event from the ceremony through the reception. Another client might have early or mid-stage Parkinson’s which affects their gait and balance. The goal is stability and reducing their chance of tripping. A third client might have arthritis in the feet or an ankle fusion. The goal is to ease their gait with appropriate shoes and orthotics.
Our advantage is that we have the knowledge and understanding to ascertain what is going on with the client and what their true goal is, even if they cannot elucidate it. The other advantage is our ability to communicate and have empathy with our clients, which is really the foundation of a great retail store.
One of the biggest challenges is that many clients have already researched online about their issues. These clients are just expecting to complete a transaction… The best way to address this is to take our profession seriously and spend time with the customer to evaluate their needs. We need to develop rapport with the customer and gain their trust to sell solutions, not just shoes. They will not get this service online.
Another challenge is that most customers are not expecting to receive the level of service that we offer. They often just point out shoes that they want to try on. We want to measure their feet, analyze their gait, and propose shoes that are best for them… The number of return customers is evidence that the care we take and empathy we show are appreciated. Referrals by those happy customers have helped our business grow.”
— Thomas Peterson, Foot Savvy
“Stores like ours are old-fashioned, old-school, and highly unique. We specialize in stocking hard-to-find sizes and widths here at Mar-Lou and we take this mission seriously. The surrounding community has grown to expect us to carry a very expansive selection of shoes in a very massive array of sizes/widths and we do not disappoint. This is how we compete and excel in today’s market — we cater to the not-so-average customer, and it’s definitely appreciated and remembered. We strive to provide a perfect fit for all of our customers and our impressive inventory enables us to accomplish this feat every single day.
Being incredibly knowledgeable not only about footwear and shoe-fitting but about people, psychology, and the art of connection enables our staff to provide an impactful interaction for every customer, every time.”
— Dan Ungar, Mar-Lou Shoes
“We always train our associates with the saying that ‘our biggest competition is the phone everyone keeps in their pocket.’ We might not have the same access to inventory the internet provides, or offer free overnight shipping, but we can provide empathy, education, and real-time feedback through excellent customer service. When integrated together, the insight and compassion we provide simply can’t be found on the internet or at lesser retailers and the experience is more valuable to our shoppers.”
— Megan McCabe, InStep
“Customers can find shoes anywhere. Our only way to survive and to succeed in this market is to give amazing service. We have also changed our definition of service. We just want our customers to have a place to come, relax, have fun and get great service. We want the same for our employees — show up to work, have fun and make connections with customers. We really let every employee know how important they are to us and the success of the company… Treat your employees like family, in turn strive to have the employees treat the customers like family and build a business that customers can trust and count on.”
— Dave Astobiza, Sole Desire
“Our very limited sales staff is held to very high standards. I learned from an old shoe dog, my grandfather, that the customer comes first. I’ve always driven home ‘If you aren’t educating, you aren’t doing your job.’ That translates to sales staff researching and asking a lot of questions.
My buying method, basically not stopping for any season regardless of how dismal it all has looked, has benefited our customers by providing something that other independents haven’t been able to — diverse product. I read in a previous issue of this magazine that ‘selection’ and ‘options’ were what the consumer wants in our current environment. I looked around and confidently said ‘check.’”
— Alex Maltezos, Tenni-Moc’s
“We take customer service very seriously and we always strive to give our customers the best experience possible. Our family business started over three generations ago in Brockton, Massachusetts in 1939. Our store Best-Made Shoes in Pittsburgh is about to celebrate 47 years. We are able to continue to exist because we are a Unicorn in the shoe business. We design, manufacture and fit custom-molded shoes, sandals and orthotics in our store in Pittsburgh. We are one of the few stores left in the county that does it all.
We are also a diabetic shoe supplier for some of the largest insurance and Medicare providers in the area. We are a nationally accredited Pedorthic facility and have two board-certified Pedorthists. Our store makes house calls to homes, hospitals or nursing homes for people that can’t get to us because of Illness or lack of transportation. Best-Made Shoes also does shoe repair which is a lost art in the United States. We get people who send us their repairs from all over the county because they can’t find people in their area.
These are some of the reasons we have survived with the Internet, DTC, throwaway shoes and other causes that contribute to the decline of independent stores. The main reason we have prospered over all these years is because we go above and beyond to put a smile on our customers faces and a spring in their step. We get people who have no hope and are in pain and we change their lives for the better.”
— Marc Rosen, Best-Made Shoes
“Our company was founded in 1914, at the time when one’s competition came from a store that was in your town. Things are quite different today, where shopping options are almost endless. You can shop from any store, near or far.
Two big challenges for independent stores today are to be remembered and to be trusted. We try to stay top-of-mind by being attentive to our guests and to be supportive of our communities. Trust takes time to build, but our associates work to be knowledgeable, skillful, and respectful. One thing is for sure, you can’t take business for granted. We work to give our associates a solid education about feet, footwear, and fitting and that helps a lot to earn trust and respect.
The dark days of 2020 did kick us to make investments that have helped the company. One is to partner with a marketing agency to have a more cohesive and expansive message. The other was investing in technology, with an upgraded website and enhancements to our POS/back-office system to each location to sell from each other’s inventory, process BOPIS orders smoothly, and get web orders out more efficiently. These investments have helped us stay at least somewhat competitive in today’s omnichannel world.”
— Chris Stanley, Lamey Wellehan
“Great customer service starts with having what the customer asks for. Decades of experience (plus some good hard math) have sharpened our instincts as to what sells and how much of it we should have on hand. And we allow ourselves to make mistakes; otherwise, we’re not trying hard enough to excavate the delta between what works and what doesn’t. These are not commodities we’re selling; fashion is fluid, the line is always moving.
So, let’s say that the inventory mix is pretty much okay. Success then falls upon the sales team. Our people have been with us for decades too. They are trained; they know the intricacies of their product offerings. Yet technology shifts the old sit-and-fit paradigm; the brannock gives way to the scanner. Newer insoles and orthotics make their scientific cases. Socks too. All of us need to keep up.
It remains a challenge to offer superlative service every day and all the time. My staff is annoyed by me having to remind them to stand when the customer does, and to follow the customers as they walk in their potential purchases, and to ask questions about how they feel and fit. Or to offer a cup of nice cool spring water if it’s a dog day in August. Or to bring out more pairs rather than just retrieve the one. Or to mention accessories. And the like. But Reyers team does all of that most of the time. And it’s nice to be recognized by our trade magazine. They always get a thrill out of that.”
—Mark Jubelirer, Reyers Shoes
“For us, it all comes down to having the right people leading the shopping experience. Our managers and assistant managers love connecting with customers and take pride in knowing the ins and outs of the products we carry. Additionally, we believe curating the best assortment possible is a critical component of delivering great customer service.
Our advantage lies in being 100% employee-owned, and our people take pride in representing Tradehome Shoes.”
—Justin Kehrwald, Tradehome Shoes
“We continue to search for passionate people who love retail and are often working in the shoe business already to add to our team, and we teach them the Brown’s Shoe Fit approach to customer service. Greet - we make the customer feel welcome and act as their tour guide directing them to the right area of the store. Seat - the goal is to get them seated and understand their foot’s needs. Meet - we like to interview them and find out a little about who they are and what they do. Measure Feet - we believe that this is more an interview of the foot to understand its problems and footshape.”
—Greg Augustine, Brown’s Shoe Fit Co.
“We’re in the people business, not the shoe business. One of our key strengths is the personalized experience we provide to each customer. Our knowledgeable and passionate staff takes the time to understand the unique needs of every customer, which emphasizes our commitment to relationship-building alongside finding the perfect fit. This relationship-building extends to the communities we serve. By actively participating in local events and initiatives, we build meaningful connections, fostering trust and loyalty as ‘the best place to go’ for footwear. The only challenge we have in this, then, is one we create ourselves: We set the bar pretty high, and the challenge lies in always meeting those expectations across 13 locations, four states, and three sub-brands (Appalachian Running Company, Shoe Fly Work Zone, and Shoe Fly Kids).”
—Lauren Klapper, Shoe Fly
“Our biggest advantages in the customer service area are continuing to embrace our Value Propositions (we measure, we 3D scan, we custom fit) and putting our consumer experience as our no. 1 priority with every customer. [We show] footwear, socks, insoles, and gift items with every presentation as well as ensure our showroom gives off amazing vibes and a quality shopping experience.
We consider our challenges as opportunities to better our consumer experience as we continue to scale out our business. Our greatest opportunities currently would be to hone in on where we have room for growth within a category PER location. Each location being in its unique community offers different potential. That is why we feel that every small community needs a Beck’s Shoes. As we focus in on that community’s needs and consumer confidence rises, these challenges will lessen.”
— Markus Lopez, Beck’s Shoes
“Our store places a strong emphasis on personalized, sit-and-fit experiences. Despite the wide array of shopping options available to consumers, we recognize that the human element remains irreplaceable. Our staff is trained to provide individualized attention, ensuring that each customer receives expert guidance in finding the perfect fit. We also offer many quality brands enabling our customers to compare and contrast, ultimately satisfying the needs of a wide range of clients.
Challenges in this environment include staying ahead of changing consumer expectations and technological advancements. However, we view these challenges as opportunities. By staying abreast of industry trends and investing in staff training, we ensure that our team is well-equipped to navigate the evolving landscape of quality footwear. One of our advantages is the deep expertise of our staff. They are not just sales associates but are passionate about footwear and are continually educated on the latest trends, technologies, and foot health.”
— Brian Mills, Woldruff’s Footwear
“Prioritizing fit foremost to ensure healthy feet is the driving force behind everything we have done for over 80 years. Style, fashion, colors, hype and more come and go but fit is constant. ‘Old fashioned’ service that puts the customer first and involves finding styles or colors the customer loves which creates a lasting long-term relationship with our retail location.”
— Will Nettleton, Modern Shoe
“You have to have the right employees in order to be successful in this hyper-competitive market. With customers usually forming their opinion of a store in the first 10 seconds, first impressions are everything. Our employees know that and greet the customer as they enter the store and let the customer know that they are there for them and can help with any needs they may have.
With customers being able to buy every shoe online now and get it within two days we have to make them feel special and make sure we are covering all their needs with that one-on-one service that the internet can’t provide…. We have also found that when customers come to a retail store they want the item now and want to walk out with the product in their hand. So, we have worked hard to make sure we keep a good inventory of the shoes our customers want/need.”
— Bill Golden, Golden Shoes
Delivering Excellent Customer Service.
“Develop rapport and empathy with each client. Understand what each client’s actual need is. Remember we are not selling shoes, but solutions. Live the Golden Rule.” —Tom Peterson, Foot Savvy
“Listen, be kind and strive to treat everyone like family.” — Steve Vettel, Kassis Bros. Shoes
“Remember to ask questions and make conversations with the customers to make them see how much we all care about their overall well-being!” — Andrea Allen, Pegasus
“Ask the correct questions to find out the needs of the guests. By asking the correct questions we are able to understand their pains or frustrations in trying to find a shoe. It is amazing how many times a day we hear ‘I have not had my foot measured in years’ or ‘Nobody ties my shoes anymore.’ It is such a simple thing and only takes a minute, but it builds trust.” — Chris Bentvelzen, SHOES-n-FEET
“Our staff keeps in mind that we are working to create lifetime customers by delivering the best service possible with styles that wear well.. and when you are on the floor it is SHOWTIME!” —Stephanie Stout, Stout’s
“Build rapport – get to know people on a first name basis, be curious, make a real connection. Find out who they are and what really brought them in today. Establish Credibility – show them who we are and how we are different, measure, assist with try ons, check and verify fit, make relevant and thoughtful suggestions that create value for the customer.” —Dillon Dardano, Dardano’s Shoes
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t think the answer will always come in the first question you ask. It is the same as fitting shoes. There are so many brands, styles, widths and sizes available. The first shoe that you bring a customer won’t always be the shoe the customer leaves with.” — Andy Vanderloop, Vanderloop Shoes
“We place an emphasis on 1) suggestive selling and 2) bringing out what we call the “full package” — shoes, socks, orthotics, care products, and accessories. It’s up to us as the experts to listen, empathize, recommend, and troubleshoot.” — Megan McCabe, InStep
“Give ‘em a good time. We aren’t here for the sale, we’re here for them to come back and build a bond that transcends generations. Just like the store, we’re here for the community and the knowledge.” — Alex Maltezos, Tenni-Moc’s
“When a guest comes into our store, it is important to remember that they drove out of their way to visit. That is some effort in a day when you can shop from your sofa. Another important thing to remember is that each person is an individual and should be treated as such. Hopefully, it is that individualized attention that gets them to come back in the future.” — Chris Stanley, Lamey-Wellehan
“FOUR ON THE FLOOR! Being old school shoe dogs, we’re always focused on offering a great assortment of options on the sales floor. We stick to our process of making an introduction, then getting butts in the chairs to measure their feet! Having one-on-one service and sticking to measuring everyone’s feet gives our sales staff the immediate opportunity to build trust and develop a quick relationship with people on our turf versus standing around a display and awkwardly asking what they ate for breakfast.” — Tony Chiappetta, Chiappetta Shoes
“Bring out a multiple selection of shoes but have fun, make a connection, give maximum effort and great things will happen. We preach daily to our team that we aren’t looking for a quick sale, we are looking for a long-term relationship with the customer so give the customer your full attention, truly help them and have fun in the process.” — Dave Astobiza, Sole Desire
“Our staff knows to greet each customer as they enter our store. They understand that communication and developing a quick rapport with them is vital; they know how to ask questions and how to listen for clues. They are excited about our new offerings and that infects the customers. We love product. We’re all infected.” — Mark Jubelirer, Reyers Shoes
“Our training revolves around ‘being who the customer needs us to be’ on a personal level. It’s simple but it’s not easy — Carry the right product, give a customized experience, and make certain each guest knows how much we appreciate them shopping with us.” — Justin Kehrwald, Tradehome Shoes
“Delivering great customer service goes beyond selling shoes. It’s about creating memorable experiences. Key principles guide our team daily: Personalization - Every customer is unique, and our staff is trained to tailor their approach to individual preferences and needs. Product Knowledge - Our team is equipped with in-depth knowledge about our extensive selection of footwear. This ensures that customers receive expert guidance in finding the perfect fit. Community Connection - We emphasize the importance of building relationships. Our staff sees themselves as not just salespeople but as community ambassadors, actively engaging with medical professionals, workforces, running clubs, etc. to ensure that they feel comfortable with the service we provide for the patients, employees, and patrons they engage with.” — Lauren Klapper, Shoe Fly
“Key principles our staff keeps in mind include empathy, product knowledge, and a genuine passion for helping customers. By fostering a culture that prioritizes these qualities, we create an environment where customers feel valued and understood. Additionally, our staff is encouraged to stay updated on the latest industry trends, allowing them to provide informed recommendations to customers. Continuous training ensures that they are well-versed in the features and benefits of our products, enabling them to address customer inquiries confidently.” — Brian Mills, Woldruff’s Footwear
“Customer service starts with caring about the customer and truly believing you make a difference. You can know everything there is about shoes and feet but if you do not believe it matters or you make a difference then the customer will not believe it.” — Will Nettleton, Modern Shoe
“Our customers’ expectations have risen and therefore we have to raise our service level to meet their needs and expectations… Our staff knows that we are a team, and we work together to make sure we do what needs to be done for each customer. Having a team mentality is key to make sure every customer leaves our store happy.” — Bill Golden, Golden Shoes