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Fluevog shoes.LAURA LEYSHON/The Globe and Mail

For many companies, improving customer experience starts with finding out what they want and need by walking in their customers' shoes.

Fittingly, Karen Padgett - retail sales director for Vancouver-based Fluevog Shoes - says her approach to selling shoes is being "huge, huge, huge on customer service."

Fluevog Shoes has 11 locations across North America and sells around 100,000 pairs of shoes a year. The company has strong online sales and plans for a 12th store in the coming months.

Their customer base is also loyal, Ms. Padgett says, considering Fluevog products are wearable artwork produced in limited runs.

But Ms. Padgett believes the company cannot rest on its laurels.

Earlier this year, when managers gathered at the company's annual retreat in Whistler, B.C., she brought in Christine McLeod, a customer and employee engagement consultant with Impact People Practices, to discuss new customer experience strategies.

"We're a growing company and we did a lot of looking at the value of [asking] 'what' questions. Not 'Do you like that blue shoe, yes or no?'" Ms. Padgett says. Instead, questions were asked to create open dialogue and encourage listening, she says.

Ms. McLeod had Fluevog consider that everything in the store is valuable, "not just shoes," and showed managers that what they are selling is important, Ms. Padgett says. "Everything is creating a value in everything, including our connection with customers."

The new approach the company adopted after the retreat aimed to raise customer satisfaction, Ms. Padgett says, but also to provide the company with useful feedback.

Prior to it being used, Fluevog's products were passively on display for customers to browse through. "What we were taught was that when a customer touches a shoe or a belt or a bag, when they connect with any product, that's valuable," Ms. Padgett says. "That was really helpful and refreshing."

Retail people "throw around the word 'customer service' until it doesn't mean anything," Ms. McLeod adds. "It's about me, as the coffee barista or the person in the store, and how I am showing up for you, the customer, at that particular time. Do I have good listening skills? Am I curious about what your needs are? Am I knowledgeable about what it is that I have in my business that might be able to answer those needs?"

This view is echoed by Mike Aoki, who offers customer service training for call centre managers and staff through his Toronto-based company, Reflective Keynotes Inc.

"On the sales side, it is all about ethical upselling, looking for ways you can genuinely help the customer," Mr. Aoki says. "Customers are not one-size-fits-all. These days they do so much research that they want customized solutions.

"It's really empowering for customer service reps to be able to create a relationship with that customer, probe for additional needs, suggest additional services of products. When you do that customers are much more open to it."

To this end, Mr. Aoki recommends front-line employees be given the ability to make their own judgment calls when dealing with customer service problems or complaints - even being allow to offer rebates, credits or refunds without needing to consult management.

He added that incentives for employees, making them more eager partners in the sale, will generally work if it is a mix of base salary and incentive; 100 per cent commissions can create pushy staff, while 100 per cent salary can douse initiative.

Ken Parson, the president of the Customer Service Institute of Canada, which has 800 members across the country, says awareness of customer service has been lagging of late.

"Customer service in recent history has been a reactive situation," Mr. Parson says. "You start off with the complaint department, the customer service department, and they didn't contribute anything of value to the company, they were there to handle customer complaints. If things were quiet, management was happy.

"I tell people to be pro-active. Manage the interactions that your staff has."

Mr. Parson cites a Swedish study that found if customer service levels are high enough, price is not a key issue. Instead, high levels of service and the product become what the customer wants.

"You end up changing your mind as to what you are selling," Mr. Parson says. "If you are just selling a product you are in the business of selling a commodity, like everyone else. But if you start good customer service coupled with a tangible product … you start [to]manage the customer touch points [interactions] which are the chances things could go wrong."

A fine tuning that improves these interactions by just 10 per cent creates a cumulative improvement in the customer's experience of 200 per cent, says Mr. Parson.