Hospitality vs. Customer Service (And Why You Need to Focus on Both)

Posted on August 18, 2020 by Carm McCormick

Hospitality vs. Customer Service (And Why You Need to Focus on Both)

Posted on August 18, 2020 by Carm McCormick

Customer service has become something of a buzzword for most industries and brands. It’s something customers have come to expect, a competitive advantage that retailers think they have in spades, and a term that can take on different meanings depending on who you’re talking to.

It seems like retailers of all sorts and sizes are on an ongoing quest to take their customer service to new heights. They know the value of a great customer experience that keeps people coming back to their stores, and acknowledge the devastating losses that a poor customer service can deliver. 

For retailers looking to provide gold standard service, look no further than the hospitality industry.

Hospitality or customer service?

In many cases, hospitality and customer service are often used interchangeably. There’s a little bit of overlap, but the two concepts are drastically different. Let’s look at a few distinctions:

Customer service can be defined as the process of providing customers with the assistance they need to produce a desired outcome. Customers come into your clothing store looking for a dress, and you work with them to find the right size and style.. They want to buy your makeup but aren’t sure if it’s right for them, so they inquire about your store return policy and you go over the terms.

If we look at these activities from a hospitality perspective, the level of attention to your customers significantly increases. 

Customers that come into your clothing boutique might be greeted by a sales associate offering a beverage, shopping bag, or free sample. When asked about dresses, the associate might guide them to a staging area where they can indulge in comfy seating while being shown this season’s collection pieces in their sizes. 

For someone shopping for makeup, your consultants might do a skin-matching to select the right shade, offer a sample, provide application instructions, and suggest coordinating products.

See the difference yet? 

There’s no doubt that customer service is essential to your retail store, but it’s the hospitality that people will remember. 

Why you need both hospitality and customer service in retail

Customer service is a necessity, not a competitive advantage. It’s something customers expect and deserve when they shop with a retailer, and stores who don’t prioritize it may find themselves without customers to serve. 

There’s nothing particularly memorable, enticing, or invigorating about receiving customer service, and any thought about service vanishes as soon as your customer walks out of your store. Their needs have been fulfilled (or haven’t, in some cases), and there’s no reason to dwell on their experience.

Providing a memorable in-store visit isn’t just about showing or telling customers what you can do for them, but rather also focusing on how you make them feel. Customers feel more connected to stores who act with their best interests in mind. They recognize when a brand goes above and beyond the average customer experience to earn their business and ensure total satisfaction. 

Hospitality isn’t just something that happens. It’s a holistic activity that is carefully cultivated to produce specific results. It’s the way the staff speaks to the customers during each touchpoint. It’s the way your store smells and appears. It’s the music playing overhead, the temperature of the room, and the accessibility of the products. All of these things work together to engage the customers’ senses and make their visit memorable.

When done correctly, hospitality allows you to go beyond the transaction and into longer lasting relationships with your customers.

What can small retailers do to improve in-store hospitality?

Popular brands like the Ritz-Carlton, Trader Joe’s, and Zappos have set a high bar when it comes to real-time hospitality. It’s popularly known that Ritz-Carlton employees can spend a generous $2,000 per guest if something isn’t up to their expectations, and they don’t have to get management involved to take advantage of this expenditure. Trader Joe’s employees have free reign to open food items in the store to let guests sample it before they buy it. As for Zappos, their no-frills return policy is tops in the business, and their employees have been known to send customers little “extras” to surprise and delight them upon opening their packages. 

Small retailers may not be able to afford $500 bottles of wine or free hotel stays for their customers, but they can take a few pages of larger brands’ hospitality playbooks and apply them on a smaller scale. 

Here are three things retailers can start prioritising today to bring a higher level of hospitality into the in-store experience:

Capable, empowered employees

Delivering hospitality to your customers requires you to empower your employees to create memorable experiences. Just like Ritz-Carlton, employees should have the authority to go above and beyond to make customers feel welcomed and valued, even if it means doing something outside the norm. They shouldn’t have to worry about involving management or fearing they’re going too far to earn a customer’s trust and repeat business. 

You might not be able to offer $2,000 per customer in discretionary spending, and that’s okay! Look at what you can afford to do, then make it a point to show your employees their options. 

Hiring for the customer experience

Your employees have a lot to do with the in-store experience. They’re the ones responsible for providing the human element that hospitality needs and carving the path for each customer interaction. 

If you want to increase hospitality in your retail store, it’s essential to prioritise hiring for customer-friendly experiences. Not every employee fits into a hospitality role. A successful hospitality employee will embody customer-friendly traits like warmth, friendliness, charisma, empathy, and a genuine desire to serve. 

When hiring for customer experience, you’ll need to look beyond technical skills and prior training. These things can be easily learned, but powerful hospitality traits are often innate. Ask prospective hires what customer service means to them. Find out about times they’ve gone above and beyond to help customers. Let them talk about ways they envision shaping the customer experience if they were hired. Get inside their creative mindset to see how they might solve problems or make improvements. 

Engage the senses

One thing that hospitality brands do well is creating an environment that caters to all senses. Even without verbal interactions with employees, customers can get a sense of how a brand caters to their needs based on how their store looks, sounds, smells, and feels. 

The employee hospitality is the icing on the cake. Brands have done an excellent job in making customers feel at home and inspired, so it’s easy for employees to close the circle and contribute to making each experience memorable. 

Make every moment count

Retailers should consider customer service as the cost of entry to doing business. The next step is to bring a hospitality focus to the sales floor to show customers why you’re the better choice and what else you have to offer besides the bare minimum. Making every moment count not only makes a strong impression, but also gives customers a reason to keep coming back.


At CBSF, we help countless retailers both large and small achieve just that. Our expert team of retail design specialists can help you realize a better in-store experience for your customers. Get in touch with us today so we can show you why so many retailers trust us with their retail design goals.