Aldi’s Unexpected Lesson on Customer Service

8 min read
Mar 19, 2020
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Aldi turned its idea of grocery shopping into a compelling lifestyle. Its “Shop differentli” slogan became a mission Aldi cultivates together with its customers. With smart communication and careful market targeting, Aldi built customer relationships other brands can not even dream of. Or can they? 

What is great customer service? Ask Google, and it throws out over 4 billion results. 4 billion pages telling you how to exceed customers’ expectations. 

I bet not many of them recommend improving your operating model, but you’ll get plenty of ideas for the type of music customers should hear when they are on hold. There probably won't be any suggestions to simplify the value you offer. No one will say it's worth sacrificing some conveniences to deliver others. Instead, you may get the impression that what makes customer service outstanding is simply smiling. 

We’re taught to think that the customer always comes first. Exceed customers’ expectations, go the extra mile, and delight customers at every step of their customer journey. It can seem like all customers ever wanted was hordes of grinning staff members trying to make them happy. 

Businesses get so focused on exceeding customers’ expectations that they forget to meet them in the first place. Yet, some companies have the courage to break out of this pattern and disrupt conventional thinking about customer service.

One of them is Aldi, a German discount grocery shop, for years underestimated by the market leaders. With its austere store experience, narrow product choice, and various shopping inconveniences, Aldi delivers on its grand promise: It saves customers time and money.

Disrupting British and American markets mindsets

Aldi is clear about its aggressive growth strategy. In America, it strives to become the third-largest grocery store by number of stores, with 2,500 stores nationwide, by the end of 2022. It currently serves more than 40 million Americans each month. Over the past decade, it has also doubled its market share in Great Britain, and it's now Britain's fifth-largest supermarket. Having 860 shops so far, it aims to operate over 1,200 stores by 2025. 

But it's not the pace of Aldi's growth that concerns the market leaders the most. It's the changes in peoples’ mindsets and customers' expectations it has brought with it along the way.

Aldi always delivers the promise of “a faster, easier, and smarter way to save money on high-quality groceries.’ Because of this,  their unvarying product selection and questionable store experience actually works to their benefit when it comes to customer satisfaction scores, as opposed to the efforts of other popular stores. Having one of the highest Net Promoter Scores, Aldi is happily recommended among friends and families. 

Why is it that a small discount grocer that started in the suburbs is now competing with America's Walmart or Britain's Waitrose? Aldi's charm comes from the simplicity of its strategy and the unusual connection it has built with its customers.

Customers shopping at Aldi

Don't be afraid to simplify 

While grocery shopping, how many times have you gotten stuck choosing between two different types of peanut butter, unable to make up your mind? Comparing prices differing by just a few cents, a plastic jar or a glass one, and the amount of peanuts on the ingredients list, I’ve found myself hating peanut butter by the time I put it in the cart. Not to mention entire aisles dedicated to just ketchup and the variety of white beans and pasta. A nightmare. Yet modern customers have been taught to associate having many choices with freedom and prosperity. 

Staff members wearing bunny ears during Easter, packing our groceries in the free bags, and entertaining us with a casual conversation are an expected part of our shopping reality. However, leaving the store without a full cart but still with a pocket much lighter, we’re left wondering what products we might give up the next time.

None of them, if you shop 'the Aldi way.' 

Aldi brutally take down the costs of the shopping experience for both their business and their customers. Keeping the operating model simple and efficient, it focuses on delivering high-quality products at a minimum price that is lower than all of their competitors. Customers are happy to accept being rushed at the cash register and warehouse-like product storage in order to still have great quality and pay less than in other stores. 

Aldi went against the grain. Instead of continually improving the shopping experience, it put it at the bottom of its priority list. A business model and a smaller selection for customers have enabled Aldi to recognize customers’ needs faster and enhance their service only where it's necessary. 

Prioritize what customers crave the most

Do customers always come first in the modern market? Are the conveniences and frills that companies aim for what customers actually care about? Or are they just part of a coincidental pattern that businesses built competing with each other in areas they were not asked to improve? 

Customers of the 21st century are like people arriving at their surprise birthday party when all they really wanted to do was spend the afternoon watching Netflix. Aldi recognized their customers' priorities and aligned it with its business model. What seems to be an ignorant lack of effort is, in fact, part of their strategy to deliver what customers care about the most: great quality and surprisingly low prices. 

Focusing on unwanted aspects of customer service holds businesses back from truly understanding their customers. Businesses gift-wrap unwanted gifts. They will only exceed customers’ expectations if they put effort to learn what they are. 

Be clear and consistent about the value you offer

Companies hire marketers to come up with fresh, vibrant content. Creative people lose sleep trying to keep brands exciting to their audience. However, customers flooded with taglines and slogans easily get lost and confused.

Aldi is utterly honest about the value it offers. It doesn't serve customers with pretty promises or unclear, dreamy slogans. Whether its Aldi's commercials or the FAQ section on their website, the message is clear. Aldi reminds customers that its main goal is saving them money without compromising on quality.

The slogan of Aldi USA
The slogan of Aldi USA

Turn your weaknesses into assets

For years, Aldi was seen as a small and slightly weird discount shop. Its unconventional approach to business was underestimated by other grocers because it seemed odd and misplaced. Yet, Aldi did not give in to the pressure. Instead of following conventional business models, it turned the situation into an advantage.

To start with, Aldi encouraged customers to treat discount shops as a way to outsmart bigger grocers. The white label products customers used to be ashamed to put in their carts became a symbol of rebellion, or at least a trick to maintain high-quality products at a lower cost.

The “Like Brands, Only Cheaper” campaign was a genius move to inspire a brand-agnostic approach to groceries. It turned old customers' habits upside down with ironic humor and invitation to take themselves less seriously.

Aldi’s “Shop differentli.” slogan means, “A faster, easier and smarter way to save money on high-quality groceries.” Shopping in discount shops is no longer greedy. It's smart. Aldi is clearly proud of being different and encourages customers to feel the same way. The idea of competing with everyone else unifies Aldi with its customers and improves their connection.

Build a lasting connection with a partnership approach to customers

Businesses often think about the meaning of the word ‘deal’ incorrectly. They forget that a true deal requires mutual benefit for both sides. Especially in the B2C model, the idea of a partnership was replaced with a 'do whatever it takes to please customers' approach. 

Aldi's example suggests to build exceptional customer relationships by making customers feel like they are part of a greater idea, that really matters. Customers became partners in Aldi's grand mission to outsmart other grocers. 

There are forums and Facebook groups with over 60k members calling themselves 'Aldi nerds.' Budget-conscious shoppers talk about the best deals and products they’ve tested. They even exchange ideas about how to overcome the so-called 'Aldi Packing Panic,' which is the feeling you get when you’re not able to keep up with the cashier.

People love to brag about the various treasures they’ve found in Aldi's famous middle aisle. Now, they shamelessly dive into the messy baskets to top up weekly groceries with an interactive cat toy and a lavender gym ball. The aisle even earned itself some bizarre names like “The Aisle of Wonder” or “The Aisle of Shite.

Aldi turned its weakness into an asset, its business model into a compelling lifestyle, and its customers into brand ambassadors. Thanks to its careful market targeting, Aldi found consumers that accept inconveniences to save money, and they do so with great enthusiasm. 

Create a mission you and your customers can share 

Breaking the status quo requires courage. Aldi went to war with other grocers and recruited their customers along the way. By changing the way people see themselves through the choice of stores or brands, it has attracted hordes of fans. Aldi’s message to shop smartly became a mission customers are happy to share with the brand.

Aldi took a risk with an unconventional approach. Yet, smart communication techniques and careful market targeting have paid off. The connection Aldi has built with its customers can inspire all sorts of businesses. The small discount store upended the grocery market and gave the business world an unexpected lesson on customer service.

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