I just made a fast run to the grocery store to pick up a few items for tonight’s dinner and I have my next post! I picked out what I needed, was thrilled to find an unoccupied cashier, who I greeted as I set my basket on the conveyer belt. I always love being the first to greet an employee when I am a customer. Not only was the cashier not the first to offer a sincere greeting, she offered me none – not even in response to my greeting! And then as she finished ringing up my purchase, she asked me if I could place my basket in the return rack about 10’ away from the wrap stand. I was not particularly paying attention so I had to ask her to repeat what she had just said. She repeated it, “Could you put your basket over there with the other baskets.” No please, but she did say thank you after I had returned the basket. There were other more pleasant ways to ask me to deal with my own basket, and I usually try to, just out of courtesy. But to be asked – without the nicety of a please and obviously no thought given to what she was asking or the tone in which she asked, surprised me. Not only that, there was another employee standing two feet away from me bagging my groceries, who she could easily have asked – it really did take only two seconds. To cap it off, as I said, “thank you,” to her when she handed me my change, a deeply in-grained Midwestern-ism I cannot stop for the life of me, she did not say, “thank you,” which is the most appropriate response or even, “you’re welcome,” one of the least appropriate (but frequent) responses in this situation. She said, “Have a good day.” I was unconvinced that it was an authentic expression of a genuine wish that I actually have a good day. I will just add, at no point in the interaction did she make eye contact.
Your employees telegraph so much to your customers through not only their words, but their body language and tone, in even what seems like the most innocuous give and take. This cashier conveyed to me that she lacked any enthusiasm for her work, that she was not interested in making any kind of connection with me even on a very basic, human level and she really didn’t care how I felt about the experience. I am sure that in her mind it was quite inconsequential. And to be honest it was. It was a quick grocery run. But I recount the story because I want to illustrate that whether you are selling $2000 handbags, or a $7.00 jar of spaghetti sauce, making that initial, sincere connection is not only important, it’s also actually pretty easy. The subtitle of this blog is, “and Civility in the 21st Century.” The lack of desire or interest in making even the briefest of interactions with a customer who has driven to your store to spend their money pleasant and friendly is mirrored in the behavior I see regularly in some of the new tenants (mostly NYU students) who have taken apartments in my building in New York City. I have always made it a point to greet with at least a hello any fellow tenant I come across in the hallway or stairs of my building. The new tenants, the ones with earbuds stuffed in their ears, do not feel any imperative to smile, nod or make eye contact, much less return my greeting. It’s as if the earbuds shut off the social part of their brain, or they feel like they are so encapsulated in their own world, their thoughts, their music, etc. that they are no longer obligated to interact with anyone. This demonstrates an absence of basic social skills and a lack of desire to extend themselves and make a real, however insignificant connection with another human being. These are small things to be sure, but important in the overall scheme of life in a big (or not so big) city, with our harried lifestyles and stress from managing impossible deadlines, never-ending projects, etc. A simple hello and smile can actually make the person who says it feel better, not to mention the person they say it to. Also in a retail context, these initial interactions as an employee greets and tries to connect with a customer become critical. Delivered without sincerity, they can kill any chance of an authentic and genuine connection at the first point of contact with one of your employees.
The past few posts have been about creating a vision for what you want your customers to experience when they enter your business, then identifying the behaviors or personality traits you want to look for that would increase your odds of the people you hire actually being able to deliver said experience. Creating the expectation that establishing a genuine and authentic connection with your customers is a pretty basic requirement in any retail environment. Some basic qualities to look for that might be indicative of the ability to do so would be: smiling and making and sustaining eye contact, being able to articulate reasonable answers to your questions even though the applicant might be very nervous and one of the questions I find most telling is the very basic, “Why do you want to work here?” Someone who stumbles along answering that question has not put enough thought into why they applied or to the interview process. I also like to ask someone who is interviewing for a service or sales position to give me a real-life example of a time they had a great customer service experience as a customer and what made it great, specifically.
Some other tips include asking the candidates for the same position the same questions (you may decide to ask other questions for other positions if they have different necessary skill sets) and you should familiarize yourself on what is legal and appropriate to ask in an interview. Last but certainly not least is to not underrate your intuition. If someone looks like a spectacular candidate on paper but is not a great interview, maybe they are just not a good fit. Otherwise, consider calling them back for a second interview, either with you or someone in your organization whose judgement you trust. With a few decades of interviewing under my belt, I can tell you, ignore your gut instinct at your own peril.
Hiring is a skill that you develop over time. You will make hiring mistakes – it’s an art not a science. As long as you are prepared to manage those mistakes before they damage your business, that’s all you can do. The single most important advice I can offer on hiring staff is that you invest the thought and time it deserves. You know when a customer walks into your store, they will more often than not form a lasting impression of your store from the first interactions they have with the people you hire. Your employees are your business.