Building a Customer-Focused Organization

We have laid the groundwork – it starts with envisioning and then articulating the kind of experience you want your customers to have when they walk into your business. Getting your thoughts on paper helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Then comes setting your expectations for how you want the customer experience to progress once a customer has crossed your threshold. What kind of dialog would you like to hear between your employees and customers? Do you want more of a self-service shopping environment with sales people there mostly to answer questions, or (more likely) do you want them to engage customers, determine their needs and then suggest complementary items? Being genuine and authentic are critical, from the first contact with a customer through (hopefully) thanking them for their purchase and inviting them to return. Once you have defined what kind of customer experience you want your employees to provide to your customers, hiring the right people to provide that experience is key. Friendly, genuine, self-motivated and customer-focused employees will make it happen – you can’t be there for every customer who walks into your store. Investing the time and effort in hiring the right people is definitely worth the trouble. Trust your instincts.

Once you have determined what you want the customer experience to look and sound like, then hired the best qualified individuals to provide that experience, you must train them. And then train them more. Training in a retail environment should be an ongoing endeavor. Investing time, money and effort in training demonstrates to your employees your commitment to their success by helping them gain the skills and tools they will need to be successful. I have mentioned “employee engagement” in another post, it’s about how employees feel about their work place and the people they work for, among other things that directly impact employee morale. There are many factors which influence employee engagement and I will dedicate more posts specifically to that topic. Certainly one of the most important factors is whether employees feel that they have been provided the training and tools they need to be confident with customers and do the best job possible. Poor training leads not only to poor service but it can have a significant impact on morale and employee engagement. As I have said before, if your employees are unhappy, trust me, your customers won’t be happy either.

Training an employee starts with articulating first your “vision” for the kind of experience you want your customers to have, then getting more specific on what that will actually look and sound like. Specificity is a must, your employees should never have to guess what is expected of them. Of course, telling your employees how you want them to interact with your customers is only the first step. Training should come in a variety of forms depending on the experience level of your employees and the size of your business. It is an often repeated adage that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and write and 90% of what they do. Those numbers may not be exact, but when considering a training plan, this is a good starting point. Training must incorporate not just talking, but demonstrating, role playing and checking for understanding. Just as I warn against not investing enough time in picking the right people to work in your store, the next cardinal rule is that you must invest enough time in training. Training is not just telling an employee that you want them to make a “genuine” and “authentic” connection with everyone who walks into your business. To get an employee started for example, especially one with little or no customer service experience, you have to help them find the words to make that genuine and authentic connection. That might start with actually creating a script for them to use until they are comfortable, but employees must be encouraged to find their own words, their own way of connecting with customers. Cookie cutter approaches are not a long-term solution – repeating the same words over and over will in short order become stale and will definitely not sound genuine or authentic. Modeling behavior and role playing are two of the most effective training techniques to help your employees learn the ropes.

Many retailers start their training of a new employee with POS (register) and other technical functions, e.g. using an inventory system to check stock. I think that is the wrong approach. In helping an employee feel like they have the tools they need to do their job well, technical training is indispensable. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer – OR – an employee than not being able to ring a sale quickly and error free or to competently and confidently check inventory to see if you have a specific item a customer is looking for. But if you want to communicate what your priorities are as a proprietor, I think mixing it up a bit and including the customer experience and your employees’ role in delivering that experience early on in the training process is paramount. I have had perfectly competent cashiers ring me up quite efficiently but never once make eye contact, greet me or even thank me for my purchase. It is critical to your store’s success that your employees clearly and unambiguously understand what their priorities are. They need to understand that there is nothing more important than the customer(s) standing in front of them – even say, if they are with another customer. A key lesson in the training process is developing the ability to acknowledge and welcome a customer even when they are already engaged with another customer – it literally takes seconds to look up, make eye contact, smile and say hello, I will be right with you. Done well – with training – it should not detract from the experience of the customer they are presently with. This is the kind of thing that is not necessarily intuitive for everyone, however obvious it may seem.

The best retailers I have worked with have at least one person designated to train new employees. This will depend obviously on the size of your business. This person will almost certainly have other responsibilities beyond training, but if we are trying to deliver a consistent experience to all customers, the training should be consistent for all employees. Smart and effective training should include training the person or people who conduct the training to ensure everyone is being trained to the same standard. A checklist and/or training guide is also indispensable to ensure all bases are covered with all employees. In the next post, I will get into more specifics about the training process and effective tools and methods I have employed to set my employees up for success to deliver the best possible service to customers.

Roman Schreiner

October 2017

Genuine and Authentic

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.

Roman Schreiner

September 2017


I promised in my last post titled, “In the Beginning…,” that my next post would be about what needs to happen before your first customer walks in the door. You must hire the right people. I also spoke to the idea that the customer experience starts the minute a customer enters your business, and perhaps even a few seconds before.

Employees will not greet customers if the expectation that they do so has not been clearly articulated to them and they have been trained to do so. Often they will not even then – if they are working unsupervised. So when I write “It Starts at the Beginning…” I am not just talking about when a customer first steps foot into a store, I am also talking about ensuring the people who you hire to work in your store are the kind of people who will look up and offer a genuine, friendly smile and greeting regardless of whether their supervisor is in the vicinity.

But really, before you even start considering staffing your business or filling an opening in an existing business, you have to very seriously think through the kind of experience you want your customers to have when they walk into your store. This will of course inform what qualities and/or personality traits you are looking for in the people you hire to drive your business. Working with a client a few years ago, I helped them think through, then put into words and finally put together a power-point presentation for top leadership and ultimately to use as a training tool, articulating in fairly specific terms what kind of experience they wanted their customers to have when they walked into their shop. The experience you want your customers to have may vary greatly depending on any number of factors, from what you are selling, your location and your expectation and vision for how you want to grow your business. Although the client I mentioned above would be considered a luxury brand, most with whom I have worked in the past have been upscale, but not luxury. Regardless of what you are selling some vary common themes come through again and again.

I was directed by a friend to the website of Martin Shanker, Martin is a veteran of helping best in class retail brands grow their business through developing their people. He offers some great info on making the interaction between customers and your sales people as productive as possible, presented in a very knowledgeable, nuanced and sophisticated way. The key words I took away from the white paper available for download on the site were “genuine” “authentic” and the term “authentic communication.” I think this gives us a great place to start in building a vision for what we want our customer experience to look, sound and feel like – no matter what you are selling.

Questions to ask yourself:

Do I want immediate and attentive assistance the minute a customer walks through the door – or just a sincere greeting and allowing the customer to acclimate and browse? What does that look like?

If “genuine” and “authentic” are critical elements in the interaction between employee and customer, what does that sound like? I think you have to start with something as simple and basic as setting a standard that every customer must be greeted within a certain amount of time with a genuine greeting, eye contact and an authentic smile. First impressions do count.

What are your expectation for your employees “building the basket” or suggesting additional items that would complement what the customer has already picked out? Is clienteling a part of your expectation? That definitely requires a genuine rapport and a level of trust for the sales person to ask the customer if they would like to be added to their customer database, and for the customer to give out their private information.

Building a friendly, genuine rapport with customers is really the key. It’s not that customers are looking for any excuse to be turned off or put off by sales help, but most customers are in a hurry – they have also been conditioned to expect indifferent customer service as the norm, and consequently are extremely sensitive to any semblance of a sales person “just going through the motions” and not demonstrating a genuine interest in them and what their needs are.

Whatever you decide are your expectations for the experience you want your customers to have when they enter your business must be clearly articulated and then taught to your employees – and then of course managed. In the end, whatever your expectations, keep them as simple and basic as possible. When I was doing research on “mystery shopping” a tactic some retailers use to evaluate how well they are doing delivering “good” customer service, I found established retailers with 8 to 9 pages of instructions for the mystery shopper for what to look for and/or listen for when actually doing a shop. No kidding. By making our expectations too complicated and not just focusing on the basics – at least in the beginning – we are putting a stumbling block squarely in front of our sales people who we expect to establish a genuine, friendly and comfortable rapport with our customers.

So it seems that hiring the right people for your business is fairly complicated and starts with first doing some homework on what your expectations are for the kind of experience you want for your customers when they enter your business and then deciding what qualities you need to look for when interviewing candidates that will (hopefully) get you to your expectation. Hiring is complicated, but so, so many retailers give it so little attention. We will continue to explore this topic in upcoming posts.

Roman Schreiner

September 2017