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

Customer Service and Civility

It should seem pretty obvious why good customer service would be a prerequisite for running a successful retail business, but with all the really bad or just indifferent customer service we all encounter on a regular basis it appears that it is worth examining.  In the course of this blog I will distinguish between “external” customer service and “internal” customer service.  External customer service is about taking care of the people who pay our salary – our actual customers.  Internal customer service is about how we treat those we work with.  It is a reflection of a business’ “culture.”  Internal and external customer service are inextricably intertwined.

I hope to demonstrate in the course of writing this blog that internal customer service or what is known in corporate-speak as “employee engagement” is a critical component in delivering a customer-focused environment. Employee engagement is how employees feel about the company they work for, the person or people they work with, their pay and benefits and their opportunities to succeed and advance, et al.  People want to feel good about where they work and the people they work with.  Many people spend much of their day at work and when they come home they talk about work.  If your employees are unhappy, trust me, your customers won’t be happy either.

Delivering good customer service consistently is not unlike driving many other metrics in business.  It requires a multi-faceted strategy that includes enormous effort, focus, good communication skills and a plan that will encompass some very basic tactics and often some rather sophisticated ones.  In the end, good customer service – internal and external — is smart business.  It drives revenue, reduces costs by increasing employee retention and helps grow your business.

The other premise I want to touch upon just briefly for now has to do with the sub-title of this blog, “Civility in the 21st Century.”  Having spent the past 30 years in New York City as a transplanted Midwesterner I can say it feels as if the closer you get to any urban center the general level of civility starts to drop.  This is not universally the case perhaps, but it has a strong ring of truth to it.  Manhattan, at least at times, feels like the epicenter for just plain rudeness.  Sometimes it is someone talking too loudly on their phone in a restaurant or someone texting as they ever so slowly climb the stairs in a busy rush hour subway station, totally oblivious to the hundreds of harried commuters behind them trying to get work (or home.)

I will leave the specific reasons for such behavior to sociologists and psychiatrists.  I do strongly believe that the pervasive lack of good or even adequate customer service and the rudeness and lack of civility that has become a part of our daily lives are all part and parcel of what some have called the “culture of me.”  I am going to do my best to lay out a plan, a course of action, to create a positive, customer-focused environment as an essential component to any successful business, but society’s lack of common civility is unfortunately a bigger task than I can address.  I believe though that having a good grasp of why so many people just do not care about those around them is an important and perhaps essential component in addressing customer service in any business.

Roman Schreiner

August 2017