In the Beginning…

I recently managed to lock myself out of my apartment in Manhattan as I have done more than once, and had to go get keys from my husband.  Luckily, his office is only a 10-minute walk from our apartment. He had the genius idea to get copies of the keys made, just so we would have an extra set…just in case. So when I got back to the neighborhood where we live, I stopped off at the locksmith across the street from our apartment. The door to the small shop had been propped open as it was a lovely, warm summer day. As I entered the shop and approached the counter, I saw a gentleman standing about 10 – 15 feet behind the counter absorbed in taking care of some paper work. I greeted him as I got to the counter with a genuine, “Hi, how ya doing?” His response took me aback, he did not even look up, but responded, “Yeah, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Despite knowing better, I could not help but respond, “I was only saying Hi.” Ignoring me for another full minute, he then walked over to the counter to help me. He ended up being actually very pleasant, greeting me, asking me what I needed and then proceeded to make the copies of the keys I needed.

I am quite sure the gentleman at the locksmith saw absolutely nothing wrong with our encounter. But in reference to the title of this post, “In the Beginning…” the customer experience begins the minute your customer enters your business (or you answer the phone). As someone once told me, “You only have once chance to make a first impression.” My first impression walking into this shop was that the paperwork the gentleman was working on was more important than me. That would be wrong. My impression, when I offered the employee (or proprietor for all I know) a genuine, friendly greeting and was essentially rebuffed, could ultimately be a factor in deciding if I return to that shop or visit another locksmith a few blocks up the street the next time I need a set of keys made. Because you know what? There is another locksmith a few blocks up the street, offering exactly the same service at exactly the same price.

How many times have you walked into a shop or store and the first sales person you saw was leaning against the counter staring at their cell phone? How long did it take for the sales person to acknowledge your presence? I have waited while a sales person finished the text they were writing before even looking up at me, and (perhaps – but not necessarily) greeting me. We have all been watching the slow, painful demise of the shopping mall over the years as consumer shopping patterns have shifted and malls fell out of favor as a preferred shopping destination. I recently walked through a largely desolate mall, with more empty store fronts than I cared to count, just observing the employees working in the stores that have managed to keep their doors open. I acknowledge there was very little customer foot traffic in the mall at the time and most of the stores were completely devoid of any other human beings other than the poor soul stuck working in them. Having worked in retail, I know how painful the boredom can become when customer traffic is non-existent. Cell phones are all too tempting with the ability they offer to reach out to a friend or loved one, catch a sporting event live on your phone or even shop!

But if you are hired to work in a retail establishment and the sole or at least certainly primary expectation of your job is to take care of customers; provide them with a positive experience and sell as much to them as you possibly can, would that not begin the minute they enter your store? I won’t even bother to contemplate the impression an obviously bored employee, leaning against a counter, staring intently at their cell phone makes on someone who has paused while walking through the mall to glance into and quickly evaluate whether they even want to enter a store. Let’s just start at the point a customer crosses the lease line. The customer should instantly and spontaneously become the sole focus of the employee(s) in the store. As a manager in retail for many years and as a customer myself, it is shocking that more often than not customers are not greeted by employees as they enter a shop or walk through a larger store browsing, regardless of how many other customers are in the store.

There are many factors at play here, all of which I will address in future posts. 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. It really starts for the retailer with making sure you are hiring the right people. Hiring the right people…the subject of my next post.

Roman Schreiner

September 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