Are You Being Served?

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Are You Being Served?

By James Mellgren - 08/01/2010

“Don’t open a shop unless you know how to smile.”
Jewish proverb (from Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service)

I may write a book someday called, The Customer is Always Right…and Other Retail Myths. It’s not that I don’t value the customers or their opinions – in fact, quite the contrary. Nor do I mean to cast aspersions on good customer service. Indeed, it is one of the most important things you can do as a retailer to set yourself apart from the competition. Nor do I necessarily think the customer is always wrong (more likely they are just uninformed). No, what I detest about that much over-used and trite retail motto is that too often it is used merely to placate a customer involved in a problem that might have been solved before it occurred, even long before the customer has arrived in the store. In other words, good customer service begins with you, your staff and how they are trained. It also begins with information and education that you are willing to impart to your customers through signage, demonstrations and active tastings. Good customer service begins with how you have arranged the store and whether you were successful in making it easy for the customers to navigate and simply get around. Are the products labeled? Are there practices in place to deal with returns, damaged goods or spoilage? Are your policies posted where they are easy to see? Good customer service isn’t just about greeting the shoppers at the door and asking if they need any help, although that’s part of it. It’s about an entire shopping experience, from the moment they step through your door to the moment they walk out. Your job is to make that experience a positive one and one in which they will want to repeat again and again.

First Impressions
Who is the first person your typical customer sees upon entering your store? If it’s a dour, bored looking clerk texting on his or her phone, oblivious to all but the tiny screen in his or her hands and the no doubt equally dour person on the other end, you’ve got a problem. I’ve seen it happen many times in small boutiques, sometimes to the point that I could be wielding a chainsaw and spray painting graffiti on the walls and the sales clerk would not have noticed. I’ve even seen it happen in restaurants. It’s certainly possible for someone to come to your store and simply look around without buying anything, but usually when someone walks into a restaurant they are there to do business, and yet many times I’ve had to look around for someone to acknowledge my existence and give me a table. Make sure it doesn’t happen in your store and that your sales people make a point of greeting the person coming in the door.

Customer service expert Harold Lloyd calls these “critical control points” and they are one of the first steps in establishing good customer service. It starts at the front of the store. A clean, uncluttered entryway with clear signage directing them to departments, the restrooms, the café, or service area sets the customer up for an easy shopping experience. Make sure that there is someone around to answer questions, even if they are busy. Paperwork and display building should never prevent anyone on the sales floor from helping a customer. I overheard a fellow in a grocery store the other day telling a woman, “Well, actually I’m on lunch but…” That’s too much information. An employee’s lunch break is between him/her and the manager, and should never be the customer’s problem. If a sales person is in an apron or other uniform and walking across the sales floor, s/he should be prepared to answer a question or in some way help someone out.

One of the roles of an independent retailer, a gourmet retailer if you will, is to not only make selections of merchandise based on their knowledge and research, but also to help educate the customer. Making sure that the shopper understands what they are buying can often help avoid returns later on when they get home and discover the cheese they bought is too assertive or that they can’t figure out how to operate their new pressure cooker. I remember an incident where a woman brought back a piece of cheese claiming that it was bad. In fact, she was quite angry, almost to the point of accusing us of deliberately trying to pull a fast one with rotten cheese. The young cheesemonger and I both examined the cheese and we agreed it was exactly as it should be (it was a washed-rind cheese of some sort, very assertive). We explained to the woman that the cheese was fine and that perhaps she just didn’t like so strong a cheese. She was adamant that the cheese was bad, that she was right, and that we were trying to save face. Was the customer wrong? Perhaps in regards to the nature of the cheese but not in how she felt about it. We offered to get her a different cheese but she was having none of it. In the end we gave her a refund, but after she was gone the clerk and I both made mental notes that Mrs. Johnson doesn’t like strong cheeses and if she ever comes back to the store (she did) we would know to steer her toward milder cheeses and to make certain that she tasted them before purchasing. Had we made more of an effort to educate her about the varying types of cheese she might not have been put in that situation.

Another time, a woman brought back a cast iron skillet that she had bought a few days previously. The new pan was dark brown, completely covered in rust, as though it had been left out in the rain for several days. The first thing she said was, “This pan is defective. I want my money back.”

I calmly asked her what she had done to it that it should be covered in rust. “Nothing,” she replied. “It looked like this when I took it out of the dishwasher.”

I explained to her that you simply cannot put a piece of cast iron in the dishwasher, new or old. At this she became very angry, saying no one had told her that and she shouldn’t be held liable for not knowing (there actually were seasoning instructions on all the labels but this one was gone, and we didn’t know if she had ever had one). I thought to myself, have you never taken a science class? When you bought your car I’ll bet the sales person didn’t have to mention that the car should not be run into a tree or off a cliff, and if she did one of those things, would she claim she hadn’t been told? Of course, I kept those thoughts to myself and took another track instead. I asked her if she was willing to let me fix it. She acquiesced and I took the pan home that night, scoured all the rust off, and seasoned it thoroughly. When she came in to collect the pan she was astonished, and at first she didn’t believe it was the same pan (perhaps she never did) and was very grateful. I made sure to explain a few tips about how to care for the pan and I believe I saved us a customer. After that, we made certain to explain how to care for a cast iron pan to everyone who purchased one (Lodge now pre-seasons their pans and they have always included detailed care instructions on every label).

Of course, not everyone that walks into your store wants to be educated. Some just come in to buy some of those melons you have on sale or their favorite cookies that they know you carry. In and out, save the lectures, spare me the delicacies. But for most of our customers, taking the time to educate them each time they come in, the preventative side of customer service would have been accomplished.

King L.E.A.R.
No matter how well you educate your customers, and no matter how efficient your store is in terms of signage and orderliness, inevitably there will be a problem that requires you to fix it. In his book, Competing With the Retail Giants: How to Survive in the New Retail Landscape (John Wiley & Sons, 1995), Kenneth E. Stone advocates a practice known as LEAR, an acronym for Listen, Empathize, Ask questions, and Resolve the problem, a method that is more or less how most of us handle situations anyway, but Stone has outlined it very well, that the end goal should always be to send the customer away happy, or at least with the feeling they have had a good experience and have been listened to.

“Management of the customers’ experience starts when they walk in, and ends when they walk out,” Stone writes.

In the book, Stone advises that customers who don’t actually voice a complaint can be very deceiving. He maintains that if they are unhappy with their service or general experience they may not say anything to you, but they will tell other people. In fact, there is an adage in the restaurant business that says if a patron is happy they will tell one or two people, but if they have a bad experience they will tell seven to 10 people. In other words, according to Stone, business can often be lulled into a false sense of security, believing they have no customer issues when in fact they do. Stone even advises you to solicit complaints. Consider 1. installing a suggestion box, and 2. actually open it and read the suggestions (many of which will be complaints) on a regular basis.

Above all, listen to your customers, even when they are whining, complaining, or simply wrong. Listening – and apologizing for mistakes – is so rare in retail settings these days that such a simple thing can actually get wonderful results. I guess I’m not surprised that the folks at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor have considered this problem thoroughly. In his marvelous book, Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service (Hyperion, 2003), co-owner and author Ari Weinzweig offers five steps for handling customer complaints, the first two being to really listen and acknowledge the customer’s problem and then to sincerely apologize.

“Any staff member can follow these first two steps,” writes Weinzweig. “They don’t need to know anything about what you do other than to be familiar with, and willing, to adhere to the first part of this recipe. They don’t have to know your products. They don’t have to know what to do to fix the problem. All they have to do is listen attentively to what the customer is saying. Most customers are so used to hearing defensiveness and dumb excuses that they’re almost taken by surprise when they hear acknowledgement and apology. And when they do, their tension level inevitably drops, making them much easier to deal with. Which, in turn, reduces staff stress levels and improves job satisfaction, thus increasing the quality of the service given.”

I would urge every retailer in America to immediately buy Weinzweig’s book, read it, and then pass it around to the staff. Better yet, buy a bunch of copies so no one has to wait to read it. For $17 (and as a retailer you can get it wholesale) it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make in your store. Zingerman’s has put so much thought into the subject, gleaned no doubt from the many ZingTrain workshops they offer throughout the year, that they have left no stone unturned, virtually nothing unexamined in the realm of customer service. And besides, as with all of Weinzweig’s books, it’s a fun read too.

Good customer service, and particularly great customer service can set you apart from your competition, make your store a more fun place to work (thus helping to find and keep good people) and shop (thus attracting good customers), help build business, and as Weinzweig points out in his book, it’s the right thing to do.