Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Hire Hourly Team Members part 9… Finding Outstanding Customer Service

Speaking of mandatory qualities, (wait… what?)  I have some that I always look for, and I’ll tell you why.

If you are anything like me you have neither the time nor the inclination to follow up on and enforce the customer service expectations you have for your team members.  For many hourly team member jobs there is nothing more important than customer service, and none of us can be everywhere at once to observe and correct the customer service our team members are providing.  We can have the highest expectations, and how do we make sure those expectations are being met?

Well, I decided that the people I hire MUST have high customer service expectations for themselves as their default.  To me that means this: if they had their own business, and could do whatever they wanted, they would provide outstanding customer service.

Maybe we should take a second and talk about some of the different levels of customer service.  I think any adults reading this should have witnessed many if not all of them, and let’s talk about a few anyway.  There are I think levels of customer service that I have only read about… things that only the very wealthy get (and in one way or another pay for).  For the rest of us, the best service I have witnessed was on par with the level of service I attempted to provide at Whole Foods Market.  We would do just about anything for a customer.  Anything was returnable at any time, for any reason.  I would research product information for a customer and call or email them with the answers they wanted.  I ordered products for a customer knowing full well that I had no place for it on my shelves (so it was essentially just for them).  I would call them when a product that was previously unavailable came in, and/or hold products when a customer asked.  I imagine we’ve all experienced this level of customer service, and if we have a business, or lead as if it were our business, we hope our customers experience this.

In my experience, most retail stores set their customer service levels based on what (I can only imagine) the managers perceive as a balance between providing great service and ‘being taken advantage of’.  It did not take long working at Whole Foods Market before I came to believe that there is only a VERY small percentage of customers who are out to take advantage of us… between 1% and 3% most places, perhaps a bit higher if your store is located in an inner city environment.  The thinking that prevailed was that we should not punish the 97% for the possible actions of the 3%, so we acted accordingly.  An intelligent ‘return anything’ policy, which would keep track of returns and only restrict those who were actually taking advantage, was always in place.  For some of you this kind of policy might seem scary, and no one can deny that it has worked out extremely well for Whole Foods.  Even in the city store in which I worked for years it was perhaps more work for the front-end team, and yet it enabled us to provide the great majority of our customers with very high levels of service, which kept our sales growth very high year after year.

My experience of big box stores fits in the category above.  They claim to value service, and I’ll even see big score boards at the front of the store listing customer service goals, a graph of how well they are doing, and congratulations for some of the team members.  I find this contrasts with my experience in these stores.  Why is that?

My experience tells me that we get more of what we reward and celebrate.  In this case, someone in these stores knows that, and is at least making an attempt to improve customer service levels.  They are, no doubt, not actually in charge of the company… just in a position where they are able to make some small changes at the store level.  The obvious truth is that the people running the company actually reward some other behavior at one or more levels, so their goals at not aligned.  I bet they do want their customers to receive better service, and yet they cut labor budgets so tight that there are not enough workers on the floor to help customers, and they don’t invest in hiring the right people and/or training for customer service skills.  It also seems obvious that they do not actually reward workers in any substantial way for providing better customer service, or we would be seeing better service levels.  It takes a real commitment from the top down to be sure that not only are our goals and values understood by our workers, but also that our reward systems are aligned with our stated goals.

I do my best to avoid shopping in stores that provide the next lower level of service.
The default answer to customers is “NO”, no we can’t do that, no substitutions, an unnecessarily strict returns policy, you break it you bought it… you know who they (you?) are.  It’s seems very clear to me that there is an atmosphere of fear prevalent in these stores, and that the only thing they value is making money… it can be uncomfortable just being in such an atmosphere.  I have yet to encounter a happy worker in one of these stores, and to me it seems obvious why.  I doubt very much that anyone who runs one of these stores would still be reading this blog, and if you are and want to change there is help for you.  Just reach out…

Some companies have levels of service that might vary depending on the specific location you visit, or the time of day.  Again, this is most likely due to misaligned goals and rewards.

What level of service are you willing to accept when you deal with another business?  What levels of service do you expect from your workers?  Would your customers say their experience meets up with your expectations?  On what do you base your answer?  How do you know what level of service your customers are actually getting?
Have you ever called a customer service number only to get tangled in a maze of menus and frustration?  I wonder if the people who run those companies, who probably do care about the level of service they provide, ever call their own companies to find our exactly what the experience is like?  How do you know what your own customers get by way of service?  Unless we are right on the front lines with the hourly team members very often, how can we be sure?

Tune in next time for the answer to this and so many more questions!

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