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Training Customer Service Is Like A Game of Pool

Ever played pool? It starts off with all the balls together, the cue ball comes along to break them up, they scatter and the game commences. That’s what I expect in a retail store. In fact it’s one of my pet peeves when employees stay clustered, like a beehive daring someone to come in and be stung.

I went into a Home Depot Friday afternoon in one of the most torrential rains I’ve ever been though looking for a particular panel I’d seen over the weekend to build a backsplash. The place was dead and devoid of customers.

I returned to the display, discovered that it only had 10 and began searching for someone to check back stock as I needed a total of 18 pieces. I looked around to the left and saw nothing but empty work desks. Then to the right. No one was there either. The computers were on and stuff stacked in front like someone had been there.

I went around to the right, then left, then to the right and discovered three male employees standing around a workstation desk and a fourth employee sitting back in her chair. She was chatting about the lack of customers, I think.

I came within 10 feet of the desk and they kept talking. She remained tilted back in the chair and looking at me. No one said a word.

“Excuse me,” I said, “can I get some help?”
The woman without moving said, “What are you looking for?”
“There’s something over here…”
She jumped in, “Well what is it?”
In frustration I blurted out, “If you would get off your butt, I could show you.”

She got up and moved towards me and I led her back to the display. As I explained what I needed I felt bad and said, “Sorry I didn’t mean to say that.” She said, “That’s okay, people don’t always get what we’re saying.”

I don’t think she got my problem. It’s not up to the customer to respond correctly. They should have broken up, one of them come over and offered to assist. Instead they clung together making the customer uncomfortable trying to spit out the correct name of the product (which I still can’t recall.)

When I was starting in retail I had done the same thing. I was just out of high school working at the Nunn Bush Shoe Shop in the Glendale Galleria. I was talking to my boss behind the counter while a customer looked through all the shoe displays. Instead of breaking and talking to him in assessing his needs, we kept right on talking.

Finally, the customer came up to us and asked, “Is this all you have?” I guess I was feeling my oats that day when I said, “No, we have three floors above us – we want people to guess what we have.” The customer said, “Next time take your bad mood out on somebody else!”

I truly had been a jerk that day and it wasn’t until later that I realized why and how. I think it started by allowing there to be a wall between myself and the customer. I think I considered myself as the great resource – people would ask for my help. But that incident stayed with me for a long time as how NOT to be.

A few days ago when I was at the same Home Depot, I had looked at an appliance. The guy (who was part of the gang of four today,) had offered to print out the sell sheet for me. When I asked, “Should I buy this from you or online?” he replied, “I’d appreciate it if you’d buy from me so I could keep my job.” After today, I’m looking anywhere but HD.

Looking to grow sales? Don’t allow your employees to cluster like somebody had racked them up. It builds a wall. And if you have a counter, it becomes a castle they can feel superior to customers behind.

Train your crew that when a customer walks in, they’re the cue ball and the crew should scatter.

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Posted by Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor on August 3, 2009.

This entry was posted in Training and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Training Customer Service Is Like A Game of Pool”

  1. bobphibbs says:

    The following were received as a reprint from a RetailWire post. Many of the comments were excellent and am including them as one below:Bob’s story is all to common in retail shops these days, except in those of course where schedules have been cut so badly there’s only one person on the floor (who are they going to hang out with?).
    The easiest and most powerful solutions for managers to adapt is to lead by example. Be the first one to break away from the group and wait on the customer. The staff will soon get the message.

    Take this up a level…when senior management is touring stores, they should actively wait on customers. It drives me crazy when the ‘suits’ show up in a store and act like superstars, gathering everyone around them, and ignoring customers. My favourite CEOs and VPs are the first ones to break off from these informal staff meetings in the store and get to the customer. Not surprisingly, their stores often provide the best service.
    Kevin Graff, President, Graff Retail

    The biggest reason why store associates congregate in “safe places” on the sales floor is that the manager is not on the floor to break up the little coffee clatches.
    RSR’s benchmarks consistently report that the typical store manager is becoming a desk jockey–printing reports, creating labor schedules, reading e-mails and doing other activities in the office. In short, doing everything BUT managing employees on the selling floor.

    There is no question in my mind that employees need to be managed, and store managers are not in a position to manage them effectively. Until the critical information store managers need is delivered to them on the selling floor (yup, through mobile devices), this situation will never change.
    Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

    What’s the saying? “Idle hands breed idle mischief”? I think it’s something like that. A store ops guy from one of the electronic gaming stores (I forget which one) said that they deliberately under-schedule their employees just a bit, because they find two benefits: one, that employees tend to step it up a bit when they’re busy and productivity is actually better than when they staff “just right” and two, it’s much better for shrink and for customer service if employees don’t have a chance to sit idle. That’s not even a case of trying to eke every last bit of productivity out of them, but simply a case of making sure that “wall” doesn’t get built up between employees and customers.
    Retail is hard, hard work. Any chance at down time is great, but if it gets to a point where the customer is an annoyance, then you’ve got a problem. If employees understand that they can have their chats during down time as long as the customer always comes first, then managing that shouldn’t be a problem. But if that wall starts to go up, it’s up to the store manager or department lead to make sure that idle hands get put to work–and fast.
    Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, Retail Systems Research

    The overarching issue is customer relations. The extent to which retailers encourage and train their staff on how to interact with shoppers is reflected in the kinds of stories consumers tell about the store experience.
    I remember an occasion years ago when I was shopping for a dress in Lord & Taylor. The store was empty. There was an associate standing at the cash register in the dress department and she asked me if she could be of assistance. I was elated as customer service was hardly something I expected at the time. I told her I was looking for a dress to wear to a wedding. She asked me what size and when I told her pointed to the racks where I might find the dress, not offering to help me further.

    I left the store without making a purchase and noticed the associate as I was leaving. She was still standing at the cash register looking as bored as could be.

    This is a story I shared with my daughters as a life lesson. The associate could have walked with me to the dresses and helped me through the process. At the end of the day she could have recalled and enjoyed the positive experience for me and her.

    Instead, I was almost certain that when asked about her day…that day…she would reply that it was as boring as every other day. She had it in her power to make her day more fulfilling and satisfying and the retailer could have encouraged her to do so.

    The Home Depot story is just another perspective of how associates do not understand their impact on the customer. Evidently they are not given that understanding by their employers.

    It’s the retailers who train their staff and encourage professional self esteem who create a win win for their customers and their employees. Word of mouth, i.e. the stories we tell our friends and neighbors in person or on Facebook will make the difference in the future success of retailers who depend on good customer experiences. Don’t they all?
    Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

    You have to wonder how much the attitudes and behaviors of the staff change when they are given a stake in the revenue of the store. If they are able to receive a bonus for the store by making their sales goals, the entire game changes for them. Of course that’s not always possible and it’s not always going to work but it’s a good way to get the engagement level of the store teams higher and more focused on the client.
    The flip side is that when a customer walks in, they don’t always see a customer…they see a dollar sign.
    Scott Knaul, Director, Retail Strategic Services, Workforce Insight

    If the associates in any store have nothing better to do than stand around shooting the breeze, their manager should be fired. Ignoring customers should never be the case, especially now when any traffic that comes in the door should be serviced with white gloves. It is intimidating to some and insulting to other shoppers to approach a gang of associates. The gang, as Bob described, can get that disdainful attitude and unapproachable look. I have observed customers timidly approaching knots of associates and apologetically asking for service. Ridiculous! Customers need to start demanding better service, but that’s a whole different discussion.
    I think a big problem is employee loyalty. A retail job is not a career; it’s a temporary job until something better comes along, or a discount. Turnover is over 100% in most cases. I blame selection methods and training, but also a lousy reward system for those associates who do make the effort. Most figure why bother going the extra mile, no one within the organization seems to notice or care.
    Marge Laney, President, Alert Technologies, Inc.

    Way back in typewriter days my Master’s thesis compared nursing team relationships with their patient’s perception of care. Illogically, it turned out the stronger the team relationships the worse the care from the patient’s perspective. Explanation: When the nurses couldn’t tolerate being with the others at the nursing station where else could they go but to the patient’s room? Presto–patients felt loved and cared for.
    It’s not that we want lousy team relations on the shop floor, it’s that sales people forget why that team exists. What amazes me, and Bob is right on the money, is that they carry on conversations as if no one else can hear it. Happened on a flight the other day too. I’m in First Class and the Attendants are complaining bitterly about overtime, the company, etc. like we weren’t three feet from them. Finally I asked “Do we have to be part of this conversation?” They were almost shocked to hear another human voice.

    Note to floor sales professionals. You are ALWAYS on stage: how you look, walk, talk. We don’t want to see you yawn, pick your nose or goof around. That’s what the back room is for. You are not there to be with your buddies though I hope you are a closely aligned and supportive team. You are there for us. Make that happen and we’ll be there for you.
    Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

    Can I take this one step further and say it’s also a huge problem at trade shows? I’ve seen retailers walk into manufacturer booths and be totally ignored for significant chunks of time while the sales reps stand around and chat. And I’ve seen retailers get steamed and leave. Nothing new about this; it’s been true for 30+ years that I’ve witnessed it. It totally puzzles me why this is allowed to continue.
    Warren Thayer, Editor & Managing Partner, Frozen & Dairy Buyer

    There are two different problems here. One is that employees stand around doing nothing and the other is lack of customer service. In regard to number one, show me a retailer that has enough staff that you can even find them standing around somewhere. In most cases today, it is not the fact that staff is standing around, it’s that stores are so short staffed that I can never find anyone to help me if I have a question. Or the staff that is their is tied up doing something other than being available on the sales floor.
    Second problem is just lack of customer relationship training. If things are that slow and people want to talk for a minute, let them. But make sure they realize what their job is all about and why they need to make taking care of the customer the number one priority.
    Mel Kleiman, President, Humetrics

    And one more thing…
    I was close to another research project studying prison guards and the high level of stress, dissatisfaction and poor morale. Most of us assume such results are because of the danger involved. But the study found that it was actually due to boredom. Think about it.

    One of our RetailWire colleagues noted that retail sales was “hard” work and the point being made was absolutely right. But I started to think this prison guard study might be relevant to retail sales. Could it be that for many, retail sales is just plain boring?

    How often do we go into a store and come out thinking “That was fun, what a great experience!” Let’s give this challenge to the sales people: “Eliminate boredom in this store; for you and the customer!”
    Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

    This is such a basic concept of retail that it’s just pathetic to see when it happens.
    Several weeks ago I experienced the very same thing at Home Depot, which is about as close to the Home Depot of old as Macy’s is.

    Likewise, I experienced it at a car dealer last month. Literally, there were four sales people crowded around a receptionist’s desk as I entered the showroom. My wife’s car was being worked on at a dealer less than a mile away and I inquired whether there was a sales person available to show me (and let me test drive) a new car. I also asked if they could drop me at the other dealer to pick up my wife’s car when we were finished with the test drive.

    After I posed the questions there was silence from every person there–all five! After another 15-20 seconds I suggested that perhaps I was asking too much and walked out of the showroom. Fortunately, my wife was still in the parking lot and she dropped me back at the other dealer to wait for the car.

    A few minutes later I called the sales manager at the dealer and shared the story. He wanted to know which sales person “blew it” and of course they all did, including the receptionist.

    I did indeed buy a new car and not from that dealer or that manufacturer but from one directly across the street.
    Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

    Is associate congregation a significant inhibitor to customer service at the store level? Of course, it is. What a store manager can do is make it clear that congregation, whether in view of customers or not will not be tolerated. Collaboration, should be of course, encouraged, however, just standing around and talking is not collaboration! The other thing a store manager can do is to offer incentive for customer assistance. I do not recall name of a store in Dallas area, however, when I went to the cash register to check out the cashier asked me who helped me and I did identify the sales clerk who helped me, and the cashier entered that into the cash register.
    The point is the sales associate/store employees should get an answer to the question “What is in it for me?” before we expect them to help customers.
    Pradip Mehta, Principal, Mehta Consulting, LLC

    There are many excellent call-outs listed above that contribute to negative service experience. They are all, in my opinion at least, symptoms of a much larger problem–a company culture that focuses more on the home office than the sales floor. Unfortunately, the larger the company, the more likely you are to encounter this indifference bordering on hostility.
    As companies begin to get larger, the individual customer can become a statistic instead of the source of revenue for the company. The home office becomes populated by specialists that, in many cases, have never worked in a store. This can lead to directives to the stores that make perfect sense in the home office, but make little sense on the sales floor. To make it worse, technology has lead to store managers increasingly becoming chained to their computer terminals responding to requests and directives from the home office instead of leading their associate teams.

    The irony of this approach is a store staff spending the bulk of its time (usually monitored and quantified) waiting on the home office instead of the customer. On one level or another, the store associates understand this irony and it leads to disillusionment, frustration, and, in the end, apathy and high turnover.

    The companies that focus on the sales floor (where the customers are) and the store associates instead of the home office are the ones that produce an environment customers want to shop in and, not surprisingly, superior performance. It’s a short list–Walmart, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Whole Foods, for instance.

    Until retailers, particularly large retailers, begin to figure this out, good service experiences will be the exception, not the rule.
    Bill Emerson, President, Emerson Advisors

    As I walked up to order a Jamba Juice the other day, the server asked for my order and I gave it to her. Just then, a co-worker walked through the door and she exclaimed “Jeffrey”! She then reconnected with me and asked me for my order.
    I usually exercise constraint but this time responded by saying that I had just given it to her. She blushed, said “sorry” and then made eye contact with Jeffrey behind me. I looked at her and exclaimed “Jeffrey” in the same silly tone.

    She was suitably embarrassed and, I think, got the point.

    All too typical.

    To answer the question: congregation is poor practice and texting, talking on phones, calling out to friends is just plain rude.

    The challenge is inherent in hiring the teenage set, but there is still a training opportunity to address. It can be done.
    Bill Hanifin, Managing Director, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

    The major disconnect here is that sales associates don’t have skin in the game. Generating bigger cart size isn’t part of their job.
    Until retail jobs become careers and not temp jobs, and until retail companies really begin to concentrate on what drives sales, customers will be constantly annoyed. Wonder why retail executives don’t get this.
    Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

    I started in retail in 1976. It’s now 2009…and we’re STILL talking about this?! C’mon, face it; all the ‘BrainTrust’ in the world hasn’t solved this yet. It’s even worse outside the US, with few exceptions.
    Whether we’re talking about employee conversations, ignoring customers or just not caring, Cathy Hotka’s right, they have no skin in the game. However, that doesn’t mean that grocery clerks should be on a commission plan. It starts with corporate culture. We can all think of great retailers who demand that every employee acknowledges the customer when they make eye contact. This CAN be done, and it is the fault of field supervision and up the corporate food chain for not demand compliance consistently. People get excited about a new customer service program, and then the excitement fades, and it is back to bad customer service.

    I’m not saying this is easy, but I am saying it is possible.
    Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

    What you are seeing with this tendency for associates to congregate together is an us vs. them mentality that views customers as a necessary burden to salespeople.
    The key issue here is a combination of lack of mission and lack of empowerment. Salespeople need to feel a sense of ownership for the customer, the store and the brand to provide a superior level of customer experience. You cannot legislate commitment; you (the company) must earn it, both in the minds of customers and as importantly, in the minds of the field staff as well.

    When the store team feels like the store is their home and they take as much (or more) pride in it as in their own front yard, then you automatically eliminate those behaviors.

    To achieve such a goal, retailers must engage their employees like they hope to engage customers–by recognizing their needs and providing them with a compelling case to be retained. Remember, companies with the highest percentage of retained employees have the highest level of retained customers.
    Mark Price, Managing Partner, M Squared Group, Inc.

    Employee congregation is merely a symptom of the larger customer service issue that we address fairly regularly here. The problem starts at the top with senior managers who view store level payroll as an expense to be minimized rather than the cost of generating revenue. When payroll is an expense, people become a number to be quantified. When payroll is seen as an essential cost necessary to generate revenue, people become valued for their contribution.
    But it’s also important to note that the problem isn’t confined to the major chains. Too often independents take the same approach. It costs one thing to employ a potted plant. It costs another thing entirely to employ a passionate, skilled, customer-focused salesperson.
    Ted Hurlbut, Principal, Hurlbut & Associates

    Yes, groups of associates chatting amongst themselves instead of helping shoppers does create a bad customer service situation. Merchants should encourage a friendly workspace, but associates also need to be educated that such collaboration doesn’t come at the cost of helping shoppers. The customer should always come first. And while there are plenty of ways to achieve that goal, the foundation must be solid, i.e., it starts with hiring associates who truly like retail and want to help customers.
    Tim Henderson, Senior Director, Consumer Strategist, Retail, Iconoculture Inc.