Retail Podcast 701: Howard Prager Making Kindness a Priority

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Bob Phibbs interviewed Howard Prager, author, speaker, and executive coach, on making a difference in the workplace and in life - and more - on this episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail.

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Tell me something good about retail

Howard Prager Making Kindness a Priority


Bob: Thanks for joining me on another episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail. Today I get the opportunity to talk with Howard Prager. He's a speaker, author, and leadership consultant. Thanks for joining me all the way from Chicago today.

Howard: My pleasure Bob, it took a while to get here, but I made it and I'm so glad to be on your show.

Bob: Excellent. Well, you recently wrote a book about how you show up for others called Make Someone's Day: Becoming a Memorable Leader in Work and Life. And I'm just going to start off with what led you to write that book. And do you think that in a post-COVID world, it has additional relevance?

Howard: The answer to your second question is, absolutely. It takes on more relevance than ever. What led me to write the book is I realized that there are things I did - planned and unplanned - that made someone's day. And when you make someone's day the strongest compliments you can get are, "you made my day."

People don't say that nonchalantly. They don't say that offhanded. They say that when you've done something at the right time and right place that really made a difference to someone. And it could be as simple as a smile for someone not having a great day, a smile, recognizing them.

As I was thinking about the podcast, Bob, and listening to some of your past episodes, which are great. I was thinking about what are the places where I feel really welcome and I'm thinking it's when I go back to my favorite restaurant and the owner recognizes me and welcomes me by name, same thing in stores.

There are stores I go to where people make me feel like a welcome guest, not as a nuisance or a problem. And that's what we need even more of today when we're so stressed out when there's so much going on in our lives from COVID, from stresses of working in person and, and who's masked or not masked and who's vaccinated, who's not vaxed.

It's like, oh my gosh, I don't know what. And you kind of almost like want to retreat into yourself and in retail we can't retreat. We've got to be able to be there and be there for others. So, I realized that make someone's day is something that we all need to do to make a huge difference in the workplace and in life.

Bob: And so what was your best day that somebody made for you? You can't say the day you got married or you had your kids, so you can't say that that's a given.

Howard: The best day that someone made for me. Wow. That's a question I haven't been asked before. So your first time there. Oh my gosh, I think when we went downtown to Sear's Tower.

Chicago people, we still call it Sear's tower. It's somebody else's tower now, but it'll always be Sear's tower. And we went up to the metropolitan club which is the Mid-America club on the 70th, floor. Beautiful view. I happened to know the chef. He came over, not only he brought us some complimentary appetizers, but he sat down and talked with us and told us about what it's like there and what's going on.

It was just a five-star experience.

Bob: That's great. And yet it's not something that you can ... I mean I'm in the training business, obviously. So, you know, it sounds great. We need to make everybody make someone's day, every single time. But the hard part of that is what does that look like? Right.

Because what I value and what someone else values might be different. And let's face it, you know, the, our girlfriend/boyfriend of the week in our pocket. The smartphone is going to be chirping and clucking or getting our attention too. So, you don't have 20 minutes to find those. What would be some keys for our listeners to be able to do this?

Howard: Well, think about those companies that are always on the most admired list. Nordstrom's, Wegmans, Zappos, Southwest. They have raving fans. And it's because they do the right thing every time. So, I know what you're saying.

In one sense, you can create that corporate culture where treating customers right is part of who we are. HBR, Harvard Business Review last year reported that practicing kindness by giving compliments and recognition has the power to transform our in-person experiences and remote experiences. And a commitment to being kind has so many benefits. It'll help our colleagues. It helps reduce employee burnout and absenteeism, improves employee wellbeing.

Gallup poll finds year after year in its surveys of U.S. workers that receiving a compliment, recognition and praise can help individuals feel more fulfilled, boost their self-esteem, improve their self-evaluations and trigger positive emotions. That's what we need. And that's what we need to give to our colleagues.

And especially in retail, what we need to give to our customers to treat them strategically, not like just a one-off transaction.

Bob: I agree with that. Of course. That's why you're here. So, in your book, you wrote about BANI: brittle, anxious non-linear, and incomprehensible. What does all of that mean?

Howard: Yeah, it means that our nerves are close to being fried right, to being shattered. We are more brittle than we've ever been before. It's just the news and challenges that we all keep facing that is there an end in sight, you know, as COVID seemed to be coming to an end and we thought, that's done, then next thing we know Ukraine's being attacked and we've got that to deal with.

And now it's like the next micro version of this COVID is coming through and I hear the Northeast and the U.S. are the ones that are getting hit the worst right now. But we want to be stopped. We want this over with, we want to get back to our lives. And I think part of what this says is we're not going back, we're going forward.

And it means that we're going to be doing some things in a different way. Well, as we go forward, we need to be going forward in a spirit that's going to elevate us and others, not in a spirit of worry and fear.

Bob: Well, I agree with that. So how do you approach making somebody else's day? Are you consciously thinking of it every time?

Is that what you would tell your clients, that that's what they should be doing? You know, I think one of the things that a lot of people don't realize is what kindness looks like. Right? I mean, because. Let's face it. If you ask a young person, probably, "What is great customer service like?" "I got my Starbucks drink in 10 seconds cause I use the mobile app," But where does kindness fit in there?

Well, it doesn't really, but it might fit in when someone gets their order wrong and they start flaming at them, and then you see it. So how do you approach that idea of kindness, and is it an attitude or is it really something kind of like a goal to do before you go on to whatever it is that you showed up as - does that make sense?

Howard: Sure.

So I came up with a very simple model, but, but just going back to your Starbucks example for a minute, 10 seconds is great. 10 seconds and recognition that Sam or Sally are regular customers even better. I know my wife she's a Starbucks aficionado and so when they recognize her, it just kinda just lifts her up a little bit.

So, I came up with this model called the VIP model to learn how to treat others like VIP, and it's really quite simple. The V is for view and observe. So, view and observe what's going on around you. What might the other person be experiencing? You can even do this online by seeing what's going on in chat or what they're commenting on or posting. So, view and observe.

The second step is to identify and consider. Identify based on what you've observed, what might that person need. What might help them? What are they looking for? What are they maybe not saying, so identify and consider the various options. And probably the thing you want to do is choose the easiest option.

Right? We don't need to work overly hard to do this. And then finally is the P and that's plan and act. So even for something that you need to do almost simultaneously taking five seconds to plan always makes a difference. You know, Annie Spieth said that about Jordan.

Saturday at the golf tournament he putted too quickly and mis-putted a one-foot putt on the 18th hole. And Sunday, he realized to take five seconds and pause, plan and then act. So even in the world of golf, we see that advice being so important. So VIP and just use that, incorporate that.

Bob: So what, what keeps us from doing that when we don't know that person first. Right? Cause it's, I think it's easier if I know you to make somebody else's day. Right? I know what motivates you. I know what gets you upset and I make sure I don't do that, but when I really don't know a stranger, whether that's in a retail store or just, you know, anything. I think there's an awful lot of people afraid of other people now. Right? And we haven't really practiced kindness. We haven't seen it. So what are we supposed to do?

Howard: Yeah, exactly. You know what? You use your gut instincts. You use what you observe and you check it out. So one of the things I do when I teach the VIP model to customers and clients is I'll do some practice. You don't have to do the whole thing at once. Practice, check out what you've viewed and observed, check it out, do it at home if you like, do it with friends, but practice viewing something and saying, here's what I've seen. Here's what I've observed. Am I right?

And then go to the next step. So you viewed and observed here's what I've identified and considered. What do you think? Am I right? And finally, do the plan and act. You're not certainly not going to act, but here are some things I'd like to plan and get some feedback on. That's how we learn, just taking those small steps and growing in our practice of making someone's day.

Bob: That's nice. And you know, again, remembering that it's not tangible if I say this, they'll do that, it's more of just doing it because it makes you feel good first, right?

Howard: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. You know, it was two things there. You've said a mouthful, Bob, first of all, one size does not fit all. Have you bought shirts that say one size fits all? How do they fit?

Yeah, not so well, it's the same thing here. We can't do the same thing for everybody because people need different things and they need different things at different times. You know, I read a study, the study in HBR was really fascinating and it talks so much about leaders promoting kindness in the workplace.

And I think if we do that, if our leaders, team leaders, store leaders, store managers lead by example. So people are sensitive to the behavior of, you know, of the people they report to. Set aside time when you have your meetings, your department meetings, whatever they are, your store meetings, you know, Home Depot does the minute on the floor, right.

Where they have this quick learning on the floor for their associates when, when they've got a little time and use that time to do a kindness round where team members are free to acknowledge each other's work or examples of what they did.

Those things really work. They help, they make a difference and they show that this is something that's valued in your organization.

Bob: Yeah. I know. I've told this story before maybe not on this podcast, but I was at a Walmart when they'd first come out with a grocery in the Northeast and I walked in there and I was looking around and everything, and I finally decided, oh, they got blueberries, I'll get blueberries.

And I got something else. And I got in the line. A young woman is trying to scan it and it's not working. It's not working, not working. So she has to call someone. So the woman comes over to her and says, Hey Beth, how's your day going? And she goes, "Oh, it's going pretty well, Helen, and Beth goes, well, you know, I'm having trouble scanning this.

And she goes, I've tried doing X, Y, and Z. But it's just frustrating for me and for the customer and Helen - I gotta get my names right - says Oh, well that would be terrible. Can I try it? And she goes, yeah. And so Helen says, Well, what I always do, and she takes the label and she pulls it back and runs her finger through it.

And she goes, let's see if this works, and does it and scans and it, and it's there. And I said, no one else saw what I did. I guarantee you, no one else saw an incredible amount of respect and kindness and learned behaviors that worked like a symphony just to watch it. And I said, just as an ops guy, that makes my day because I think this isn't something you were doing for anyone's benefit other than each other, right?

Both of you were asking permission and being respectful and then bringing me into it. It's the customer. So of course it did scan. And so my cashier goes, well, thank you very much. And she goes, I hope you both have a great day. And Helen goes off. And people, you know, I think when people are studying kindness, you really got to look for it when you see it.

Right. It's I think acknowledging I saw that happen versus, oh yeah. I don't know. They had to do a price check and we had to wait around. It's like, no, no, look, what's going on around you because that's part of what you're saying is what's going on around you.

Howard: Exactly. And I love hearing that story. This is Walmart, not one of the places that's well-known for the way they treat each other and treat customers, but what a fabulous story that is and what a great leader Helen is.

And in working with others, I hope she's doing well at Walmart and that her DNA is rubbing off on others there.

Bob: Well, that's it. You know, Walmart and Target both big boxes, three or four years ago had decided they were putting this huge emphasis. Walmart built a hundred training centers. I think Target did something of the same and they made this big commitment to engaging their associates in a new way.

And of course, when the pandemic came by, I think that really let them reap all of the benefits of it. But to your point, nobody's thinking anyone's treated well at Walmart at all, which is probably even more reason that they have to instill a culture like that.

Bob: And I think so many times people don't realize how being at the front line you can make somebody else's day with just a question or something more than just how's it going today? How's it going today doesn't lead us to a good place, right? It's like, well, I don't know this stranger, it's going pretty crappy.

My kid, you know, did this, this, this I'm working on... It's like, yeah, I don't wanna hear. So what else can you ask him? So basically examples of what you could say to make somebody else's day. What have you used Howard, that's worked really well?  And then we'll take a little break here.

Howard: Sure. Gosh, here's a simple example that always works.

So I'm a scout leader. And I know that when I see parents of kids and they ask how's Johnny doing, and I'll say, "Oh, Johnny is great. He's so polite. And he just pays attention and helps other kids. I love it. Well, I realized how much parents, first of all, as a parent myself, it's like, our kids are never that way with us, right, they're that way with others.

And I was in the doctor's office in the waiting room and I saw a squirrely high school-aged kid waiting for a physical with his mom. And the mom was like, so nervous, you know, settle down, settle down. Don't do that. Don't do that. And the nurse came out there and said Johnny, you're ready to go back here?

And, he said, yes. And, he said, I am, thank you so much for coming to get me. And off he went. And I said to the mother, I know you're anxious about him, but what a polite young man you have there. And oh, my gosh, she just smiled is what she did. She just couldn't believe that someone else who didn't know her son was saying this about him, but it was true.

Well, if we can see that with someone that we don't know, just that little bit of behavior, we can do this for others as well. It doesn't have to be kids, but that's one that, that I know always works. Always works complimenting someone's kid.

Bob: So, you know, one of the big things that we are seeing in retail right now is the untold story is the people that have left are the shift leads and assistant managers.

People think that it's, oh, everybody's leaving retail. It's like, no, no, no. It's not the managers. They probably are paid more. And yeah, of course, the frontline, but it's the thing that's so devastating is they're losing their bench. So tell me how do we fix this leadership crisis?

Howard: Yeah. Oh, you know, and, and it's so true, Bob, I've written about that, about the leadership crisis that, that all companies, all places are facing.

I think it's treating others like VIPs, you gave a great story about this manager at Walmart, helping this cashier and not making her feel bad, not talking down to her, but being respectful. In return, she got that respect back. That's the sort of thing that we need to see.

That's the sort of thing that will keep people in their jobs, that will keep people loyal to their organizations. You know, you talked about earlier, the great resignation where people are just leaving jobs in droves and you called that the great reprioritization. And I love that take on it.

That's not just people leaving, but people prioritizing what's important in their lives. And if they feel good at work, they will do something. They will do something about it. You know, I had my book, I was really pleased that the CEO of Lindt Chocolate - delicious, right - he said that "Just by reading the title, I was inspired to make someone's day a few times that same day.

And, you know, he wrote that to me and I'm thinking fans, what we need more of people who feel that this is the important priority, that this is not just something that's a theme of the week. That it's a fad to do that. It's not something that comes and goes, but something that will last - that's where it's going to make a difference where it becomes part of an organization's culture so that they gave the same recognition that the other companies that do this, get.

Bob: Oh, yeah. That's the hard thing though, is we don't need to be taught as much as reminded. It's like, it makes sense to all of us. But when we don't see it and we don't feel it, a lot of us would rather, you know, it's that old story as Zig Ziglar used to say how people, you know, sit around the stove and say, you know, I'll give you wood when you give me heat.

It's like, yeah, it doesn't work that way. I got to give you wood to get heat, right? So, cause a lot of us live in a world that's fraught with people wanting to tell you you're wrong or you're this or that. I'm always shocked on my, you know, I have 18,000 fans on Facebook and 400,000 followers on LinkedIn accounts, and I'm always shocked when I'll put something innocuous up there.

And lo and behold, someone takes this, you know, makes this turn. And I'm like, how did you even go there based on what I said. So I think if that's happening for me, that's gotta be happening in people's personal lives that, you know, you're so hungry and parched for people being kind to you, that there is a part of, you know, kind of a me-first that's that says, Hey, why don't you be nice to me first?

So do you find that people who express kindness get it back more often or that they, the just inherent-ness of doing it feels better than hearing it? What are your thoughts on that, Howard?

Howard: Absolutely. I do. I do. I, in fact, in that HBR article I told you about, in their study, they found that people were happier when they're saying something positive to others, even more so than they were getting at themselves.

So people are looking for the opportunity to make someone stay and then to see that reaction. And I'm telling you that what happens is what I like to call a boomerang effect. When someone says to me, you made my day. I feel my endorphins light up just like theirs do, and I feel good and positive all day long.

And so that's why it's so important to give because we all receive back when we're kind to others. When we do something that really helps them makes a difference in others' lives. And again, We're not talking big, we're talking something small as a smile, as small as helping someone's luggage when they're on a plane or something that can make a huge difference to them.

Bob: I know, and we're coming to the end of our time. When I worked with a coffee franchise and we had this great manager and I watched one of the things that made him so great is someone orders, a bunch of bagels and coffee, and she's got a kid stroller. And instead of asking, would you like help out with that?

And it's raining outside. He literally just turns to his colleague and goes, I'll be back. And he comes around and she's trying to get her purse and everything. And instead of him handing those to her across the counter, he comes around and he carries that and he grabs the umbrella. He goes, let's go.

And they walk out and she goes, oh no, I wanted to eat it here. So he goes through and he cleans off a table, puts it down and she goes, you really made my day today. And he goes, thank you. Now that's part of the other thing is a lot of times people just say, no problem. We didn't say it was a problem.

Being able to acknowledge "Thank you" is at least as big as isn't it? 

Howard: Absolutely. That's a great story.

Bob: I like to find stories because that's where the details of life are. Right? It's to see people who are not all fractionalized and I hate you and you're this and that.

It's like in those little moments, you get to realize we're more alike than different.

Howard: Absolutely. You know, I read about, and you may know specifically what happened, but Chick-fil-A tried something with their mobile app where people could order their meal. But if they're especially, you talked about the one who's doing with kids and everything else they would have the meal all set at the table when they walk into the Chick-fil-A, I guess they ordered their food and the time, and it was just a whole new strategy that they've got. And how nice to realize to take that into account.

Bob: Well, I think it is. And I, you know, the name of this podcast is Tell Me Something Good About Retail Howard.

So what are your thoughts? Tell me something good about retail.

Howard: I think retail is still the place to be. I think that if we focus in retail, on the things we can do to make someone's day, to make our day, to make our customer's day. They'll not just walk back, they're going to flock back and you know what they're going to do.

We talked about these phones that we always have with us. Now, they're going to put an immediate review on Yelp. That happened to me at Belle Tire in Michigan City, Indiana, our tire was going flat quickly on the highway. We pulled off at one of the first tire places we came to.

And you know, you're sitting there and you're thinking, "Oh my God, we're not getting out of here for under a thousand dollars. They're going to say we need four new tires and then they're going to balance and rotate them. Plus, we're going to be way late to where we're going."

Well, would you believe after 30 minutes, he came out and said, "You must've run over something.
We patched those up and you're all set to go." I said, how much and he said, "that's our service. That's what we do for you. This is our business. Come back when you need new tires."

Well, not only will we come back. My daughter was in the car at the time and she immediately put on Yelp great reviews for Belle Tire. Bob, that's what we need. We need people like Belle Tire managers in our lives because when we do that, that's where retail is going to shine and that's where people are going to shine.

Bob: I love that. That's a great place for us to end. And Howard Prager is the author of Make Someone's Day: Becoming a Memorable Leader in Work and Life. Check the links in the show descriptions below to be able to contact him and Howard, thanks so much for joining us.

Howard: My pleasure. Fun talking with you, Bob.

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