Natural Foods Merchandiser

Extreme customer service

Imagine customers raving about your store to their friends. They stay loyal to you even when competition is popping up left and right. They come to you for their every shopping need. They're advocates of your store. Sounds great, right? But a new IBM survey of 6,000 U.S. grocery shoppers showed that only about a quarter of them were advocates for their grocery store. Almost half of the respondents were actually antagonistic toward their grocery stores, feeling they fall short.

So what can you do to hook customers when it's tough to compete in price and selection? Adding an extra human touch to your customer service can mean the difference between a customer walking out your door as an evangelist rather than as an antagonist.

Maggie Bayless knows all about creating advocates. As a managing partner in the training arm of famous-for-its-service Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., Bayless schools retailers and other companies in the fine art of customer service. Bayless took the time to share with The Natural Foods Merchandiser some of her secrets to extreme custo?mer service.

Spread the vision
Customer service wasn't always on the lips of Zingerman's employees. During the company's infancy, the managers simply modeled their ideals, and employees who emulated them ended up sticking around, Bayless says. But as the company grew larger and the owners spent less time interacting with the public, they realized they needed a way to pass on their convictions about service to all employees. So they created a mission statement that says it's every employee's job to pass on the "Zingerman's experience" in every interaction they have. Now, all new employees get a lesson in customer service during their orientation.

Actively educating employees about the company's expectations has set a high bar. But Bayless warns retailers: Don't think you'll hammer out a mission statement first and then start teaching it. Instead, set a date for a customer service class, so you'll be forced to outline your ideals before that deadline.

What's my motivation?
So you've constructed a mission statement and schooled all your employees in your expectations. But the work's not over yet. Bayless explains that great customer service is often hard to find because it's not recognized and rewarded. "Most organizations don't do a good job of recognizing someone who gives great customer service, other than just giving them more work," she says. Need a way to motivate your employees? Make excellent customer service a prerequisite for advancement, Bayless suggests. It's easy to give a promotion or raise to employees just because they've been around for a while and are meeting the status quo. But requiring a higher level of service for such rewards will keep your employees on their toes. Zingerman's also runs a page in its newsletter for thank-yous and bravos, where employees and managers can submit their positive comments about co-workers.

It's not fair
One service hang-up Bayless often sees in employees is that they are concerned too much with fairness. A customer rips into them about something they have nothing to do with, and their first reaction is, "You can't talk to me that way!" Though backing down in the face of confrontation might not come naturally, it has to be done. "Fair is another planet," she likes to tell employees. Diffusing a customer's frustration requires patience and a listening ear, even if it doesn't seem fair.

Service starts at home
One of Zingerman's customer-service secrets is that the company requires the same level of respect from its employees in their interactions with co-workers as with their customers. "We have a 10-4 rule," Bayless explains. "Whenever you're within 10 feet of someone, smile, and within four feet, greet them. And that includes co-workers." This creates an environment of service that's noticeable to customers. Bayless loves seeing employees take out the trash for a different department or offer to pick up a cup of coffee for a coworker when going on a break.

Employee empowerment
When a customer comes in with a question or complaint, do your employees know what to do? At Zingerman's, each employee is authorized to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer, including returns, refunds, exchanges and deliveries. But that system might not work for every store, Bayless says. The point is that each employee should know exactly what he's authorized to do and exactly whom to talk to when he can't solve a customer's problem on his own. "I find that staff members don't usually feel as empowered as their managers think they are," she says. "The more explicit managers are, the better. Knowing you can refund or credit up to a certain amount can really help the front line."

Going the extra mile
When all is said and done, and a customer has had a pleasant shopping experience, what is it that will push her experience over the top so she'll brag about it to her friends? "It's doing something extra for a customer that they didn't expect," Bayless says. Whether it's offering a sample of a product she might be interested in next time or helping her carry groceries to the car, these little gestures are what seal the deal. Bayless suggests handing out recipes that include ingredients a customer's buying, or offering to accompany shoppers to their cars with an umbrella if it's raining.

But one problem with expecting employees to go the extra mile is that eventually the little things that used to be special become normal and the bar must be raised again, Bayless says. Employees have to get creative to keep going a step further. Maybe, though, if your goal is to keep customers raving, that's exactly the kind of problem you want your store to have.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 16,18

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