Natural Foods Merchandiser

Somebody—Anybody—Answer the Phone!

The Natural Employer

The phone is ringing off the hook. The cashiers are handling long lines at all the checkstands, the stockers are out back unloading a delivery, the supplements buyer is in the midst of helping a customer. Who will answer the phone?

For smaller stores the answer is, ?Whoever hears it.? But what ?whoever? says when he or she picks up the phone, and how he or she handles the call, can have a big impact on the image of your store to your customers, potential customers and even your vendors.

When grocery veteran Nora Young took the job of operations manager at The Food Co-op in Port Townsend, Wash., 32 employees worked out of 1,800 square feet of retail. In those days, ?whoever? answered the phone. While employees were conscientious about responding and identifying The Food Co-op and themselves, callers were sometimes left hanging when no one answered a page. As a result, the co-op instituted a rule: When you answer a call, announce it on the intercom.

Life got better for callers and answerers alike when The Food Co-op expanded to its current 9,000-square-foot location with a workforce of 85. Now the staff at the member service desk takes many incoming calls. A business line with voice mail menu allows vendors to reach buyers directly. Callers can leave voice mail messages for unavailable employees. And in what Young calls ?the single greatest improvement,? a ring-back function alerts member service staff if a call is left on hold more than 60 seconds.

Member service staff receives extensive training in phone techniques as well as in product information. They are expected to answer questions if they possibly can, instead of uncritically dumping all product calls on the buyers. If they don?t know an answer, they follow up with the person who does, to be able to handle that question themselves next time. To end calls expeditiously, they ask, ?Is there anything else I can help you with??

Even with staff dedicated to phone answering, cashiers in Lanes 3 and 4 sometimes must take overflow calls—a necessary evil. Nora Young coaches cashiers to ask, ?Will you be at a number where you can be reached?? And to keep the interaction brief, she tells cashiers, ?This is not the place for extended listening. Apologize, explain we?re shorthanded and say we?ll get right back to them.?

Given the high volume of incoming calls, personal phone calls are strongly discouraged. There?s a balance, Young believes. A working mother can get a check-in call when the kids get home from school. The auto repair shop can call to say, ?Your car is ready.? But if member services staff notes an excessive number of personal calls for someone, they alert that employee?s team leader. At the same time, the co-op provides courtesy phones for staff and customers at a kiosk in the front end and at the member services desk.

What about smaller stores with limited resources? Maple City Market in Goshen, Ind., has only two phone lines, an intercom and a pencil-and-paper message system. Nevertheless, general manager Suella Gerber strives for professionalism. She explains the chain of phone responsibility: First, cashiers if they are not checking out a customer; second, other workers on the floor; third, the office or kitchen. Ideally the third group catches the phone by the third ring.

Maple City Market follows some of the same practices as The Food Co-op. Employees use a personalized greeting (?Maple City Market. This is Suella?); acknowledge receipt of calls on the intercom; and refrain from excessive personal calls.

Gerber?s advice to managers of other small stores: Free up your cashiers from phone answering if you possibly can. You?ll get better customer service that way.

What both these stores demonstrate is that good phone service depends not so much on your equipment as on your people. Train them well!

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. Reach her at 206.723.4040 or [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 9/p. 29

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