What is intercultural competence? And why should a manager or owner of a natural health retailer seek to build this skill?
In the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical Biblical interpretation, there is a saying that the two pillars of justice are mercy and severity. The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongdoings. The pillar of severity represents the law of karma – that we must reap what we sow.
Yes, you can teach empathy, rapport and authenticity to your staff. Even those who join your staff with a high degree of these “soft skills” can still improve them through training.
Brittany Baird is my colleague at CDS Consulting Co-op whose area of expertise lies in linking financial success to the everyday decisions we make on the sales floor of a natural foods business.
CC: How do you go beyond standard customer service training?
BB: Every business wants to ensure good customer service. All your competitors are teaching customer service. But you likely have a mission that goes beyond selling products.
CC: Yes, a quick visit to mission statements on websites of stores featured on recent covers of CNHR reveals values such as wellness of community and planet, ecological consciousness, supporting local and organic family farms, and empowering people to lead healthy lives.
BB: Then your staff may be inviting customers to come to events, try new products or donate to a cause. Teaching them soft skills can promote all your goals. Also, the longest conversations take place in the supplements aisle. Customers there need guidance far more than in other departments. These skills are even more essential when supplements are your primary product.
CC: So how do you teach empathy, authenticity and rapport?
BB: The three skills needed are mirroring, reflecting and active listening. With mirroring, you consciously match someone’s tone and body language to create rapport. Say someone is new to town and comes into the store with enthusiasm, wanting to be engaged. If staff doesn’t mirror this customer, it’s poor customer service.
If a person is upset, you can draw them back down by reflecting rather than mirroring. For a disgruntled customer with confrontational body language and hand gestures, you can cool that energy down with, “Okay, let’s talk,” while keeping body language and gestures restrained.
Active listening involves making a conscious effort to hear not only the words but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated. When a customer says, “I drove from far away to get here. This is the second time you’ve been out of this product. I want to support you guys but you make it so hard,” good customer service would be, “Okay, we’ll fix it,” however, great customer service – using active listening – would hear the desire to support the store and the frustration, and find out what the customer needs to “make it right.”
CC: What are the most effective ways to train for these three skills?
BB: Role-plays with different scenarios are the best way, and they’re fun. Scenarios can be a bit silly to set a tone that’s not overly serious. Give the trainees the right amount of structure to these scenarios, with some room to play with. When I lead training workshops with my CDS CC colleague Rebecca Torpie, every single person in the room speaks in the role-plays and practices the skills, though not everyone performs for the whole group. A few may be uncomfortable at first but they get a lot out of the experience. We switch partners frequently so people can see how different partners process the assignments. We do “failed versions,” too – wrong way versus right way.
I understand it’s hard for small stores to do structured training, but you can still teach active listening, mirroring and reflecting. Owners usually model the best customer service. When they’re not there, they need a cornerstone person on staff who will model for the rest of the team members.
Soft skills training for staff can help propel customer service from good to great, differentiate your store from your competition and create loyal shoppers for life.
James Morrell has over 25 years experience in natural foods retail management. Over those years he’s done a lot of hiring. I’ve written about hiring in this column before, but for a fresh perspective, I turned to James, now a consultant in fresh category management.
A client, who I’ll call Mary, is the owner of a small natural foods store. A new bookkeeper had been on the job for several months before Mary studied the bank records and realized $15,000 had disappeared. Mary confronted the bookkeeper, who sobbed that she'd "borrowed" the money to pay her mortgage. Mary was touched by this story. She intended to fire the bookkeeper, but should she report the theft to the police? She was concerned about ruining the bookkeeper’s employability in their small town.
Eventually Mary decided to press charges, which were reported in the local paper. At that point, two former employers of the bookkeeper called Mary to apologize for withholding information when she’d called them for references. Apparently this employee had stolen from them too, and told the same compelling story. Also Mary got a call from the bookkeeper's new employer who read the newspaper, checked his bank records, and sure enough, she’d already stolen from him.
In the end, in a court-ordered settlement, the bookkeeper agreed to pay restitution, and eventually did pay back most of what she’d stolen.
This story made me wonder how many small businesses with kind-hearted owners are vulnerable to employee theft because they just can't believe it's possible.
According to the Retail Council of Canada, employees steal an average of $2,500 in cash or goods from their employer before they're caught. On average, customers steal about $175. In addition, the Council estimates 566,000 undetected employee thefts occur across Canada annually.
For insight, I turned to Mike Feiner, loss prevention specialist and my colleague in CDS Consulting Co-op.
In Feiner’s experience, even employers that provide good wages and benefits, opportunities for advancement and great co-workers can still be subject to theft. “People can operate with a split consciousness and find ways to rationalize what they know is wrong. “Address the opportunity first,” he advises. “The motives we can’t control.”
If you’re thinking, “I don’t want to live in fear and suspicion of my staff,” Feiner’s advice may counter that impression. He recommends regular individual check-ins. “Get to know who they are, what’s happening in their lives, any signs of stress. You might find creative ways to help them such as changes in schedule or getting financial counselling.” You are sending the message that you care, but also the message that you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the store.
Focus on your policies and procedures to make sure they are clear and well understood. For example, an overly complicated staff discount system can be open to misinterpretation and abuse. If there are no portion controls, employees could be tempted to put more ingredients in a sandwich made for a friend than for other customers.
Have someone besides the cashier check the cash in the till at closeout. Regularly check your POS reports for line items showing an extraordinary number of voids. If you find them, start paying attention to what’s happening at that till.
Even check the dumpster from time to time. Feiner says, “Hiding stolen goods behind or in the dumpster in a trash bag is one of the most common forms of theft.”
If you don’t do your own books, reconcile the books with the bank statements yourself instead of leaving it to your bookkeeper. Talk to your bank about safeguards such as an alert when deposits seem unusually low.
Would your employees steal from you? Hopefully not. But stay aware. As Feiner says, “If you’re not looking for employee theft, you’re not going to see it, but it’s often right in front of your face.”
To contact Feiner about loss prevention strategies, please go to:
Do you have someone on your team who you think of as “high-maintenance”? What do we mean when we throw around that phrase? The workplace behaviours I’ve heard supervisors describe include:
Demanding the supervisor’s constant attention
Dependency, needing ongoing direction
Endless questions, concerns and problems with any work assignment.
Note that all these behaviours are inter-related. And they involve a pattern, not one-time events.
Recently, I came across the concept of the “Adversity Quotient.” Dr. Paul Stoltz defines the Adversity Quotient as “the capacity of the person to deal with the adversities of his/her life.” The high-maintenance employee has a low Adversity Quotient. Instead of meeting challenges with resilience, they blame others and make excuses.
And somehow there are always things going wrong in the lives of high-maintenance people. They are perennially at the centre of some sort of drama.
Up to a point, I’d say that it’s your job as a leader to rise to the challenges that high-maintenance employees bring to the workplace and help them make the most positive contribution possible. Some really high performers can be a challenge to manage or work with together on a team, yet the value they bring to the organization outweighs their less desirable behaviours.
If you find that you are continually avoiding or ignoring someone you consider a high-maintenance employee, it’s time to get analytical. Did they get proper training in the first place? Do they have objectively more on their plate than they used to have? Would they benefit from more structure, more directives from you, rather than a hands-off management style that their co-workers seem to prefer?
And what’s your part in this? Could your own instructions be clearer, or expressed more effectively for this person’s learning style? Could you be more generous with praise and appreciation to help build their confidence? Are you setting and upholding boundaries so that you get uninterrupted time periods to focus on others or your own work?
Or are you allowing the high-maintenance employee to cross those boundaries and take up your time whenever they want, even if you resent it?
After examining your role in the dynamic with the high-maintenance employee and resolving to change some of your own behaviours if needed, you can coach this person on alternative approaches they could take for a more productive work relationship. For example:
Let’s say you take all these steps and you notice some improvements – a little more self-sufficiency, fewer complaints, some follow-up on your suggestions. If that happens, be sure to let the person know you’ve noticed and you appreciate their efforts. People do more of what they receive positive reinforcement for doing. They tend to lapse back into old behaviours in the absence of that positive reinforcement.
If there’s no sustained improvement? If the high-maintenance employee is otherwise doing good work, you’ll just have to maintain your boundaries and be sure that they get no more than their fair share of your time and attention. If they are performing poorly, follow your steps for corrective action, just as you would for any other employee. •
Rebecca Torpie, former marketing manager for a natural foods co-op in Philadelphia and now a consultant in marketing and brand strategy offers some insight on exceptional customer service.
Even with brick and mortar retailers struggling against online stores, and the mass market undercutting prices on natural and organic products, our industry has an opportunity for competitive advantage—offering exceptional customer service. Is there room to up your store's service game?
Recently, I had a conversation with my colleague Rebecca Torpie, former marketing manager for a natural foods co-op in Philadelphia and now a consultant in marketing and brand strategy.
Carolee Colter: Define customer service...
Rebecca Torpie: There are several pieces to customer service. This includes having operation systems in place to meet basic expectations; for example, having an accurate POS, adequate parking, and clean washrooms. Beyond that, customers have expectations to be wowed and delighted.
Carolee Colter: How do managers make certain that wowing and delighting occurs in their stores?
Rebecca Torpie: First, leaders must articulate to the staff what it means to be a great customer service operator. If you can’t articulate it, you can’t share it. You need a customer service philosophy. Using an “off the shelf” philosophy developed by others is okay as long as you follow through and ensure that philosophy is used throughout the entire store.
Then you need to ensure training is done systematically for all employees at all levels, and not just for new people. Plan for training, say, every quarter or every six months.
Carolee Colter: What methods work best for staff training?
Rebecca Torpie: There should be written materials for trainers to follow to ensure consistency in what people are taught over time and across departments. Role playing works very well for practicing responses to difficult interactions so that people feel prepared. Be aware that role playing could make people uncomfortable, so keep them light and fun. And make sure staff feels comfortable going to their managers with a question.
Carolee Colter: How about training for internal customer service?
Rebecca Torpie: Customers observe how staff members interact with each other. In the training, address how to handle peer-to-peer interactions, including across departments.
Carolee Colter: At a store I consulted for, they had a saying, “Stay, listen and learn.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, take the customer to someone who knows the answer and then stay and listen to your coworker’s response and learn the answer for next time.
Rebecca Torpie: Also, budget for desk time and research time in employee schedules so they can learn about the latest products. Cultivate a culture of using downtime for learning. Also take advantage of sales reps’ offers to train about new products.
Carolee Colter: Another learning opportunity comes if a manager needs to step in to “make it right” with a dissatisfied customer. Then the manager can debrief with the employee, do active listening, acknowledge any bruised feelings and coach on how to handle it next time.
In the end, the culture of an organization is what the leaders actually do, not what they say. Should leaders always be asking themselves, “How do I personally delight and wow the customers?”
Rebecca Torpie: Leaders certainly do model for the rest of the staff. You can’t expect the staff to do what you won’t do.
Carolee Colter: How about leaders who are introverts? Once an introvert explained to me that everything he did in public was “theatre.”
Rebecca Torpie: Some people have a high comfort level interacting with customers, others less. But customer service is a part of doing business. You need to put on your social face and not fake it. It’s about quality, not quantity. If you make two good touch-points with customers that are excellent, that’s better than ten that are mediocre. •
To answer these questions, I turned to Holly Fearing. As a social media advisor with the Filene Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin, she helps credit unions, co-operatives, small businesses and non-profits use social media channels to find and connect with their target audiences. She’s also president of the board of Willy Street Co-op, a three-store natural foods co-op in Madison, Wisconsin.
Informally, employees can share your store's posts on their personal social media channels, Holly suggests, and even add a personal connection that will resonate with their followers, e.g. "This is a perfect example of why I'm so proud to work for my store!"
However, you could have a more formal program with certain employees designated as “brand ambassadors.” By asking for volunteers, you’ll likely get the most enthusiastic staffers and also give a voice to an individual or department that feels under-represented.
At one natural foods retailer, an employee who took photographs as a hobby became a brand ambassador. Her artistic photos of products are now featured on the store’s social media.
Brand ambassadors can also respond to customer questions on social media in a customer service capacity much as they would if roaming the floor and were asked a question.
Another role for staff on social media is as recruiters. If any of your people are on LinkedIn, they already have the capability to connect and network with others in our industry. “There's a networking group for almost any professional topic,” Holly says, “and people really help each other out with ideas in LinkedIn groups. It's also a fantastic place to advertise job openings, recruit new talent and showcase your organization's culture for those looking at your store to potentially apply for a job there.”
Of course you need to stay in compliance with your provincial Employment Standards. If an employee voluntarily chooses to share store posts on their own social media, you can thank them but make it clear that they are not “on the clock” when they do so.
However, if you ask an employee to be a brand ambassador or recruiter on social media, their time must be paid. And you’ll want to put some boundaries around their hours on social media so that they don’t inadvertently run into overtime. Holly gives an example of a food co-op that set 10 per cent of an employee’s hours for brand ambassador activities. This full-time employee then knew she had four hours a week to spend on social media.
With the proliferation of mobile devices, this time might not all be spent sitting in front of a computer; it could also involve roaming the floor, taking photos and texting. To avoid the impression that an employee is using a cell phone on personal business, Holly suggests wearing a button with a message like, “Hi! I’m a brand ambassador.”
Finally, I asked if millennial customers and employees tend to favour social media more than other generations. Holly replied, “Millennials were the ones who cracked the nut of what is possible in digital communication channels. But all generations are using these channels now.”
For more ideas on social media for your store, you can contact Holly at email@example.com. •
A manager of an independent natural food store, when her store was smaller, met individually with her department managers every week to talk about how things were going in the department. If this GM noted any performance issues in the department, she would bring them up in this meeting. She would ask if the manager wanted any help in strategizing how to address the issues. Sometimes they would go over “talking points” for the manager to use in a conversation with an employee.
You can have great merchandising, selection and product knowledge. But customers’ experience checking out through your front-end can make or break your store. How people feel after that interaction determines how they feel about your company.
You’ve been working on this project for several years. After overcoming every obstacle, putting up with countless delays, raising hundreds of thousands in financing, moving all your inventory, and staying up all night, you open the doors in your beautiful new store.
While the big push to get the new store open may seem like the hardest work you’ve ever done, a harder job lies ahead of you – getting through the next year or even two years. As a colleague of mine says, “You open the doors and then the hard work really begins.
Extensive research on job interviews shows that structured interviews are more accurate than unstructured ones in predicting which applicants will make good employees. By “structured,” researchers mean that the interviewer uses a consistent format with all candidates, asking the same questions in the same order.
1) There is warning. The stove radiates heat. You know what will happen if you touch it.
2) The burn is immediate. It doesn’t take two weeks for the stove to work up the courage to burn you.
3) The burn is consistent. Everyone who touches the stove gets burned every time. If you touch the stove, you can count on getting burned.
4) The stove is impersonal. The disciplinary action was taken against the act, not the person. The stove doesn’t hate you. It burned you because you touched it.
Let’s try this out. Alison is late again. Every day she clocks in three to five minutes after her shift starts. Today she showed up 20 minutes late, full of excuses. But you’ve heard these excuses before when she was 30 minutes late two weeks ago.
The Employee Handbook states:
“It is extremely important that you arrive at work on time. On time means that when your scheduled shift begins, you are in the store, punched in on the time clock, with appropriate employee identification on, and ready to work.
Habitual tardiness, or any single incidence of tardiness of 15 minutes or more, or failure to notify your supervisor or lead person in your department of your tardiness for work, will be subject to corrective action.”
You meet with her later that same day, show her the time clock records for the past two weeks, remind her of the verbal warning after her last lateness, and issue a written warning.
Other staff members with similar patterns of lateness have received similar warnings. You are not singling Alison out. You are not turning a blind eye toward others’ tardiness. You did not ignore the previous time she was late by more than 15 minutes, when you gave her a verbal warning.
You’re not angry with Alison. You hope she’ll succeed and continue working in your store.
Now let’s try another scenario. Zachary is friendly with customers but he gets into long conversations that don’t result in sales. This leaves co-workers to do his share of the stocking and receiving.
The performance appraisal form lists these criteria for evaluating efficiency:
a) Keeps focused on task at hand. Keeps busy during slow periods.
b) Balances friendliness with efficiency. Doesn’t let personal conversations keep customers or co-workers waiting.
c) Conscientious to needs of co-workers and flow of work.
d) Plans ahead and prioritizes the day's work.
It can take time to detect a pattern. The first time you observed everyone scrambling to unload a truck while Zachary conversed with a customer, you asked if he realized the impact on others. He apologized, but you haven’t noticed sustained improvement. At his performance review, you rate him “unsatisfactory” on b) and c) and “needs improvement” on a) and d). As a result, you withhold a pay increase with the offer of considering a non-retroactive raise in three months if his performance shows improvement.
No one else on staff is exhibiting the same performance problem as Zachary, but you have recently terminated one new employee during the trial period for “lack of hustle” and co-worker complaints about leaving tasks undone. You aren’t allowing others to slack off while singling out Zachary.
You’re disappointed in Zachary but your emotional response is moderate. You’re giving him a second chance.
Disciplinary action is never easy. But like a hot stove, at least you’re being fair. •
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