Once retail stores reach a point where it no longer works to have every buyer maintain the prices for their own products in the point-of-sale (POS) system, the question arises – how shall we staff the POS function?
Us and them. Maybe it’s human nature for groups to form an identity in opposition to others. In competition between sports teams and businesses, this tendency can be channeled in a positive direction. However, when it emerges within a business or a single department between those who work the early shift and the people who work the late shift, the rivalry becomes destructive to morale and productivity.
Night and weekend workers are the unsung heroes of retail. They really make or break customer service. Yet, they’re often the lowest-paid in the store because they have the lowest seniority. That happens when the early shift is regarded as desirable, sometimes even as an entitlement for those who’ve “paid their dues.”
The unfortunate result can be elitism on the part of day workers and a sense of victimization for night workers, not to mention substandard service for customers. The day shift grouses that the night workers leave work undone and leaps to the conclusion that they must be goofing off because they just don’t care. The night shift feels unappreciated and unsupported when the day shift doesn’t stock up or produce enough output to last through the evening rush.
But this “us and them” dynamic between shifts is not inevitable! Managers can take action to end it.
The first step is for managers to schedule their own time so that they work across shifts, or vary their shifts. That way they have firsthand experience with the performance and working conditions of all their staff members.
It’s common for department managers to prefer to come in early and leave before the evening rush, citing the need to call in orders in the mornings. As a result, they don’t interact much with their later shift workers. However, ordering deadlines need not dictate the quality of supervision. Managers can call in orders the afternoon before, or train others to do this task for at least one or two days a week so they’re free to work a later shift now and then.
Next, cross-train all department staff in the tasks of both shifts. Or in small stores, cross-train all staff. If the early shift emphasizes production or displays, while the late shift focuses more on assisting customers, ensure that everyone can perform both sets of tasks. When training new workers, schedule them to work the opposite shift for one or two weeks.
A manager of an organic meat department in a large natural health retail store took over the job at a time of high tension between the morning and evening shifts. He immediately started cross-training. “Once they walked a mile in others’ shoes,” he remarked, “day and night workers would comment, ‘I never realized all they did.’”
Brief daily department meetings help unify the team. Schedule them at the time of the shift change.
Discourage negative written messages between morning and evening shifts in favour of open, honest, solution-oriented discussion of operational problems in face-to-face meetings.
• Schedule management to work across shifts or varied shifts.
One attribute of a good leader is the ability to sincerely apologize for mistakes. This takes skill and experience. Sometimes an apology delivered with the best of intentions leaves the recipient feeling worse.
Have you ever received an apology followed by “but”? “I’m sorry I forgot to check in with you first, but it was really busy and we were short-staffed.” The implication is that when it gets busy, I have higher priorities than my commitment to check in with you. Feel better now?
Then there’s blaming someone else. “I would have recognized your part in building the display but Jane didn’t tell me you worked on it.” In other words, if it weren’t for Jane, I would have done the right thing. Be mad at Jane, not me!
Most insulting of all is the insincere apology that takes no account of the apologizer’s role in the situation and blames the recipient. “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you were upset.”
So how do you make an effective apology? For answers, I drew on the wisdom of medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides and other guidance for Yom Kippur, the Days of Atonement. I also found insight here: http://www.cuppacocoa.com/a-better-way-to-say-sorry/, on teaching children about apology and forgiveness, and here: www.sorrywatch.com, a website that analyzes apologies in the media, history and literature.
Based on these sources, I’ve generated some guidelines for leaders in the workplace. See sidebar below.
1. Say precisely what you’re sorry for. What did you actually do (or fail to do)? Instead of referring vaguely to “recent events” or “what happened,” describe those events. Use I statements and avoid the passive voice. (“I made the decision without getting your input first,” rather than “The decision was made without staff input.”)
2. Acknowledge why your actions were wrong. Did you break an agreement? How was the other person inconvenienced or harmed? Show you understand the impact of your transgression. Sometimes people want to feel understood more than they want an apology. (“I broke an agreement we had. You were expecting that I’d get your input first and I failed to do that.”)
3. If the original wrong was committed in public, such as forgetting to recognize someone’s contribution or erroneously accusing someone of a wrongdoing, the apology should be delivered in public, as well. (Granted, this is not easy!)
4. Say what you’ll do differently from now on. Use positive language to tell what you will do. (“From now on, when I need to make a decision that will impact your workload or your schedule, I will talk with you first.”)
Now that you’ve delivered your apology, the writers and bloggers are split on whether to ask for forgiveness. Some recommend making the ask as the final step of an apology, while others feel this puts the onus back on the person who has been wronged. I tend to side with this crowd. Also consider the power dynamics. Who is going to say no to their boss?
Instead, I suggest making space to just listen. The technique of active listening could help here. Reflect back what you hear without arguing, defending or making excuses. But also be prepared for the recipient to make no more than a brief acknowledgement.
Note that all these steps require face-to-face interaction. If you can’t apologize in person, try videoconference or phone. Tone of voice matters. Don’t expect an email or text to carry the freight of your apology.
Finally, what really matters is what you do going forward. The best apology is changed behaviour.
When you open a second business location, there may be joy and excitement. But there may also be jealousy and feelings of abandonment. In times of stress and perceived scarcity, that “us versus them” tendency can raise its head among the staff in both locations.
Brittany Baird recently gave a two-part presentation for CHFA members, “Strengthening Buyer Skills.” As a grocery manager, store manager and general manager, and now as a consultant, Brittany has helped natural retailers increase net profit and sales growth and enhance operational efficiency.
Ultimately, improving sales, profit and efficiency comes down to improving the performance of human beings. And improving human performance comes down to effective feedback systems. Here’s a conversation I had with Brittany.
CC: Why is it so important to quantify feedback, to make it measurable?
BB: When feedback is intuitive and subjective, it may not be helpful to the receiver. It’s not enough to say, “Improve merchandising.” You need SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based). Giving feedback in this form can be an impetus for the receiver to grow – or choose to move on. Also, measurable goals make performance reviews easier, when it’s clearly defined what a good job means.
CC: Could you give some examples of measurable performance goals?
BB: You could set a goal of no more than five per cent out-of-stocks for buyers.
CC: Do you need to maintain a perpetual inventory in order to measure buyer out-of-stocks?
BB: Even without that, store managers can measure with occasional spot checks of the shelves. Plus, customer complaints can be tallied. Another example is to have written merchandising standards such as: end-caps and displays fully stocked, products colour-blocked, shelves clean and dusted, signage visible and products accessible from every angle of approach. You can have photos that show a well-stocked display. That way you can hold people accountable for what the sections of the store should look like.
CC: How can you measure customer service?
BB: Do you know the 10-4 rule? At 10 feet, you acknowledge a customer with eye contact and smile. At four feet, you greet them verbally. Then there’s how the phone is answered. How long are callers on hold? Do callers on hold get followed up on?
CC: A manager could tell that through occasional observation at different times of day.
BB: You can evaluate all the touch-points where staff interacts with customers, e.g. through social media clicks and views, and customer comments submitted.
CC: And special orders. You can record whether customers are notified within x hours that their product has come in, and how satisfied customers are with the service.
BB: I want to stress that you need to write out the criteria, the standards and the expectations if you are going to hold people accountable to them. You cannot hold staff accountable for performing up to a standard that is not written down.
CC: And you have to keep written materials up-to-date. As soon as one section of a manual falls out-of-date, I’ve observed that staff will stop using it. When it comes to maintaining systems, including training, everything is always needing refining and improving. Without that, you get a loss of organizational memory. Interestingly though, I don’t see front-end departments losing organizational memory of systems and standards the way other departments do. Maybe it’s because you have to stick with your systems for handling money and data.
BB: Quantifying is in the nature of POS and cash handling. There are also cash over/shorts and rings per minute. Where it’s more subjective is produce and deli.
CC: You can still measure performance in those departments in terms of accomplishing all the tasks on checklists or to-do lists.
BB: If you define what should be done on a shift, you can tell if you have a person who can do the job. Quantifying performance standards mitigates staff turnover and loss of organizational memory. If standards are clear enough, anyone off the street can understand and contribute to the department’s success
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.
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