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.