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Just a customer

This post is the fourth in a series that will identify 10 different obstacles that have emerged from my analysis of customer satisfaction data. Maybe you will have encountered one or more of these obstacles in your own business? The fourth obstacle is nonchalance.

Nonchalance is defined as having an air of easy unconcern or indifference.

Why is it that employees frequently behave indifferently towards customers, yet snap to attention in the presence of the division president? Specifically, why do employees anxiously prepare for a planned visit by the corporate brass by making repairs, waxing the floors, and pressing their uniforms, but feel comfortable texting friends, smoking near store entrances, and complaining or bantering in the presence of customers?

I have a theory about this: Familiarity breeds contempt.

Most employees rarely come into contact with and, thus, are not familiar with the division president. Oh sure, they may know his or her name but they are generally not familiar to the point of lowering their guard or relaxing in the executive’s presence.

Not so with customers. Customer-facing employees come into contact with customers all the time. And whether or not they recognize a particular customer, there is a sense of familiarity with customers in general. And where there is excessive comfort and familiarity, there is contempt—a lack of respect—and a tendency to take the relationship for granted.

It’s not that employees don’t know what exceptional service is or how to deliver it. They do. And they consistently showcase this behavior in the presence of the division president. The issue is that many employees seem disaffected by customers as if to say: “Oh, you’re just a customer. For a minute there I thought you were someone important like the division president.”

Earlier, I listed three behaviors that I regularly observe in retail settings: texting, smoking near store entrances, and complaining or bantering in front of customers. These behaviors are chronic. They occur frequently. However, when the division president is on-site these behaviors are exceptions.

When executives grace the operation with their presence, the floors are spotless, there are plenty of employees scheduled, uniforms are pressed, there are lots of smiles, and there is a tangible sense of urgency—even a bit of giddiness and extra pressure to perform.

The best operations do not distinguish between a scheduled site visit by a division president and the scheduled opening of the store to service customers. Sure, there may be a bit of anxiety associated with the presence of a company executive—that’s natural—but the company’s standards don’t wane in the absence of headquarters staff.

Nordstrom comes to mind as an example of a retailer who shines whether a customer or Blake Nordstrom is entering the shoe department. The last time I was in Nordstrom, an employee from the men’s department walked me to the women’s department in search of an umbrella for my wife. When we returned to the men’s department, I decided to buy a bottle of cologne too. It was an impulse buy—in the moment. I had not planned to buy it and, in the absence of his exceptional service, I would not have.

Here is an assignment for division presidents everywhere: If you really want to see how your operations run, stop by unannounced in a ball cap and jeans over the weekend. Don’t embarrass anyone. Just observe and take mental notes about what you see—both assets and liabilities.

Then, assuming there is a gap (or chasm) between what you observed during your last official visit and this one, take action.

Establish or reinforce credible standards to guide employees’ behavior. Make sure that every manager is aware of the standards and actively uses them to manage their employees’ performance. And, perhaps most importantly, hold managers accountable to model these standards at all times. If they don’t, the standards are no longer credible and become unenforceable.

When employees see their managers modeling established standards of service and procedure, they will perform similarly. When this happens, employees will no longer appear aloof or nonchalant towards customers. They will stop texting friends, smoking near store entrances, and complaining or bantering in the presence of customers.

Instead, they will treat customers with the same courtesy, respect, and urgency with which they treat the division president. And their customers will notice.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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