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Navigating the weeds

Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you find yourself overwhelmed by demanding customers who may feel entitled to immediate attention. Maybe a large tour group just arrived at your hotel or restaurant, or you’re short-staffed due to job vacancies, call-offs, or lean scheduling, and a line is forming…

In these instances, even careful planning and preparation may not result in the seamless service you’d like to provide to all of your customers. But there are ways to achieve stellar service even when faced with long lines and impatient customers:

Acknowledge the customer. Make eye contact and nod. A customer may feel anxious if you don’t acknowledge his presence—especially if other customers are also waiting to be served. Many delicatessens and government offices alleviate this anxiety by issuing numbers and serving customers in order.

Smile—a lot! Customers can easily detect tension in your body language. When they do, it may make them feel anxious and uncomfortable. The well-known communications study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, suggests that 55% of one’s likeability comes from the visual effect—her body language. Saying “I’ll be with you in just a minute” with a serious or critical expression on your face sends a far different message than if the same words were said through a smile.

Communicate early and often. Most customers will understand delays and other setbacks if there is adequate communication during the wait. Flight delays are a classic example of this. When there is adequate and reliable communication between the gate agents and passengers, then passengers can make use of the delay to work, shop, dine, etc. It’s when the communication is inadequate that passengers become restless and upset because they’re unable to venture from the gate area for fear of the plane boarding without them.

Re-deploy and cross-utilize staff. Apple Stores do a great job with this. If you need help on the sales floor, reps are there. When you’re ready to buy, there’s no line to wait in because the same rep can complete the purchase transaction with his hand-held payment device. Is your product stocked in the backroom? Don’t worry about a lengthy wait in some line—he will retrieve it for you personally.

Entertain. Disney does a great job of entertaining its customers while they wait in long lines to experience a ride or other attraction. By having characters interact with the guests or providing overhead flat screen television sets designed to entertain, prepare, and/or engage the guest while awaiting the attraction, Disney effectively reduces the perceived wait time of its guests.

Freebies. I once waited in a long line at a Starbucks store in Virginia. When I finally received my latte, the barista also handed me a free drink coupon. It was a nice touch. Most often, when customers wait in long lines, they feel helpless and taken for granted. In this case, I felt appreciated that my wait had been recognized and deemed unacceptable by the staff.

While it’s impossible to anticipate every variable that contributes to an operation being “in the weeds,” there are times when planning is the difference between exceptional and poor service quality. For instance, if you’re expecting a large group due to an earlier reservation then staff accordingly—even when this requires some creativity (e.g., reallocating staff from other departments or locations, utilizing temporary labor, etc.).

Maybe it’s not a staffing issue. Perhaps it’s a logistical issue. If so, anticipate the processes that you’ll need to address before the group arrives. In the hotel industry, that may be the arrival process (i.e., guest registration, baggage handling, etc.). A restaurant may suggest a prix fixe menu which will streamline the ordering process, resulting in more efficient table service during the event.

Most businesses benefit from receiving lots of customer traffic. When the traffic comes, whether anticipated or not, you must be prepared to address and serve your customers in ways that reflect the service priorities of your business.

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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