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Who’s to blame?

The other day, I trailed a King Soopers employee as she returned about a half-dozen shopping carts from the parking lot to the store.

She pushed the row of carts into another row of carts inside the store and then, with a dreary facial expression and a heavy sigh, returned to the parking lot to collect more shopping carts.

Besides her enervated body language, I noticed two things that telegraphed a lack of concern for her customers:

1.) By not bothering to evenly distribute the carts, she created an inconveniently long row of carts that left a very narrow space between the last cart and the wall. This created a bottleneck that forced shoppers attempting to exit the store to form a single file line.

2.) Although it was quite obvious in a short row of six or seven carts, she neglected to notice the used drink cup lodged in one of the carts (pictured). Or, worse, noticed the cup and chose to do nothing about it.

To me, this employee conveyed disinterest in her work and indifference towards serving customers.

So, what went wrong?

On the surface, it’s easy to blame the employee for being careless or lazy. But there may be other forces at work…

I’m reminded of the adage, “Blame the process, not the people.” In that spirit, King Soopers should examine every process that may have contributed to this young woman performing as she did during my visit.

Several come to mind: recruiting, selection, onboarding, training, managerial modeling, performance management (e.g., feedback/recognition), standards, etc.

In most cases where I have observed apathetic employee behavior, I have also observed ad hoc recruiting efforts, inadequate selection criteria, unstructured onboarding, insufficient training, inconsistent supervisory modeling, non-existent performance management, and low (or undisclosed) standards. In such environments, employees are set up to fail.

If I were advising King Soopers, the first thing I would do is revisit the performance standards. In the absence of high standards, good is good enough. Can you imagine King Soopers, or any company, embracing “Good is good enough” as its credo or slogan?

Once the standards (and expectations) have been set and communicated, every single process—from recruiting to performance appraisals—must reflect and uphold these high standards.

Next, I would remind its staff that their jobs consist of both job functions—the duties and tasks associated with their job roles (e.g., returning carts from the lot to the store) and job essence—their purpose/highest priority (e.g., anticipating customers’ needs and paying attention to details).

Most employees define their entire jobs solely in terms of job functions. And why shouldn’t they? Oftentimes, the feedback they receive from management—assuming they receive feedback at all—pertains strictly to the duties and tasks associated with their job roles.

When employees focus exclusively on job function, their jobs may become routine, monotonous, and transactional. In work environments like this, employees tend to become disinterested in their work and indifferent towards serving customers.

But when employees recognize the totality of their roles, which includes both job function and job essence, they are predisposed to provide exceptional customer service—by anticipating customers needs, paying attention to details, and expressing genuine interest in serving customers in other ways.

And this is not just wishful thinking. It is possible.

You wouldn’t expect to encounter a surly employee at Chick-fil-A, an unresponsive phone rep at Zappos, an apathetic salesperson at Nordstrom, or a used drink cup lying along Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland. Would you?

These companies have set exceedingly high performance standards and their employees are acutely aware of them. Employees also recognize both their job responsibilities as well as their higher purpose: to create delighted customers.

So, while employees are responsible for their personal conduct and performance in the workplace, their employers are responsible for setting high standards, for establishing processes that position employees to delight customers, and for defining an employee’s entire job role.

What do you think?

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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