Internal Service

Where good store service really begins

Why spend extra time, energy, and money on customer service enhancement? For most stores, the decision stems from poor interactions between customers and staff. Like when a deli worker tells a new shopper that he can have the roast beef if he really wants it, but she herself doesn’t eat it because she lives on a “higher plane.” Or the cashier who thinks bagging is slavery. Or, for that matter, the manager whose smile is about as warm as a walk-in freezer.

Our store, Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, had a different issue. Our staff was friendly enough, some exceedingly so. We enjoyed a pretty good reputation around town, and while there is always room for improvement, our management team felt pretty good about our service to our membership. But we were noticing a deterioration of “internal” customer service, which is another way of saying “how we treat each other.”

Workplace relations were getting to be a bad deal. And it all started with sushi and chocolate chip cookies.

After completing our building expansion project in 2002, the co-op’s food service operations shot through the roof. In the space of one week, our deli, already fairly sizeable, increased 120 percent in sales. Total co-op staff went from about 50 to 120. In all the sprinting to keep up with the deluge, no one thought to put a tight lid on extra prepared food that was going out of date. Instead, it ended up on the plates or in the backpacks of staff, and this contributed to a serious margin failure in the deli. So, we did what managers do anywhere: we made an unpopular pronouncement from on high—“No Free Food”—rolled it out with no warning, and pissed off just about everyone.

This translates as poor internal customer service. Any time managers dump major new policies onto staff without engaging them in some way or at least offering a compelling rationale, we are failing to offer good service. Small wonder, then, that this translates across the counter to an already stressed or sensitive customer as a failure of Sally the Sandwich Maker to smile and be chipper.

Shared vision

So, before embarking on a major customer service culture shift, we decided to change our own management/staff relationship. We adapted the Zingerman’s bottom line change model, gave it a new name (VIP: Vision-based Inclusive Process), and started using it to include our staff before decisions were finalized.

The bad news about our attempt to improve management/staff relations is that it wasn’t easy, and we are still learning how to make it work. The good news is that, when it does work, it really works. Starting with making a good sales pitch for what drives the need for change (compelling reasons), we move to what it will look like in the end (final vision). This is then run through a micro-group of staffers who help adapt the vision or offer a better one. Then we roll it out in the manner prescribed by the micro-group, focusing again on the compelling reasons for change and the final vision. Staff then can handle the details of implementation.

Again, it hasn’t been perfected yet, but we are making good progress. And while it does take more time, it’s certainly preferable to hemorrhaging money or enduring the bitter stares of sushi-deprived workers.

Workers Council

The next big step we took toward improving internal customer service was the creation of our Workers Council. It’s an idea we stole from a few of our friends in the Northwest and like anything else we’ve pilfered we adapted it to our own use.

The complaint from staff was that they wanted another voice in the relationships among worker, manager and general manager. They wanted someone to turn to if their manager was doing a poor job, and they were afraid of the bearded, evil general manager. It became clear, in our nonunion shop, that taking the proactive step of creating and working with a staff advocacy group might assist in improving communications, slowing the rumor mill, and learning about problems before they took serious root.

The success has been palpable. The council‘s job morphed into three functions: advocating for staff; disseminating information and changes from management to staff; and being a resource for staff in matters affecting working conditions, compensation, and more. The three-person, elected team is also in charge of throwing any wild parties we decide to have, a nice ancillary benefit for managers and staff alike.

The council meets roughly every month by themselves and then the next week with our general manager. They have a detailed input form that requires direct communication between the worker and her manager, which helps avoid triangulation. And the general manager usually takes notes on items that need attention and maybe fixing.

Our next step is following up the NCGA western corridor customer service training that was attended by our personnel manager, co-author Dawn Smith. Incidentally, Dawn was the right choice since she brings unending enthusiasm (former cheerleader) and customer service experience (former Gallatin County bartender of the year).

First, she attended a meeting and came back with a homework assignment, which basically consisted of something like, “completely improve and polish the customer service culture of our entire world.” The management team helped Dawn draft customer service rating forms (“kudos” for good, “concerns” for not so good), as well as the key elements we want included in the customer service training. Then she formed a VIP micro-group of various workers and presented the idea to them. They helped finalize the vision (and the forms), and we were ready for roll-out.

We have learned over the years that opposition usually arises from ignorance, which itself comes from poor communication. Our first step in rolling out a “customer service enhancement” was to have meetings that included everyone in the organization and explain what was coming—not the actual trainings, but rather our vision of where we want to take things and how we’re gonna get there.

As of this writing, everyone knows that we are about to embark on a new system. They all know about new forms and how we will use them. They all know that there will be further mandatory trainings. They know that we are not going to surprise them. We hope we are communicating that we are actually going to serve them. How else can we expect them to serve others?


Dawn Smith is personnel manager, and Kelly Wiseman is general manager, at Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Montana ([email protected]).

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