Winning Customer Service

Webster's Dictionary defines the word extinct as follows:

  1. Having died down; extinguished.
  2. No longer in existence.

We all know about things that are extinct: the Dodo bird, the Edsel, the dinosaur, and great customer service. But wait . . . great customer service isn't extinct, is it?

There is a pattern to extinction. Dinosaurs roamed the earth for millions of years. Slowly, there were fewer and fewer, and then there were none. Here in South Florida, the graceful and harmless manatees are facing the possibility of becoming extinct.

If you (or your parents) can remember life in America in the 1950s, you are sure to recall a time of great customer service. It was everywhere. Small shopkeepers knew your name and the members of your family. It was a pleasure to shop in these stores. As regional and national chains emerged, the so-called "Mom and Pop" stores began heading for extinction. With them went that great personalized service.

Some customers may not notice a price difference, but ALL of them will notice and enjoy your storewide attitude of winning customer service...every day...all day.

When was the last time you were in a supermarket and someone called you by name? Consider your other daily shopping experiences. How often does a retail employee really give you winning customer service? How often do they make you feel that they are really glad you are shopping there? One of the key determining factors in who will survive as we head into the next century will be who is able to motivate employees to provide winning customer service.

As commercial markets slowly but surely delve into the world of natural foods, the natural foods retailer should beware. Let's say, for example, that ABC Juice Company can produce one gallon of organic apple juice for $3.00. They in turn sell it to XYZ Distributors for $4.00 a gallon. The distributor sells it to you for $5.00 a gallon and you retail it for $6.49. Along comes a 200-store supermarket chain that has decided to put a juice pallet display in all of their stores. They order seven tractor-trailers into their warehouse and negotiate a deal to pay ABC $3.50 a gallon. The chain sells the juice for $4.59 a gallon -- less than you can buy it for.

Many retailers are skeptical that this would ever happen. Gourmet News recently reported that Bel-Air Markets in Sacramento, California is adding a natural food section to all 17 of their stores. This is in addition to the natural food sections already existing in their 84-story Raley's chain. Ann Edey, the natural foods buyer for the company, explained to me that they are currently buying over 50 percent of their natural food products directly from the manufacturers. How will this affect YOUR customers?

Let's assume that you have a customer who spends $100.00 a week in your co-op. They can buy the same items at the big chain for $96.00. For about $4.00 a week, they will probably remain loyal to their co-op. How about if it's $91.00? $88.00? $84.00? There is sure to be some point where they will be forced to go for the savingss.

How will you keep them? Some customers may not notice the price difference, but ALL of them will notice and enjoy your storewide attitude of winning customer service . . . every day . . . all day.

This philosophy will help your co-op stave off some of the competition. Customers will look forward to shopping in your stores.

What follows this rather loquacious introduction are some ideas of how to go about providing this kind of service.

Greeting the customer

Which employees are responsible for greeting the customer? Every employee. Empower your staff to say something to as many customers as they can, each and every day.

So often, we find ourselves with our backs to our customers. Produce cases, grocery, and supplement shelves all require us to face away from the customer while we stock. Cashiers stand at right angle and rarely look up except to take the patron's money. Encourage your staff to greet customers with a friendly, "How are you today?" or an inquiring, "Are you finding everything okay?" Reinforce the customer's buying decision in produce as they fill a bag with plums: "Organic plums, nice choice." They may buy more.

All of this can be accomplished while the employee is still stocking. Cashiers should be required to make at least one comment about something that a customer has bought. Statements like, "I had that lasagna from the deli for lunch, it was delicious," or "I see you bought some of that new organic tomato sauce, it is selling like hotcakes" help to reinforce your customer's buying decision.

At your full service counters (deli, bakery, poultry, meat, seafood), have your department heads ban the phrase, "Can I help you?" When you consider that the customer is standing and peering into our cases, it seems sort of obvious that we can help them.

Instead, try greeting the customer by suggesting a taste of something, "Hi, would you like to try something delicious?" Even a simple "What looks good today?" or "What are you in the mood for?" is far more sales-oriented than the boring and too often repeated, "Can I help you?"


There are several different kinds of sampling. They are all effective to some degree. However, some are more effective than others. Many stores have tables with samples placed in small white cups, for self-service sampling. I call this "free lunch sampling." Sampling without an employee contact simply becomes a snack for customers while they are shopping.

Another kind of sampling is "staffed sampling." A table with samples, the packaged product available for sale, and a smiling, knowledgeable staff member makes for effective sampling. Be sure to have all of the ingredients, printed materials, and some recipe ideas available. Ask your brokers and distributors to support these efforts with free product for samples and discounts for customer sales promotions.

There is another kind of sampling that is called "aggressive sampling." Look for opportunities to seize the moment. Suppose it is May and you just received a pallet of beautiful, organic peaches. The peaches look and smell great. It is fine to set up a sample table for a period of time, extolling the virtues of these peaches. In addition, empower your produce staff to just grab a peach when there are several people shopping in the department. Offer freshly cut pieces to whomever happens to be standing around. Talk about peach cobbler and peach pie. Have FUN. Smile as your customers load those produce bags with peaches.

At one South Florida store, peaches accounted for 10 percent of produce sales in May and June.

Don't stop with produce. Many stores I have visited have huge chip displays. Encourage floor managers to open up a bag several times a week and just start passing out samples. Save the empty bags for credit. One store manager recently related a story to me about a new customer who was trying to decide between two different natural sodas. The patron was shocked when the manager just opened a can and gave her a taste. The customer then bought four cases for her party. Then the manager was shocked. Aggressive sampling works.

It is important to remember that your customers will want to shop in your store if they know that these samplings take place at random. In the deli, offer customers samples that are similar to what they are buying. With a customer who just bought a one-half pound of tofu salad, offering a taste of tuna salad will not be as effective as offering a taste of teriyaki tempeh sticks.

Sampling is an integral part of winning customer service. Each store needs to develop a program to insure that even though the sampling may seem random to the customer, it is part of a planned, organized effort by the retailer. Sampling . . . every day . . . all day.


Until recently, the word "salesmanship" has been taboo in many co-ops. Just put the products on the shelves and let the customers decide what to buy. Retailers who hope to survive in the next century had better prepare to have "salesmanship" as part of their winning customer service philosophy.

I am NOT suggesting that we be pushy or greedy. We must rise to the challenge of assisting customers in their buying decisions. To do that, we must be most knowledgeable about the products that we sell. We must be alert to all of the occasions when customers need our help, whether it be obvious or not so obvious. Our customer base is not just a group of vegetarians, as it might have been in the past. More and more, our customer demographics are changing and expanding.

Train your employees to look for the signs that tell you so much about your customer. By looking in a grocery cart, you may be able to determine if a patron is single, married, has children, pets, is strict vegetarian, or allergic to wheat. All this information can be used to help steer customers toward the products that fit their needs.

Remember that many of our customers shop several times a week. We know their names. We have seen them since they were pregnant, and then watched their children go from diapers (recyclable) to baby food (organic) to juices to cereals to items for the lunch box. They have been part of your member family for years. Treating them as such is a huge step in the direction of good salesmanship.

Imagine a store full of employees who are 100 percent dedicated to giving this kind of service. Your store will stand out compared to other stores in your community. People will look forward to their shopping experience. The result of all of this will be increased sales. The average basket will increase, and so will your daily customer counts.

The exit appreciation

Blockbuster Video Stores, in their employee training tapes, refer to the phrase "Exit Appreciation." This is the time when we get our best chance to let our customers know how much we really appreciate their business.

The closing, "Thanks, have a nice day," is tired and overworked. People are so used to it that many of them don't even hear it when we say it. Encourage your staff to look for new ways to thank the customers. These thanks can happen throughout the store.

Customers leaving a produce department might be taken aback to hear a clerk say, "I hope you really enjoy those peaches," and say it like they mean it. And, our employees should mean it. What a lovely way to shop, having employees actually thank you for shopping in their department! Your cashiers get the final chance. They get to send the customer off to the rest of his/her day. A sincere comment can go far and put a smile on your customer's face.

Now is the time

There is no time like the present to put your plan into action. Commit yourselves to winning customer service . . . every day . . . all day . . . today. Have each of your department heads meet one-on-one with department staff members for 15 minutes each month. Be sure your employees understand your goals and their part in helping your store achieve theme. Give specific instructions and exact details of what you expect from each employee. Strive to insure that these goals are achieved each and every day.

I am reminded of a comment enclosed with new stock offerings from a major brokerage firm. "Each morning a lion wakes up. He knows that he must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or he will starve to death. Each morning a gazelle wakes up. He knows that he must run faster than the fastest lion or he will surely perish. Whether you are a gazelle or a lion, you had better wake up running." So should you and your staff. You know that your competition will.


Add comment

Log in or register to post comments