You're Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

In coffee shops, break rooms, and breakfast nooks across this country playground scuffles are taking place between inner children. "My upbringing was worse than yours" has replaced "my dad is stronger than yours" as a recurring motto. Like never before we are consumed with how we got to be, and how we can care for who we are. We are listening to ourselves, using self talk to improve ourselves, and trying to spend quality time with ourselves.

This new selfishness, if approached wisely, likely has more positive than negative prospects. I draw attention to this phenomenon only to propose an additional wrinkle: the concept of superb customer service as a selfish act.

Service, service, service

First, the hard word, and please hear this: If you believe loyalty to your store or to the cooperative movement will keep customers coming despite poor service, negative attitudes, and a lack of staff energy, your business will not grow and may not be around much longer. Furthermore, if you are personally committed to the natural foods and/or cooperative movement and do not see consistent positive attitude and high level service as priorities, you need to rethink your commitment.

In my seminar on "Zen and the art of customer service" I speak of winning battles by never needing to fight them. The surging popularity of natural foods combined with GNC's plans to open thousands of new outlets makes every town, no matter how small, a potential battleground for market share. If prospective competition visits your market and finds friendly faces, friendly voices, great service and high energy, they will be repelled.

"If prospective competition visits your market and finds friendly faces, friendly voices, great service and high energy, they will be repelled."

If they find anything else, watch out. Some prospective competitors won't even bother to come in to your store. They have learned that you can gauge service level with a telephone call. How is the phone answered? Is the voice friendly? Was the caller put on hold? For how long? A clever technique is to call and ask about returning something, then see how it is handled.

Ask yourself this question: If someone opened a store across the street and sold the same things you sell at the same prices, what would keep people coming to your store? The only answer is service.

Tough customers

With that in mind, I've split customers into three groups and will help you deal with each. Please be aware my purpose here is to educate and entertain. The vast majority of our customers can make our work day enjoyable, especially if we learn how to approach the one or two "tough customers."

It seems we all have a customer or two that we would pay to see dangling by their ankles over a hot vat of something really awful, clutching of course the receipt of an order they are certain we have miss-rung. Let's call this group our ankle danglers.

For each one of these ankle danglers we each have several others to whom I'll call MIFs (maintenance intensive folks). MIFs are the folks who have shopped with you a long time and know you so well they are sure you don't mind finding them the best date on the yogurt in backstock, putting together a case of soy milk because they forgot to special order again, putting aside the shirt they know their cousin who will be in town next week will love, making them a copy of the tempehlkombu/plum paste dessert recipe they just found, finding out what is meant by "less than one gram of fat," and kind of hurrying because they have a bus to catch.

You can identify your personal MIFs by the way you smile at them. It's much the same smile you give a relative at Christmas who gives you that article of clothing you are certain was made prior to the Nixon years, or that same smile you give a dental hygienist before an overdue cleaning.

The first group, the ankle danglers, I'm afraid you can do almost nothing about. Your best defense is to picture the dangling and the hot vat, and to try moving them on quickly. Keep a good thought, or at least a bad thought that makes you feel good.

Don't let someone else's bad day, bad life, or bad vibes become yours. It's easy to slip, but remember: it's your day, your life, and your vibes that you are fighting for, so keep smiling, keep envisioning and keep breathing.

The MIFs require a slightly different approach. It's important to remind yourself that this person tends to spend a lot of money at your store, they are usually loyal, and they are an important part of your income. Remind yourself how nice it is these types only visit once in a while. Picture a scenario where every single customer has several items they'd like you to find, questions they'd like you to answer, complaints they need to register, and so forth. Then realize you have just one, just now.

Next, when any MIF or MIF wannabe approaches you for assistance, make sure you find out all the questions and/or services they will require, write them down, promise to get back to the person before they are done shopping, and keep your promise. This gives you a little time to finish what you were doing and coordinate your new, MIF-driven tasks. (HINT: Put a two word description of the customer on your list so you don't forget what they look like. I can't tell you how often I used to find the answers only to forget who asked the questions.)

Group three? That's you and me, the average Joe or Jo who comes in to buy their goods, have a pleasant exchange and get on with their own day, life and vibe. This is the silent majority that drives our industry. They appreciate who you are and what you provide. If you keep your attitude positive and your service and energy levels high, this group of people can literally propel you through your day. They can, ifyou let them, teach, entertain, and comfort. Show these people good service with a personal side, and work can seem more like play.

Attitude enhancers

Here a few attitude, energy, and service enhancers:

* Prepare mentally for your day.

Take inventory of the things in your life you love: people, art, music, places, and keep these things in the front of your mind and close to your heart. Train yourself to recall these things during those times when work becomes trying. For example, tell yourself that when you see that certain difficult coworker or customer, you will automatically remember a friend who is special or a place you have enjoyed.

* Get to work a little early.

Give yourselftime to stretch, check out the gossip, and gauge the attitude du jour. Those of us who run or exercise in some way know the importance of mental and physical preparation. Allow yourself the same prep time before starting your shift. You stand little chance of an enjoyable day, and increase your chance of injury, when you rush in and start. Incidentally, thirty seconds of stretching and a few deep breaths each hour are highly recommended.

If you do a lot of cashiering, I suggest you occasionally use that slice of time you wait for the customer to write a check as a fifteen-second vacation. Squat down with your hands on the counter and knees pointed forward, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and picture your ideal vacation spot. Your back and brain will thank you for these few seconds.

* Use your lunch and/or break time wisely.

If you need to lie somewhere quiet, do so. If you wish to take a brisk walk, go for it, but don't do anything that remotely resembles your occupation. Make your "off' time as little like work as possible, otherwise it will be unfulfilling. The goal is to make an eight-hour day seem like four very short shifts, so make your break something to look forward to for reasons other than getting off the sales floor.

Approaching great customer service as a way of caring for one's self may not make sense at first. I am convinced it is the only way many of us will every really enjoy our work day. People who are great with customers seem to truly enjoy their work. People that aren't, don't. Try it out, see if you find the better you treat the day, life and vibe of your customer, the better you see to your own.

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