Turnaround and Performance Improvement Advisors

Thomas H. HicksReprint from SGB June 5, 2000

History Lesson

Every retailer seeks to offer outstanding customer service. Millions have been spent on the latest “buzzword” laced programs developed and run by zealous HR and store operations operatives. Many companies have dispatched throngs of personnel to Disney and other seminars and training projects pledging to return immediate impact on sales through friendly, knowledgeable, courteous and prompt service. Countless hours have been consumed to train, brainwash and indoctrinate unwilling, un-motivated, non-believing people in the ways of the retailer and its commitment to outstanding, customer service.

What does it all mean? Why do we still do it? What can we learn from the past and from our wasted capital? What and who do we admire for its service and why?

What remains valid is the retailer’s continued desire to:

  • win and retain customers
  • meet or beat service expectations
  • build a consistent image in the customers mind
  • create long-lasting top of mind positive awareness of the business

Define it

In this column we’ve focused much attention on branding of store and creating long-lasting enterprise value. We’ve looked at businesses that have achieved “store as brand” identity. Most if not all have good customer service in the eyes of the consumer, whatever the definition of good may be.


That’s it – they defined the desired customer service! They did it in the context of their business proposition and the customer’s service expectation. They carefully defined the appropriate level of and characteristics of service, appropriate to the other complementary aspects of the business model (i.e., mission, assortment, price/value, store location strategy, store design, in-store presentation and signage). In this model the elements of service have been carefully defined and include such things as greeters, visual and printed information such as departmental signage and directories, means of checkout, customer service desks, selling floor personnel and the like.

And yes, the people are part of the equation and play an important role in the perceived definition of and execution of that appropriate service level. They embody and reflect the image and personality of the business, the knowledge source for the customer to use, and the consistency with which the defined service level is carried out. In one way or another the people that come in contact with the public remain, to a large degree, what the business is and how our boss – the customer, views it.

Only a few businesses and retailers have embraced this idea and made it truly part of their presentation and “branding” strategy. As we’ve said before, branding is creating a consistent image and tying it to your recognizable name and logo – in short, making a company memorable and, in this case, “with people” plus authoritative merchandise assortments, physical plant, value, in-stock position. There’s no better example that a “non-retailer”, Southwest Airlines.

If you haven’t used Southwest Airlines, do so. View this company as a retailer, a provider of service directly to end use customers. Look at their business model and its components – one type of aircraft for low cost of maintenance and pilot/crew training and staffing; low fares; point to point routes; low ticketing costs and systems; planes look the same and are clearly identifiable; no frills service and one class of tickets; fast boarding process (no assigned seats); minimal time on ground; happy “people oriented” employees dressed casually and uniformly (they can be identified as Southwest people); these people do it all happily (handle baggage, pickup trash between flights). Initially targeted to non-business air travelers, Southwest has increasingly attracted a wide range of customers to its on time, safe, low cost, short and timely point-to-point routes. The financial, marketing and service model fits together with service (perceived and actual – supported by the people component) being an important part of what distinguishes Southwest in its industry. It’s also important to note that Southwest makes money, consistently, and has a keeper of the vision, its CEO. Sounds like Wal Mart, doesn’t it? Sounds like a branding strategy, doesn’t it?

Southwest, behaving like a retailer, has created elements of brand that bond with the customer – product, service, location, décor and image, entertainment (through its people), use of logo and uniformity, unification of image across all mediums. They have expanded their marketing vehicles over time and have campaigned consistently and persistently to continuously reinforce the brand message.

The People Element

The growing U.S. economy has placed retailers generally in a position of weakness in terms of attracting people. Low unemployment in our vibrant economy has left no one to mind the store. Various testing and screening programs have further reduced the pool of available employees. Retailers have responded by using technology and re-defined organizations and physical plants to maintain clean stores, keep them stocked using night stocking crews and get customers in and out of stores more quickly. This process has, to some degree, de-humanized retailers and added to their homogeneity in each segment of business, contrary to the desire of most management to stand apart, positively, from the crowd. Retailers that are “brand” conscious may even pass on entering new markets because they fear affecting the brand through short staffing or wrong staffing.

The competition for customers and associates is linked – success in attracting customers and employees is driven by an environment where people want to spend their time – whether it be playing (shopping) or working.

We would submit that this can be done, by following the steps outlined below:

  1. Define your Company’s Customer Service Proposition – the physical plant, the systems, the information availability and the people. What is it about the people that you want to emphasize, and don’t make it too complex. If the people element is a major statement that you wish to make, ensure that customers notice it and that you have a high probability of executing it. Flexible store design: internal space that is open tends to be inviting, attracts customers to adventure areas of the store, is flexible to change without significant capital investment and allows departments and categories to expand, contract, be added or deleted. Flexible store design also implies flexible aisle patterns;
  2. Define the People Element – the image, the characteristics, the requirements including personality;
  3. Identify the “Ideal Person” that represents your Company to your customer – profile that person, find more of them in-house, establish the standard through testing;
  4. Evaluate the “Ideal Person Profile” in the context of your Company Culture – hopefully, there is a connection that can be emphasized in recruitment, manifested on the sales floor and comprehended and remembered by the customer;
  5. Establish the “Hiring Profile” – consistent with the Ideal Person Profile that performs for your business and is reflected in at least some of your existing employees;
  6. Select and Hire to the Profile – test to ensure that each applicant fits the profile, remembering that good selection reduces turnover, training and recruitment costs thereby producing stability, consistency, low cost to operate and an ability to increasingly reward desired behavior;
  7. Recognize Personality in the Profile – often overlooked, mostly vital to perceived customer service. Personality is also largely bred or taught at an early age by parents, teachers and early mentors – personality is difficult if not impossible to change later in life. Most excellent customer service types have certain key characteristics – stability, conscientious, agreeable and adept at solving problems. In short, they genuinely care about others and do their best to satisfy the customer. They must wear well over time;
  8. Refine and standardize the Hiring Process – focusing on a behaviorally-based interviewing process;
  9. Refine and standardize Training – to support and develop already existing traits and skills;
  10. Create a supportive Team Building approach to retain and in-grain the Service and Personality in the Company’s Culture – (a) unified understanding and vision of Company goals and future and treatment of the customer, (b) role and value of the individual to the team, (c) satisfaction from team achievements versus from individual milestones, (d) communication – up, down, sideways, open, informal, on-going;
  11. Gathering Places – reinforce the Profile in gathering places for employees and customers. Take pride in the people element and don’t be afraid to “advertise” it;
  12. Leadership – from CEO to stocking team member, understand your business proposition, your people profile and your customer, live the personality that is your business. People can be the uniqueness of your store – selection counts more than teaching – select the right profile, select people who like people and social interaction, select people who like to help others, outfit them to reflect your merchandise and the lifestyle that is your business.

Summary – Customer Service Excellence, the People Equation and Brand Identity, Working Together to Produce Memorable, Lasting Recognition

People make an important difference in customer perception of a business, and play an increasingly vital role in creating “brand” identify and differentiation. The growing U.S. economy has also created a tight labor market with upward pressure on labor rates and company pressure to reduce discretionary costs (including training budgets). We submit the answer, for some, may be:

  1. Clearly “defined and simplified” business strategy including defined customer service;
  2. Selection of people based on personality and chemistry that fit the defined service;
  3. Leadership that embraces the concept and reality of the defined service and “lives it” everyday, consistently and un-waveringly;
  4. Simplify operations such that the “people equation” shines forth and stamps the business.