Why customers don’t come first

happy staffDear reader, do not freak out. I am not proposing that your customer is not fundamentally important. What I am saying is that all of your stakeholders are equally important. They coexist in a symbiotic relationship and putting any one ahead of the other is a reductive exercise that is not only oblivious to the complexities of today’s retail ecosystem, it will poison that ecosystem.

Effective leaders lead by example, they embody the values and purpose of their organisation. They motivate and empower their colleagues to deliver brilliant service by creating a supportive culture where everybody matters. There is no delighted customer without a confident, happy, service-orientated team as much as there is no such team without a leader cut from the same cloth.

Your competitive advantage is getting all parts of your ecosystem to work harmoniously. So I implore you, please, ditch the binary mindset of first and last and agree that great service is the priority focus and the only pathway to lasting success.

Keep the change

I don’t need to tell you how dramatically retail operations have changed. Long gone are the days of rambling down the high street in an old jalopy and calling that a win. Pardon the dramatics, but today’s retailers are at the helm of a Maclaren P1 racing at 350km/h on a wet track, with bald tyres, in the pitch black of night… fasten your seatbelts.

Your customer’s relationship to shopping has changed – you know that. Their expectations have changed, their product knowledge has expanded, their options have exploded and their concept of loyalties have morphed.

Your relationship with your colleagues has also changed – did you know that?  The boss as an overbearing autocrat belongs in a museum of laughable caricatures from cringeworthy sitcoms, where ‘turn up, shut up and do your job’ was a pithy catchcry. We know that-no one in fear for their livelihood can be expected to deliver impressive results. Not in this day and age, and definitely not customer service.

So it is with the carrot, not the stick, that we motivate our people.  

The real cost of business

The cost of doing business is painfully more expensive than it used to be, so the temptation may be to hack your payroll, reapportion responsibilities, minimise amenities and decrease learning and development programs. In reality, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul, with compound interest. A spreadsheet might record a saving but it is myopic to the significant longer-term costs of absenteeism, disengagement, disgruntlement, high staff turnover and failure to attract the best talent. And that’s who you’ll have on your frontline.

When times are tough, and I know for many they are, the urge is to focus on spreadsheets and not on your people. But ask yourself this: Who’s going to turn a struggling business around – paper or people?

People before paper

I was recently introduced to the concept of ‘heads, hearts and hands’ by Atlassian’s head of research and development, Dominic Price. An Aussie success story, the global tech company – or family, as they prefer to say – is founded on the principle of wanting to make the world a better place. Dominic develops and drives programs that inspire their hundreds of interdependent teams to do what they do more efficiently and effectively.

In a nutshell, the heads are the strategic thinking behind your operation, the hearts are the passion you bring and the hands are behind the hustle. All are vital to running a business but success is born of the balance between them, much like the balance required in the retail ecosystem.

Spreadsheets alone are too theoretical, you need the fire of purpose, along with the practicality of a hands-on approach, especially in retail.

Great service, great leadership

Retail operations may have changed dramatically, but great service is still – and always will be – great service. It’s a friendly, cheerful group of people who are trained to be passionate about providing the best service they can for a company (or family) they love and customers they care about.

That family extends past the frontline. Great customer service is also about the variety and availability of your products, your pricing, the appeal of your branding and everything in between.

Ask your teams what great service looks like. Never assume you’re all on the same page. Interpretations will vary from person to person, region to region and store to store. The next question is, what are the barriers to providing that great service? Don’t be surprised if the answer is you.

I learnt this lesson back in my retail days – I realised that we were making jobs far too complicated. We were setting unreasonable expectations and putting too many procedures in place, all without talking to the people who those changes affected. We never asked them about the impact those changes would have on their ability to operate their stores and provide great service. We just thought we knew best and we were wrong.

The synergy of success

“There is no better salesperson than someone who loves their job.” Richard Branson.

The happiness of your customers ultimately comes down to how you treat your people. Are they a means to an ends, or do you see them as the face of your business, the ambassadors of your brand, your lifeblood?

If you lead a culture based on values and purpose where everyone is striving toward the same goal, you guarantee your customers will leave your store delighted, that they will return and that they will tell their friends and family about the fantastic service they received.

Your customers and your colleagues exist in a symbiotic state. Neither comes first, or second – it’s about equilibrium in the retail ecosystem. Quite simply, there isn’t one without the other.

Richard Wynn is managing partner at FutureYou Executive Recruitment: richardwynn@future-you.com.au; 0448 416 172.


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