March 1, 2013
Old school service, exceptional retailing


Regardless of what the business gurus preach, no matter which next-best thing you read about in a magazine, the reality is: The basics of old-school retailing still work. I am the first to acknowledge that I have written about the changing face of business, the importance of web pages and an online presence; but the electronic age still needs an underlying, fundamental basis of service.

I am different than the self-styled business gurus. I have spent my entire business life on the firing line, as have many of you. I know only too well the experience of having one customer walk through the gate praising you to the heavens and the next one wanting a pound of your flesh. I know how to keep a customer happy for 30 years and I know the feeling when you lose one of the same vintage because you screwed up. I wear my war wounds with great pride.

All of us are starved for service. When we pull into a gas station that has a sign reading ‘full service,’ we expect nothing more than someone to pump the gas. If we get the occasional gas jockey who checks the oil, does a good job of cleaning our windows and carries out those duties with a smile, we are both surprised and impressed. Gone are the days when service station attendants carried pressure testers in their uniform pockets and checked the condition of your tires.

Even though service stations are no longer service oriented, even though most grocery stores no longer carry out your groceries, there is still a place left in this world for retail outlets that provide great service. Not some service, but exceptional service. Exceptional service is a major part of old-school retailing, and it starts with the managers and owners of any operation.  If service is not stressed on a daily basis, if it is not a part of the new employee training program, if managers do not ask staff how they can improve the customer experience, then it is not exceptional. Exceptional customer service requires a level of dedication from the managers on down, not lip service.

Stand behind your service promises
Lip service is what many operations offer up as real service. When I am at my local Safeway, I will accept the offer to carry my groceries to the car, if there is a student worker close by. If no student is visible, I decline, as the wait is just too long.  I was in Rona last summer at the checkout, with a heavy item on a flat cart. Before my purchase was rung through, I asked for carryout assistance. The cashier called for assistance; she called again and she called yet a third time; still, no one appeared. I finally took my purchase and loaded it into my car myself, not without a struggle. When I returned the cart I went back in and told the chasier, “I am pissed.” No ambiguity here. She told me they are supposed to provide customer assistance on the first call, but being stood up is a regular occurrence. Lip service.

My idea of customer service, for any store that is selling heavy goods, including a garden centre, is a dedicated carryout staff at the front, not the back of the store. I had a duty manager at my place who expected her students to return on the fly if they were paged to the front from elsewhere on the property. She let them know that if they wanted to live another day, they had better move fast. She was a petite person but carried a big stick. Again, no sense of ambiguity here. When it comes to exceptional service, what is required has to be clear to all.

Those carryout students need not only to be able to fly when required, they need to be trained in customer service. “Huh?” is not acceptable, “Pardon me?” is. “I will be more than happy to carry that for you. It’s part of our service,” needs to be a common expression, even from a 16-year-old. I loved it when a customer would ask, “Where do you find such polite young people?” and I would answer, “We don’t find them; we train them.”

Little things count
Every customer deserves to be treated well and made to feel that her purchase, large or small, is of value to the retail shop.

I mentioned this several years ago in a column and it fits this one perfectly. I was in North Vancouver at a major, full-service garden centre on a Saturday morning. I was playing the role of browsing customer. I watched a well-dressed gentleman, with a heavy purchase, being escorted out to his high-end car by a student pushing the flat cart. I followed them, sleuth that I am. They get to the car; the customer opens the trunk, and the kid says as he walks away, “Just bring the cart back inside when you are finished.” Oh, so close!

Not every customer requires carryout service, but every customer needs to be rung up and that person needs to be able to say please and thank you and not be robotic. While writing this column, I took a break to visit one of my favourite, high-end bakeries, with pastries and cakes to die for. There was a new staff member waiting on me. She was 20, at the most, with a killer smile.  She told me about a new cookie with a raspberry preserve and got me to pay three bucks for it. Nice sale, seeing as I had already made my selection for home. Now contrast that with my buddy and I stopping into a new art gallery downtown last week. We walked in. A young woman sitting behind the cash glared at us. We walked around. As we left she muttered, “Come again,” but with just a hint of disdain and boredom. I wanted to say to her, “I am sorry that your life sucks and that you have this minimum wage job and that people come in and interrupt your day, when you would much rather be hanging out with people way cooler than my friend and me.” But I am Canadian, so I said nothing.  If that’s your store, get rid of her and see if you can steal away the young woman working at the bakery. That is, if you want your sales to increase.

Don’t make customers hunt for staff
My friend runs a high-end men’s clothing store. He always has enough staff to handle a busy spot in the day. His philosophy is simple. “I would rather have a staff member slightly underworked than a customer underserved.” We can learn from that man. Sometimes we have to spend a little more to make some decent money.

Retailing has as much to do with how our customers feel as it does with the price we charge or how we set up a display. Retail is about the experience. Disney does this incredible job of developing the customer service experience. They are fascinated with how to do things better. Their employees go through training programs on how to deal with people without creating negative interactions. Let’s face it. Anytime you open your doors to the public, you are going to have the odd jerk walk in. You can’t stop them. Not even Disneyland can do that, but their employees do learn how to keep a jerk in check.

Free is the most powerful word in the English language, and I do believe in offering up a few freebies at a retail garden centre. What’s free besides the fresh air? Free seminars, free delivery and set-up on certain products such as fountains, free delivery on minimum orders, free hot apple cider when selling Christmas trees, free handouts explaining the How To’s of gardening, and free smiles.

Small rewards have large payoff
I also believe in perks or freebies, dispensed with discretion, for premiere customers. Someone with a cart filled with two hundred bucks worth of geraniums deserves either you or your duty manager ‘comping’ them a container of fertilizer. That simple act builds store loyalty. A regular customer who spends in the thousands each year should receive free delivery, even on a small order of two bales of peat moss, if she requests it. It is obvious you do not make money off two bales of peat moss, but that is only a small part of the bigger picture.

There are many opportunities in every business day to win customers over, creating loyalty and building your business, if you are willing to see them. There is the elderly customer who would enjoy a chair to rest on; the bewildered customer who needs assistance finding the right garden-care product; and the customer who is looking for a specialty product that you do not have but you can custom order, just for him. Need I go on? 

You do not need to have an MBA from Harvard to succeed in the world of business. You do not need to be the smartest person that God graced the green industry with, but you have to pay attention to the opportunities presented to you and your staff on a daily basis. Even in the electronic age, old-school service pays dividends on your investment. Maintaining old-school service will keep you on the road to success.   

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask.,for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.