Some years back, I spent some time working retail with Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse. You’ve probably heard this before, but I agree that it’s a pretty good idea for nearly everyone to spend at least a little time working retail and/or food service, to see what it’s like “on the other side of the counter.” It will hopefully make you more empathetic, and the lessons you learn working customer service apply to many other areas of life.
In fact, if I really think about it, nearly all of the jobs I’ve held – from teaching to pastoring to ballpark ushering – basically boiled down to customer service, which itself boils down to helping people find what they need and then getting out of their way until they they need help again.
Take them or leave them, here are some of the lessons I have learned from working retail (on the floor and in management) that apply in most life situations:
“The customer is NOT always right. But the customer always HAS the right to be heard.”
- No, the customer is not always right. Let’s be real: we are all customers and there are times when we are so wrong we look like fools. You don’t have the right to be treated like royalty just because you spent some money.
- However! The customer has the right to be heard. Most customers just want to be listened to and shown some basic human empathy. S/he may not be right, but if you can find it in yourself to at least care that they are upset, it will go a long way toward resolution. Responding in anger will almost always result in escalating a situation and making things worse.
- An apology is a powerful weapon, and it goes a long way. It is very difficult to stay mad at someone who is apologizing, so use this to your advantage to deescalate a situation. Related to this is:
- Get used to apologizing for things that are not your fault, because that’s how life works. If you can’t find it within yourself to say “I’m sorry that happened” instead of “That’s not my department” or “I just work here,” you will never be able to successfully manage conflict in your career or your personal relationships. Apologies have a remarkable way of sucking the anger out of the air. Swallow your pride and avoid the fight.
- Taking the customer’s side verbally, even if you can’t actually help them, will make them feel validated and help deescalate the situation. “Wow, I am so sorry – that never should have happened that way. How can I help make it right?” They might make a demand that is unreasonable (you don’t have to honor it just because you offered to help), but at least they feel like you’re in their corner, and this helps immensely.
- Managers take responsibility. Management should take the blame for an employee’s mistake and should give credit to the employee(s) for success(es). Managers are there to be thrown under the bus, and have to be okay with the tire treads on their backs. Good managers empower their employees to make decisions, and encourage employees to come and find them when there is a challenge (or a challenging person).
I remember while I was working at Lowe’s that a study had been done of retail customers, asking them what was most important to them. Their top three answers were:
- Being greeted warmly at the door (and then left alone).
- Pricing that is easy to find, clear to read/understand.
- Friendly help that is easy to access when and if it is needed.
I think these same principles apply to any sort of business that works with people – and listen up, church-goers, because this includes you, even if you’re not on staff:
- Be friendly, and greet people right away.
- Have easy to find and easy to read signage so that people know where to go without having to ask and feel foolish for doing so.
- This includes buildings with multiple entrances (there are few things more embarrassing than pulling on a locked door, only to realize the door next to it is unlocked – and there is no reason not to mark this!).
- It also – and most importantly – includes how to find the restrooms!
- Make sure that someone is available to answer questions or direct the questioner to someone who can.
If you want to be successful in life, it means being good with people. But there’s no secret to it: just care enough to listen and be friendly. Think about how you would want to be treated and then do that for the other person. It will make all the difference in the world.
Good luck out there!