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Friday, July 24, 2009

Where the Strategic Plan and Customer Service Meet - Smiles Don't Overcome Empty Shelves

"Our mission is customer service." "We're here to provide excellent customer service." "Customer service is job 1." I have struggled for quite some time trying to get past "customer service is the mission." I've always found it very difficult to get leaders to understand it's a means of accomplishing the real mission which, in the retail industry where this problem is most prevalent, is probably to produce or sell a product.

So, why do I make such a point of this? As long as employees think customer service is the mission, won't the real mission be accomplished? Maybe. But only if leaders have given them the tools to do the job.

As Hamlet said, "Aye, there's the rub"; leaders don't always know what customer service is. I know that seems pretty fantastic, but it's true. I've seen cases where leaders wanted sales associates to smile and offer friendly greetings instead of keeping shelves stocked. In what I found to be a particularly grievous case, company senior leadership constantly beat their employees over the head with the this mantra, yet refused to provide enough people to keep their stores well-stocked and efficiently functioning. A winning smile and friendly hello at the door won't make up for a lack of available merchandise or a dirty store.

An understanding of the real mission, to sell something, would help these leaders understand that customer service will only work if there is something to sell and if the customer can buy it in an attractive environment. Another interesting dichotomy is that often the lower level sales associates seem to know more about what the mission is than their leadership. I was talking to an experienced associate in a well know retail chain who complained that company policy forced her to stop doing what she was doing and leave her work area in order to greet customers at the door. She then had to deal with other customers who were unhappy because her original task was not complete making it difficult to meet their shopping goals. She understood that by offering great customer service, she was more likely to accomplish the real mission of selling products, and that great customer service was not just a smile and greeting at the door.

This is where the strategic plan and leadership merge. Anyone with a minute of experience in managing knows that certain resources are needed to accomplish goals. Any company's mission is made up of several factors that make mission accomplishment possible. For instance, if the mission is to produce widgets, the company must invest in widget making equipment. Likewise, if the mission is to sell products, the company must invest in sufficient staff to do that. If a greeter at the door is essential, then a greeter must be paid for. Sam Walton put a greeter at the door of each Wal-Mart, not because he thought you would need someone to show you where the carts are, but because he knew that products would walk out those big doors if someone wasn't there to watch. The friendly greeting was extra.

It's interesting that the most direct face to the customer is often the lowest paid employee in the company. Doesn't that seem odd? Even the government has begun to move away from the lowest bidder concept, recognizing that you get what you pay for.

Customer service is not the mission, but it is an important tool to accomplish the mission. Are you investing sufficient resources to ensure truly great customer service?


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