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Archive for October 13th, 2005

All rights reserved 2004, Olivier Blanchard

Interesting point made by Brains On Fire’s Spike Jones today in regards to the link between employee happiness and customer service:

“Happy employees make happy customers. That’s where a good identity lives and breathes – and grows from. If any of the (wireless) carriers had the buy-in of their employees and actually cared about them (and took care of them), then things could start to change. (…) I’m talking about the real people that represent the identity on a daily basis.”

If you’ve read my recent posts on flight attendants and Lowes employees, you’ll know that I couldn’t agree more.

What I want to very briefly bring up today is the issue of employee unhapiness, and how easily it can drag a company’s image down.

Case in point: Walmart.

I guess it depends on the person, but I think that we can all agree that in general – perhaps with the exception of the elderly greeters – most Walmart employees don’t seem particularly passionate about their jobs. I don’t think I’m being unfair by saying that. Some even seem to really, really, really hate their job. (More on that in a bit.)

I’m not judging, mind you, and I am not saying that Walmart employees should act as happy as Starbucks baristas… But I can’t help but wonder why they don’t. Does Starbucks pay that much better than Walmart? Is serving coffee all day that much more fun than stocking or scanning stuff?

Is there really that much of a difference?

Is it just that working at Starbucks is cool but working at Walmart isn’t? Are a person’s identity and sense of self worth tied-in with the image of the company they work for? (If Starbucks is cool, then working at Starbucks makes me cool? If Walmart sucks, then working for Walmart means I suck?)

Maybe. I don’t know.

I guess I could see a little kid wanting to grow up to be a barista: They make coffee, the coffee makes people happy, so it isn’t a bad job. I don’t know too many kids who would ever find working register 12 at Walmart fun or cool or rewarding.

Obviously, Walmart has an image problem, and the entire company’s identity may be caught in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of substandard customer-to-brand experiences.

Maybe it’s time Walmart did something to change that?

It’s really a lot more simple than you’d think: By focusing on any one of the four links in that wheel would affect the other three. Put simply, improving service would improve customer experiences, which would in turn improve the brand’s image, which would then boost employees’ sense of worth, which would motivate them to provide friendlier service, etc.

Spike is 100% right when he brings up people as being the core element of a company’s identity. Beyond professionalism and happiness at one’s job, an employee’s sense of worth within the context of this identity directly affects the quality of the service they provide in the eyes of their customers.

(It’s okay to read that one again. It had some twists.)

Unhappy employees can turn even the best companies into “have beens”. In contrast, happy employees can turn even the most average companies into WOM-worthy lovebrands.

Ask yourself: Do you feel special when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Do you feel special when you buy a BMW or an Apple computer? Do Starbucks, BMW and Apple employees play any role in that?

Do you feel special when you buy something at Walmart or Alltel or Circuit City? Do those companies’ employees play any role in that?

Do you think that those employees’ sense of worth relative to their jobs has anything to do with how happy or unhappy they are to work there?

Sometimes though, employee unhappiness goes way beyond poor service… and gets a little… trippy. Perfect example: A few months ago, I was walking by the storage systems aisle of my local Walmart when I saw this guy absolutely reach his breaking point – which was kind of entertaining at the time, but is in a very real way symptomatic of the malaise that exists within companies that do very little to inspire, engage or otherwise empower their employees.

Here’s a play-by-play of that little incident (see the image at the top of this post):

Walmart guy spots a bin sitting in the middle of the storage systems aisle.
Walmart guy yells “@#&%!!!! Not again!!!!”
Walmart guy grabs the bin and tosses it on a shelf, yelling “I already @#&^%$ put you away three times this morning, %$#&^ %^$#*&!!!”
The bin bounces off the shelf, hits him in the shoulder, and tumbles back to the middle of the aisle.
Walmart guy screams “@#&$%!!!!!!!”, grabs the bin, swings it over his head and slams it down on the ground.
Repeat.
Again, but as hard as he can, this time.
Walmart guy kicks the bin into the shelves, still screaming obscenities.
Walmart guy calms down and stops screaming.
Walmart guy calmly walks over to the bin and picks it up.
Walmart guy puts the bin up on its shelf and walks away as if nothing had happened.

Wow, huh?

Okay. There’s a huge difference between the apathetic (see “lethargic”) cashiers who are just way too bored to crack a smile or make eye contact, and the guy who goes postal on a product he’s tired of putting away fifty times a day. I understand that. But still.

It kind of makes you wonder about just how lousy it must be to work at a place like this every day, where very few people feel pride or joy or excitement when it comes to the role they play in the machine that is their workplace.

This isn’t just boredom. This kind of catharsis is the result of a pretty oppressive environment.

Without getting too deep in Dr. Phil Territory here, let’s just say that when Walmart guy beats up the plastic storage bin, he’s really lashing out at Walmart and its customers because quitting isn’t an option, and he can’t do it any other way.

It goes well beyond feeling unappreciated or undervalued.

It’s really more about a sense from this guy that because his job has no finality, no real impact on anything and no relevance, neither does he.

Worse yet: He feels powerless to do anything about it.

… Which is why he beats up the offending but otherwise stoic storage bin.

Even if you zoned out through much of that sorry attempt at Jungian psychobabble, just understand that what this guy is feeling is not healthy.

What you need to take from this is that you don’t build positive customer experiences in this kind of environment.

You can’t allow your employees to ever feel trapped or helpless. In other words, when they walk by the lobster tank, they shouldn’t be able to empathize with the lobsters. When they walk by the meat department and its endless rows of neat little square packages, they shouldn’t get a sense that it says something about their place in the world.

They should be thinking about how pretty the rows of meat packages look, and how healthy the lobsters look, and how they’re going to help a bunch of customers today. Blue vests to the rescue. Walmart superheroes. They have to understand their value to the Walmart world and that starts by finding value in helping customers have a fantastic shopping experience at Walmart.

Helping people and being paid in smiles is kind of like pouring them the perfect cup of Starbucks’ coffee. Think about that sunny parking lot outside. Think about the droves of happy people taking their blue bags of Walmart stuff back to their cars. Think about the smiling yellow dots all over the place. Think about birds chirping and pretty clouds drifting in perfectly blue skies.

Think about those Walmart employees’ role in making that world happen and about how good it feels to have that kind of power.

Yes, Walmart could be a fun place to work AND a fun place to shop. But it isn’t, and it has nothing but its management to blame for it.

Remember Spike’s words of wisdom: Happy employees make happy customers.

Likewise, unhappy employees make unhappy customers.

There are ways to make your employees happy. Perhaps more importantly, there are ways to make your employees feel proud. And no, rewarding them isn’t something you can fake or buy off with plaques and pins and little bonuses. It’s something that has to feel real.

If you want to inspire your customers, you first have to inspire your employees. If you want to do that, you have to make them feel like they truly are a part of your company and not just worthless pawns.

You have to make them feel like they are on a mission.

You have to make them feel good about the work they do for you.

Does that sound complicated? It really isn’t. It’s actually the simplest thing in the world. Starbucks is doing it. So is Apple. So is Loreal. So is Nike. So is Coca Cola.

Treat people with respect. Give them something worthwhile to do. Inspire them to be knights in your kingdom… or at least happy to be there for as long as they want to stay. That’s it. That’s all you really need to do to get things rolling in the right direction.

As always, it really is that simple.

Maybe you don’t see it yet, but it is.

I promise.

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The Good News

The good news is that service seems to be getting a little better. Companies are starting to pay attention to their customers more, and I am seeing more smiles now than a year ago. Or five years ago, for that matter. The bad news is that too few companies are catching on.

Example:

The Good – Ruby Tuesday.

I never thought I would say anything nice about a chain that I always kind of considered to be an “also in” casual eatery/bar, but I guess hell does occasionally freeze over, and thanks to genetic research, yes, pigs can fly.

So here I am, about to sing the praises of Ruby Tuesday, because to be quite frank, they surprised me big time last weekend.

To set this up, I have to once again bring up the fact that I am not a fan of the Ruby T or of TGIF or Appleby’s or Chili’s. It isn’t so much that I dislike them. It’s more that they don’t do much for me. Sure, the food’s good and the service is adequate, but… it’s just kind of Blah. O’Charley’s. Bennigan’s. The dozens of other chains just like them. You can change the tag line all you want, you paint the walls a different color, you can feature new stuff on your menu, but it’s still just different versions of the same thing.

At least to me.

But that changed this weekend when my wife, a gift certificate in hand, dragged me and the kids to the local Ruby T.

First of all, the manager’s name was stensiled on the front door. Now… I don’t know why that struck me as cool or relevant. I don’t even know why I even noticed it. But the fact of the matter is that it made me feel pretty safe about the fact that this restaurant had the confidence to semi-permanently announce to the world that so-and-so was the manager. It’s a small thing, but I noticed.

Second, we were greeted by three separate people, and all seemed very happy to see us. (No the restaurant wasn’t empty.) We aren’t talking about polite smiles here. These people actually seemed happy. It was a nice change from the norm.

Third, I noticed that our kids’ activity books were different. One was geared for kids under 10 and the other was a little more relevant to a 10-14 year old. That’s pretty cool. Most places just have one kids’ menu, but somebody at corporate realized that 10-year-olds don’t necessarily want to color bunnies and trace dinosaurs. I thought that it was a nice touch for them to have two separate menus/activity booklets. Ruby T might not be the only restaurant to do this, but it’s the first one that I’ve been to. That’s the kind of attention to detail that gets my attention.

Fourth, they changed their menu concept and took a chance: Instead of being all things to all people by introducing yet another skillet dish or quesadilla this or cajun that, Ruby T decided to go on the offensive as THE burger specialist. Their menu still has all of the usual stuff, but it now also sports 36 different burgers on a huge double-page thing that squarely placed them (at least in my mind) at the top of the burger market heap.

Sorry Fuddruckers and your like, but Ruby Tuesday (of all people) has taken the lead.

36 burgers? Big, juicy, perfectly cooked burgers?

36?!?!

Impressive.

And while I like Fuddruckers and their concept of letting us (their customers) decide what to put on our burgers, they’re falling short on the delivery: Sure, letting us build our own burgers is cool, but you’re basically only giving us tomatoes, lettuce, onions and pickles… eh. That’s not a lot of choice, is it?

Now compare that with 36 different burgers, and you can see where I am going with this: If you’re going to be in the foodservice business, be relevant. If you want to be relevant, stand out. Stand out by… well, overdoing it: 36 different burgers is completely ridiculous, but that’s exactly what’s so brilliant about it.

Ruby T gets MAJOR kudos from me on the guts it took to just say “Hey, you know what? Why don’t we just go all the way with this? And while we’re at it, let’s stab a big steak knife right down the middle of them to make a point?”

Good job.

Fifth, the waiters and greeters all wished us a nice afternoon on our way out and were super friendly and upbeat. That’s always nice.

So while I still won’t put ruby Tuesday on my Top 10 favorite restaurant places, at least it’s on my rotation now, which, actually, is saying a lot.

Now for the bad: Lowes.

My wife and I went straight to Lowes after our Ruby Tuesday burger lunch and got to experience a company that absolutely doesn’t get it.

I know it’s a “warehouse”. I get it. But when I ask someone who works there where something is, I expect them to kind of have an idea… and maybe even have some sense that… you know, a smile doesn’t hurt. Anyway, this weekend, the item was a hand truck. Here’s basically what happened:

14:03
“Hi, can you tell me where the hand trucks are?”
“Aisle 54.”
Wrong answer.

14:09
“Excuse me. Do you know where the hand trucks are?”
“Um… yeah. Aisle 21.”
Wrong answer.

14:12
“Hi. I’m looking for the hand carts.”
“Yep. Go that way and turn right on aisle 52.”
Wrong answer.

14:19 – Customer Service Counter
“Hi. Can you tell me where the hand trucks are?”
“Sure, let me check.” *Looking through a reference binder* “Aisle 54.”
“Nope. I’ve already been there. They’re not there.”
“Oh. Let me call someone.”
(I’ll spare you the intercom thing and the subsequent radio chatter.)
“They’re on aisle 41, sir.”
Wrong answer.

14:29
“Excuse me. Hand trucks. Where?”
“They’re in aisle 23.”
Wrong answer.

14:35
“Can you help me? I’m looking for hand trucks.”
“Sure! They’re with the ladders and step ladders. right over there and on your left.”
Wrong answer.

I finally give up and find my wife still waiting by the dish washers for someone to notice her. Just as I arrive, someone finally asks us “have you guys been helped yet?”

Um… “Yeah, we’d like to buy this model. But while you’re here, do you know where the hand trucks are, by any chance?”

“They’re right on the other side of this aisle, sir.”

Bingo.

Having to spend close to 45 minutes looking for an item in a store is completely ridiculous.

To have to wait thirty minutes to be waited on is completely ridiculous.

To have the loader guy who tossed our new dishwasher into the back of our van turn around and walk off without as much as a smile or a “have a nice day” or a “thanks for shopping at Lowes” just sucks. He just turned around and walked off. It was rude.

And the Lowes site seems to be down this morning, so I can’t rip a logo to add to this post. Way to go.

Some businesses actually try to stand out and make their customers want to come back. Others obviously couldn’t care less.

The good news is that more and more businesses are starting to focus on their customers’ experiences again rather than just crunching numbers. The bad news is that they are still the exception rather than the rule. When even a company like Lowes doesn’t get it, you know you still have a long way to go.

One last thing: If your company is going to advertise friendly service, deliver on your promises.

If you don’t, someone else will.

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