It happens this time every year. Customers, fueled by big-deal bargains, shopping lists lined with specific requests, and a fear of missing out on either one or both of the above, practically attack retailers. The joy of generosity is trumped by the dark side of greed and consumer competition. Front-line employees, having endured a year of doing more with less, feel overwhelmed, under supported, and taken for granted.
Some front line employees bark back at demanding customers thus damaging the brand or organization’s reputation. Some become comatose robots lifelessly going through the motions. And, some cope with their holiday stress in more subtle, manipulative ways like carelessness and irresponsibility. At the time service providers most need service excellence (over 30% of a retailer’s annual revenue comes from the last 45 days of the year), they are forced to deal with stressed-out employees. What are ways leaders can create stress-free customer service? Here are four strategies to implement.
Keep in Touch
“You can pretend to care, you cannot pretend to be there,” wrote Texas Bix Bender in his book Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! Bender was describing a vital feature of leadership: connection. Great service leaders focus on being there, everywhere, not in absentia. And, when they are there, they are all there—focused, attentive, and engaged. They hunt for genuine encounters. They also upset the pristine and proper by inviting vocal customers to meetings. They spend time in the field and on the floor where the action is lively, not in carefully contrived meetings where the action is limp. They thrive on keeping things genuine and vibrant.
Keep Out of the Way
This is not an invitation to hands-off abandonment, but rather as a caution never to use more leadership than is needed. If we have hired smart people and given them solid preparation and clear assignments, they shouldn’t need a parent to watch over them. Effective leaders give front-line servers the freedom to solve customer problems and answer questions on the spot within flexible guidelines. Customers use the level of front-line empowerment as a peephole into the values of an organization. The more they witness or experience employees who act with authority on their behalf, the more their confidence in the organization will soar.
Keep Your Promises
One feature that has been wrung out of the work world is trust. Trust is born out of authenticity. We trust others when we perceive their motives are unadulterated and credible. Communicate your enthusiasm for the privilege of being of service to employees. The stereotypical leader gets caught up with looking, sounding, and “acting” executive, and employees get a message of “plastic” power. Great leaders know humility bolsters trust. And, the trusting organization values generosity over miserly squeezing every dollar out of every transaction. Everyone in the organization should protect and grow the assets of the enterprise. However, customers remember organizations that refrain from nickel-and-diming them to death. That customer orientation is founded on how well employees are trusted by the leaders.
Keep Jelly Beans on Your Desk
“Jelly beans” is code for the sense of fun today’s employees desperately need. As customers aim their anxiety and aggression at the front-line, employees need the bulletproof vest that can come from high self-esteem. Happy employees are resilient in times of stress or chaos; courageous in moments of conflict. Sourcing an emotional strength that is bolstered by a supportive, affirming environment, they are able to absorb tension, converting it into compassion in arduous situations. Look for ways to shake up the place with quirky events, silly signs, and celebrative occasions. Constantly seek ways to convey gratitude and encouragement for service greatness. “Thank you” are the two most important words in the English language. Remember what William James said: “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel valued.”
In the face of holiday stress, embrace these four steps. Share them with other leaders and add new favorites. Remember: the number-one impact on customer relations is employee relations. As a leader, your influence, passion, and dedication to be grace and excellence under pressure will go far in creating a leadership covenant that restores the kind of service covenant guaranteed to turn customers into advocates…even during hectic holidays!