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Discount Diva: From food to fashion, how to fix customer service

If customer service is so important, why do companies have such a hard time getting it right?

I just had an awesome customer service experience at the Boulevard Mall when I took my kids to get sneakers. We went to Journeys and were taken care of by a rock star fireball named Nicole.

She mesmerized both of my daughters, who were thrilled that this cool, friendly, big kid seemed so genuinely interested in them and their shoes. She measured their feet, helped them pick out sneakers and brought different options quickly. She was energetic, fun and gave them stickers.

As a parent, I appreciated that she could be warm and attentive with the kids, but also professional and efficient. And her employers should be happy that she could upsell socks like a champ.

Now, I’ve seen the opposite end of the customer service spectrum. We all have.

I walked into a dollar store once and was pleasantly surprised when the person working greeted me warmly, welcoming me inside while she straightened up the shelves.

“Wow. She’s great. She must be new,” I thought.

Then I overheard two other employees grumbling to one another, “How am I supposed to train her if she keeps walking away from the register every time it gets slow?”

Minutes later, one of them scolded the energetic new employee.

“Just leave that! Stay at the register. The store is always going to be a mess.”

Yikes. It was like watching a wild horse being broken. Like watching someone pour mud over a Rembrandt. Right before my eyes, a bright and promising young worker had her wings clipped.

It should take years in retail to bludgeon someone into a jaded, impatient wretch, it shouldn’t be done manually by your co-workers on your first day. I speak from experience.

Customer service can make or break a sale. It can make or break a company’s reputation. Just ask United Airlines.

We’ve all heard the adage that if a customer is happy, they’ll tell one friend. If they’re unhappy, they’ll tell five. If they’re unhappy and they’re on Facebook, they’ll tell 5,000.

That’s got to be scary for business owners, having one employee responsible for how a customer perceives your entire company. That’s probably why there are so many “business solutions” companies trying to sell corporate customer training programs.

But there’s no way you can train someone to be a Nicole. And there’s no way you’re taking those two longtimers from the Dollar Tree and turning them into a couple of Nicoles, either.

You probably could, however, give Nicole and the new dollar store worker seed money and watch them take over the world.

That’s because it’s easy to take a friendly, conscientious person and teach them how to take inventory, make sales pitches or run a cash register.

But you can’t teach someone how to be awesome. You can't teach someone how to be patient with grumpy customers, how to be friendly, smart, useful, moral, kind and empathetic, or how to pay close attention to customers and make sure they’re comfortable and that their needs are met.

Everyone always raves about Wegmans’ workforce. Do you know why their workers are so great? Because that’s exactly the theory they subscribe to. They hire what they call “innately helpful” people, then train them well for the positions they’ll hold.

But you can’t just have your pick of fantastic employees. You have to give them reasons to choose to work for you, whether it’s a great atmosphere, high pay, good benefits, flexible scheduling or all of the above.

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