When asked what differentiates their businesses from giant competitors, most owners will describe their relationship with customers.
“We give better service.” “Our employees know our customers by name.” “We treat people as individuals.”
What constitutes excellent service differs by industry and region. I’ve lived for long periods on the east coast, in Southern California, and now in Texas. Common retail courtesy is distinctly different depending on your location.
In New Jersey, I’m sure that retail cashiers are trained to greet customers and thank them for their business. After a few thousand rebuffs, however, many sink into robotic recital, expecting neither an answer nor a reaction.
In Los Angeles, most cashiers will greet you with a cheery hello and ask how you are today. When a customer replies, they often appear to be at a loss. Apparently they have been trained to act friendly, but it doesn’t occur to them that it could actually result in dialogue.
In Texas it took me some time to understand appropriate check-out behavior. The cashier would greet me and ask how I was. Then she would stop. I belatedly realized that she was waiting for a response, which is what polite folks do in Texas when asked a question.
As the Great Recession trimmed revenues, many small businesses reduced employee head count. In some companies, the “Director of First Impressions” position was eliminated, and the job of greeting and answering phones shifted to someone else. In others, the position remained, but was expanded to include more administrative responsibilities.
In too many cases, greeting strangers has become a lower priority than other assigned duties. I deal with many businesses, and in more than a few I’m not acknowledged by the person at the front desk until she has completed some other task. When I call on the phone, it often goes like this:
“Good Morning, ABC and Associates.”
“Good Morning. This is John Dini from The Alternative Board. Is Bob Johnson available?”
“I’ll have to check. Who did you say was calling?”
“John Dini from The Alternative Board.”
“And what is this regarding?”
“Mr. Johnson asked me to call and follow up on a meeting we had last week.”
“Okay… What did you say your name was?”
“And what was your company?”
“The Alternative Board.”
“It’s an organization of business owners in which Bob is considering membership. Is he available?”
“I don’t know. From where I sit I can only transfer you to his extension.”
I wish I could say this is an extreme example, but it’s more of a daily occurrence. Even when I am calling a long-time client, this conversation can happen if the usual receptionist is absent or on a break.
Customer service is easy when someone is already a customer. In retail, that is a pretty good assumption when they walk in the door. In other industries a stranger may or may not be a prospect, a vendor or a referral source. Can you really afford to make every new interaction a crapshoot?
Anyone who comes into contact with outsiders at all should be trained in how you expect your business to be presented. Until your entire organization understands that a commitment to excellent service starts with “hello”, you may be missing out on potential business.