Listen up, retailers and retail employees!

You know you can’t afford to lose customers these days. We’re having an economic situation/blip/slowdown/downturn/recession/crisis/depression, ah––cut to the end: when the train finishes pulling into the station, it’ll be “Economic Disaster”.

Businesses spend money and effort on advertising, but often are oblivious to how they treat the customers themselves. When I walk into the tiny local florist to send condolence flowers and the person greets me coolly, asks only “How much do you want to spend?”, has no prices posted on anything, and no pictures or samples to show me, does it seem likely I will return? If there’d been another similar business within 15 miles I’d have walked out and gone elsewhere.

This subject has been on my mind for a few years, because my experience at the florist is far from an isolated incident. I fantasized about making my million with a company issuing videos and doing workshops about how to treat customers. But that’s not likely, and American business needs this now, so I’m going to write a little about it. Maybe it’ll be worth more than the traditional value of free advice.

Keep in mind, much of what I will say may seem obvious. It is. But if you work with the public and you aren’t practicing this, you need to hear it. And more than just hear it; consciously work at it and get some sort of feedback on how you are doing. My plan for teaching “customer service” included video illustrations of right and wrong; role-playing; and finally videotaping “students” for them to see themselves, because in all aspects of life we need a mirror, an objective reporter, to show us what we really do and say, as opposed to what we believe we do and say. Think about how true that is of other people you know. And it is just as true of you. And me.


If you are going to work with the public, in a gas station, a library, a restaurant, a retail store, behind any sort of service desk, accept these basic realities:

  • No customers, no job.
  • Every customer advertises you to people they know, with praise, condemnation, or silence.
  • Making a repeat customer is like gaining a new customer without the expense of buying ads or running special deals.
  • You’re “on” every minute.
  • Customers get to act tired, cranky, stupid, and demanding, but you do not. You must be polite, helpful, inoffensively cheerful, and competent.

These are habits of thought and action like any others, and you can learn them and make them mostly unconscious and routine. Even virtue, Aristotle said, is a habit.

If you absolutely can’t accept and act on these realities, then public service/retail is the wrong place for you. You won’t be effective or happy in your job. And eventually it may catch up to you, as your boss decides you don’t add anything to the business, or your own business fails.

Attentiveness and Greeting

If you’re otherwise engaged when a customer arrives, you must show that you know he or she is there. Maybe you’re on the phone or helping someone else when Joe walks up to the counter. Make eye contact with Joe, smile, return to what you are doing.

Don’t keep him waiting more than a couple of minutes unless it is clear to him that your current transaction has a clear end coming up, as for instance ringing up the customer ahead of him. (This doesn’t apply to a grocery checkout line, or other situations where customers know they are waiting and know their place in line. Although even there, send a smile to the customer who’s waiting behind that person sorting through a zillion coupons, and it will be appreciated.)

If your transaction may go on and on, use your judgment; probably you should say to the customer in front of you, “Excuse me just a moment,” turn to Joe, and say “Hi, can I answer a question for you?” He asks whether your store has Acme Widgets in stock, you tell him yes (and where they are) or no (adding, but if he can wait a moment, we have something very similar) then turn back to your current customer. Or if there is another employee available, get that person over to help Joe. Joe doesn’t walk out thinking you don’t care about his business, and you may have a customer.

On the other hand, don’t let attentiveness to the newly arrived customer make you abandon the one you were working with. Same with phone calls; that’s what the Hold button is for. Fairness is important to us humans, and the person who was there first can reasonably expect you to finish his or her transaction before going on to another. If Joe’s “quick question” turns into something longer, you must gently interrupt and promise to help him just as soon as you’ve finished with the other person’s business.

[Supervisors, take note: should your sales desk people really be answering all the incoming calls, too? You think you’re saving money but it means someone who is right there with money to spend has to wait while the clerk answers questions and routes calls.]

Do not do personal business in front of customers. Everybody needs to make a phone call at work sometimes, or talks to other employees during a slow period about non-work stuff, but make it a rule: never when a customer is present. Tell your babysitter you’ll call right back, quit discussing the weekend, the hot new clerk in Shipping, or the prospect of layoffs. Even if the call or conversation is really work-related (informing another staff member that the new shipment of extra-large widgets hasn’t arrived yet so we don’t have any on the shelves right now), the customer needs to come first. Make eye contact (as above) and end the other matter at once.

Each customer should feel that they have been noticed, that they will have your attention soon, and that during that time they will be your primary focus.


All of us have had the experience, on the customer side of the counter, of being either smothered with attention or wandering lost and alone. We want someone to pick up on our signals and act appropriately.

As a salesperson (or library assistant, waitperson, etc.) you can learn to read minds. Yes, it can be done. Offer initial assistance, then ask if you can help; if the answer is “No, I haven’t quite made up my mind,” or the old standby “I’m just looking around,” then say “Just let me know when you’re ready” or “Let me know if I can help you find something.”

And then, you don’t forget about this customer. If I sit staring at the menu for ten minutes maybe I need to be asked, “Would you like to hear about our specials today?” or “Can I tell you more about any of these lunches?”––and not in a tone of “Would you please get on with it!” Restaurant staff are usually much better at this than retail staff, since turning the tables over in restaurants is so important. In a store, people searching the shelves or aisles in vain for what they need have a certain look, which you don’t have to be a master of human expression to recognize.

Make your interchanges genuine. What you say, how you say it, body language, all can have a positive or negative effect. One of my pet peeves is the “drive-by wait-person” who asks, while rushing past our table, “Everything okay here?” And if it’s not? If my hamburger is raw inside or I need more water, do I have the impression that this person has time to care? Waiting table can be a high-stress job with a lot of things to juggle at once, but if you’re going to talk to me, please stop, face me, make eye contact, and then talk.

At the store’s cash register, as you are asking me whether everything was okay, and did I find what I needed, same thing: make eye contact, take that extra 5 seconds to see me, and then listen and respond to what I say. I like it better, and you may get valuable information: there’s no ground beef left at the meat counter, I couldn’t find what I came in for and am heading elsewhere for my main purchase, the directional signage is wrong and I’m ticked off, somebody spilled coffee all over your bin of blue widgets.

When there’s “nothing to do”

Most jobs have slow times: no customers, no calls, waiting for a part to arrive or for someone else to do something. In work that’s mentally or physically demanding you need little bits of rest. But, especially in retail or public service, there really are things to do even when––especially when––the store or restaurant is quiet and the phone isn’t ringing. This is your chance to make the coming busy times easier for yourself, and improve the service you are able to offer. Some of it’s obvious: fill the condiment containers, put away the unsold merchandise that has made its way to the counter, check your supplies, replace the cash register tape, tidy things up. That’s the kind of thing a boss will be pleased not to have to remind you about.

There’s more that’s not as obvious: you need to know a lot about whatever goods or services you are in charge of, so look over the stock, check out the new stuff, notice that you now have some of those special items someone asked about last week, ask the cook about today’s soup (or even taste it!). Find the answers to questions you haven’t been able to answer, and next time you won’t have to consult someone else or confess ignorance. Have the answer that will help the customer, and result in a sale. “I need something for a baby shower, but she already has 2 kids.” “How do you use this chutney stuff, can I use it for a marinade?” “All these dry dog foods are confusing, what are the differences?” “Can I do my taxes online here at the library?” “What’s a good flowering plant for a shady location?” “I need some left-handed scissors.” This can be an enjoyable part of your job, learning more to help people toward what they are looking for.

And if your store hasn’t got those left-handed scissors, or your restaurant doesn’t have a wide vegetarian menu, you’ll earn the customer’s gratitude by being able to suggest an alternative, or even another place that has what’s needed. I had to return a plastic lap desk (for a laptop) to an office store because it just wasn’t adequate, and nothing else they had was any better. I won’t forget that the staff person recommended a big book store to me as a good place to look; I would never have thought of going there and was getting tired of the search. I followed the tip and found what I wanted. Now, I think of that office store as a more helpful place, and I’m more likely to go there instead of to their competitor. An interchange can be very successful (in terms of your business) even if it doesn’t result in a sale.

Personal Satisfaction

This is the part about what’s in it for you, if you change your attitude and behavior so customers leave feeling good about their experience in your workplace.

Now, it’s obvious that you are very likely to increase your own chances of success at work by doing this, whether you own your own business or are an entry-level employee someplace.

What if your boss is an SOB who only cares about the bottom line, treats customers and staff poorly, and is never going to die or retire in time for you to benefit? Sounds like a good place to move on from, and if you understand and can express good principles of customer service, you have an advantage in the coming job interviews. The surly or spaced-out shirker isn’t at the head of anyone’s hiring list.

Deciding to look for ways to be better at what you do is not equivalent to resigning yourself to being at your present job forever. Just the opposite, in fact; bad attitude and bad performance are not attractive to potential new employers. Nor are they conducive to promotion (except in the financial industry and high-level corporate management).

Beyond that though, is another realm of benefit entirely. It actually is true that if you work at doing your job well you are very likely to feel better about it. That is not a falsehood spread by the capitalist bosses, it’s a psychological fact. If you don’t think your own job is worth doing well, then you are telling yourself that every moment at work is a waste of time, something to be resented and avoided. In other words, “Over half of my waking life is worthless.” If you don’t have any sense of satisfaction except when you manage to work as little as possible, you go home feeling pretty crappy about all those hours and effort, and about yourself.

And now, a word to the “capitalist bosses”

Most of what I have written has been addressed more to employees, but it is employers who set the tone of their businesses, and they have a lot to lose if staff are providing poor customer service. If that is the case at the business you run, don’t blame your the people who work for you––train them, encourage them, and set a good example including in your behavior to the employees themselves.

This may only be possible in small businesses, since larger ones get drawn astray by greed, ego, and isolation of management from the product and customers. Management starts to think that the end product is money, and they start viewing everyone else in the world as either tools or fools. Employees are tools to be used, customers are fools to be scammed. But we always hear that small businesses generate most of the new jobs in the US, so if they can accept a model based on good products, good customer service, good treatment of employees, then that will be a significant change.

Our current economic debacle can be directly traced to poor practices on the part of those in charge, whether they were causing bad loans to be made, or failing to listen to consumers when designing cars. Greed is always a pyramid scheme: it pays off only if you bail out at the right time. A risky business model, that: it’s really just gambling (with other peoples’ money).

If you’re in business, you have customers. Act toward their greater satisfaction, strive to do what you do better than anyone else, take a long-term point of view, keep your debt down, and invest in your employees. You may not end up with the biggest widget company in the world, but you are likely to be still operating when the big guys have vanished in debt and disgrace.

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