Remember that business is about people – and not just your customers

A great post at Engadget UK by Caitlin Layshon provides a sobering insiders view on the Zavvi and HMV collapses.

Caitlin brings home brilliantly the point that whilst we discuss the clear failings of HMV and other high street companies to evolve and adapt, the brutal reality is that it is peoples’ livelihoods and families that we are talking about. When a business closes, peoples’ lives are affected. It is tempting to say that unless you have been through this you cannot appreciate it, but I’m sure most people can – it is just that the reality is worse than you think. The initial fears of cashflow and paying bills quickly give way to longer term concerns about careers, mortgages and house. Over the longer term falling personal confidence can make finding a new job harder. In far too many cases, failure to find another job can lead to depression and other health related issues.

Online posts of former employees shows that whilst the closure or move into administration was shock, it was rarely a surprise. Staff and employees on the front line of the company are more aware than most about the problems and challenges facing the company.  They may not know the details of the corporate debt status, but they know when products are not selling and customer numbers are falling.

But despite seeing this, how often are employees involved in helping change (actually meaning save) the company?

I don’t mean passively involved, by losing overtime and benefits, but actively involved by sharing feedback and ideas about how to improve?

How often are frontline staff made a real part of the business? Able to help save their own store, incentivised to boost sales, motivated to improve customer service?

By the time the administrators are appointed it is too late. For them, it is all about the Benjamins – or should that be Fry’s, Darwen’s or Nightingales? – It is about corporate financial restructuring. Only the balance sheet matters. Nothing else. People are merely a line on the balance sheet, as dispensable to administrators as any other ‘asset’ or liability. If the numbers don’t add up – the stores close and the people lose their jobs. Simple as that.

And we wonder why businesses fail.

We wonder why companies that don’t involve their employees, fail to utilise their passion, energy and ideas too often struggle?

This isn’t rocket science.

Retail is about the EXPERIENCE as much as the product. Your employees are not only important to this, but critical. You cannot have a great retail experience without great employees who are passionate about the company, but too many companies treat people as resources … assets to be consumed and replaced as needed.

Think of a great retail or service company.

It is hard think of a great retail or service company that has poor customer service.

If they have poor customer service, they are not a great company. Simple as that.

So, if a retail company wants to be successful, then it needs to have excellent customer service. This will not happen if the employees feel disconnected from the company. They need to involved, aware, engaged.

The extreme example of retailing as an experience is Apple – which has the highest sales per square foot, but many smaller retailers survive because of their excellent local service. My local butcher can quickly check the order book what Turkey size I have ordered for the last two years. I cannot imagine Tesco ever doing that. Specialist retailers such as REI and Wholefoods in the US lead the way in truly showing what experience retailing can be. The UK High Street story is much more mixed, with poor service unfortunately being the norm. I don’t think I’m unusual in being able to shop in a Town Centre and not once see a smile, eye contact or any attempt to engage in conversation. Although I may be asked whether staff can help on entering a store, this more often is a pointless formality rather than driven by a true willingness to want to help and serve.

The blame doesn’t lie with the employees though, but with companies paying minimum wage, operating low trust cultures with little or no empowerment and spending next to nothing on training. All of these say one thing … ‘you don’t matter’. The companies couldn’t be more wrong.

Not only do employees matter – they are the most valuable part of a retail experience.

2013 is going to see a brutal culling of the UK High Street. This is not good news for anyone, but my personal experience is that few of the companies that have failed recently had anything other than poor or indifferent service. You may disagree, but a quick read of comments on news sites shows similar experiences from many other shoppers. If High Street stores are to remain viable, a number of strategic changes and investments may be required – but at the top of all of these should be customer service.

And a few quick tips for business executives and leaders who want to reform their customer service: 

  1. Spend a day on the front line. Make all execs spend time serving customers. No exceptions.
  2. Give the difference between your daily pay and average shop pay to the staff in the store. Buy coffees, cakes or donate it. But give it.
  3. Listen to what your employees are telling you.
  4. Then act on it.
  5. Establish a way for front line employees to tell you when something isn’t working.

This may not be enough to save a failing business model, but it will help show the Caitlins of this world know that you did CARE, did listen and did want to fix this.

You also show your customers that THEY MATTER, and you appreciate their custom.

That’s enough to get my business.

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