You WILL be Friendly

One of the first meetings I attended at Ralph’s was a “Friendly Meeting”. I sarcastically asked whether they were going to teach us how to be friendly.  As it turns out, that would have been a lot more useful than what actually happened. The store director began by telling us that since we can’t compete on price, we need to succeed on customer service. It appears that after cutting staffing as far as possible, taking away merit raises, and putting a cap on the number of automatic increases an employee can receive in any position, they were still losing customers based on price. So they decided to do something radical: be nice to the customers.

There are a few rules: smile and say hello to everyone, ask whether you can help them find anything, and never (ever, ever) point them in the right direction. You must always take the customer to the item they are looking for. Some customers take well to an employee saying hello at 6am; others give a look that says, “If I wanted to talk, I wouldn’t be here at 6am”. Nobody said anything about how to handle the people who take it as an invitation to start a lengthy discussion about their eating habits and why they only eat “x” type of foods. But I’m friendly so….

At the beginning it was easy to not point people in the right direction; I didn’t know where it was either. As time went by, I learned that people don’t necessarily want someone walking them to the item (I would hate it). They want information, not a shopping partner. A few even got offended by the idea: “I can find it myself.” (If that were true, why are you asking?) Now the only people I take are the ones who still look confused after I’ve explained where it is multiple times. They are always very sweet and say something along the lines of “Thank you so much – I never would have found it without you.” There really isn’t any way for me to answer other than “thank you” without sounding unfriendly.

We have meetings every quarter to discuss how friendly we are. Last year, all was well. We consistently met or exceeded our target. We all got cards that entered us in a drawing for a $25 gift card. (How’s that for motivation?) We must have gotten complacent because this year, disaster struck. In late spring we found out that our customers were not at all happy, and that we were 15 points below company standards friendly-wise. We had to fix the problem!

It was also at this meeting that we learned that there are actually 4 pieces to the “friendly score”: checkout friendly, floor friendly (that’s where I am), store cleanliness, and product availability. As it happened, the checkout was 10 points above target and the floor was 15 points over. The two problem areas were store cleanliness and product availability. Nobody stated the obvious: the employees at the meeting were doing fine; somebody needed to tell those wilting veggies to get their act together.

As usual in the world of Ralph, anything that might impact management’s bonus or tenure was a crisis. Over the next couple of days, we would get messages over the speaker system: “Our friendly score is X; remember to be friendly!” Every hour or so they would update the number. The customers must have thought we were nuts. All the while, the floor had streaks and the strawberries grew moldy.

I’m really not sure whether the situation improved or another crisis has arisen, but friendly is not the focus. At the last meeting, we talked about the United Way campaign. Why not? It has as much to do with me being friendly as the black marks on the floor.

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