Friday, May 6, 2011


This week I was coming back from a trip to the South Bay via Caltrain, which is my favorite mass transit agency in the Bay Area. The ride is quiet and comfortable, you have the opportunity to sit alone in the upper deck, and at the Fourth & King station in San Francisco there are great places to eat before you depart or when you return.

I returned on Caltrain at around 9 am, so I swung by Philz Coffee first, and then backtracked to Panera Bread for a bagel to go with the coffee. One sees this a lot between these two businesses--people come into Philz all the time with Panera sandwiches and go into Panera with Philz coffee cups. The lovely folks at Philz were hard at work that morning--there was a line out the door and to the corner of Fourth & Berry. I wasn't on a time budget, so I was fine with taking the time to wait in line. When I got to Panera there was no line and I walked right up to a counter staffed with four people and ordered a bagel with cream cheese to eat there. From the moment that I began speaking with the Panera clerk I got the impression that he wanted to shake me--he started out by asking me if I wanted coffee, which seemed a bit odd with coffee in my hand. I hadn't yet stipulated the "to go" or "for here" part, and he asked me quickly "To go, right?" before I was finished with my order, something that I hadn't remembered saying. No, I corrected him, it's for here. He gave me my total and disappeared while I pulled out my wallet and prepared to pay. He reappeared a moment later with an art deco plate with bagel, spread, napkin and knife on it. I paid for it and realized on my way to a table that the slicing and toasting of said bagel was probably not a given, but I didn't want to create a hang-up in the customer flow that came in behind me (I had started that morning's trend of going to Philz's first and then Panera), so I went to sit down and destroy the bagel on the plate.

I've worked at three different companies now that required front-line employees to offer accessories to what the customer purchased. At all three the computerized ordering system generated suggestions for what the customer might also need but either isn't aware of or might be forgetting. The practice of putting said items on a prompt can give the employee offering it the feeling of loss of control in a transaction: "I have to do this part of the transaction in case someone's watching or so that I meet my numbers." The customer and employee feel the employee feel the employee is utilizing some sort of script, with the sole purpose of squeezing even more blood out of a turnip, more or less.

Reversing motivation works as a better incentive than driving to meet a number. The cashier at Panera could think of the process as an offering of thinking for the customer, or giving the customer every opportunity to have a great experience with them. True, this requires some significant amount of imagination in approach, from the standpoint of the employee, or, if that employee is hitting a wall, from the point of view of the person of leadership who is trying to utilize the employee to improve the customer experience. If the employee can can fathom picturing themselves in the customer's shoes, suddenly that portion of the transaction loses its scripted quality and achieves a tone of empathy and subject expertise offering advice. This approach requires some finesse--the end result, however, is a grateful customer with options, instead of a dull knife and a thick, stubborn, cold bagel.

When I trained and coached employees on phones during my tenure at two of these aforementioned companies, I would establish the empathy piece up front by asking the employee if they felt like running errands after work. "Imagine you have to go to the grocery store to pick up everything you need for dinner," I began. Then I would ask the employee if they could have someone greet them at the door and listen to what they wanted to make--say, lasagna--and then walk the store with them and pick out everything they need, so that they, the customer, wouldn't have to remember everything alone, wouldn't they choose that? Most employees agree that this would be the favorable interaction (those that don't usually have a spouse or parent taking care of their errands, but that's a rare scenario). Because the employee can't dispute this level of service, it makes sense, and starts the employee thinking that offering an extra item or service to the customer isn't something to get through but is more about the operative part of the transaction, like obtaining payment or verifying the item or service needed.

Does this approach make for a longer transaction? At first, yes. But the alternative could cost more time. The customer may wonder why they have to call back/return to the line when the employee could have reminded them of the need in the first place. Doing something over almost always takes more time than taking more time with the transaction in the first place. Worse, the lack of suggesting the "extra" may cost you a customer--since I didn't get the option of slicing and toasting, I could either go back and demand that the item be sliced and toasted (a "do-over") or I could just swallow the pain and go to Specialty's next time the opportunity comes up (another bakery on Berry). If I'm not the only one who has this type of transaction, then half of the transactions take twice as long and the other half never happen again. So long, business growth.

Sadly, you can also scare an employee into this practice by letting them know what the lack of offering eventually costs, as in the scenario above, but I prefer to build on the foundation of empathy with the possibility of praise directly from the customer. I was happy but tired that morning from the train ride and the lack of breakfast, and if the cashier would have thought of everything he would have had my gratitude. Not everyone will offer him gratitude, to be sure, but you can bet that the next place I buy my bagel from will be held against a standard of asking me if I wanted it sliced and toasted. The next bakery will go a long way to keeping me if they squeeze in the offer before I remember that I have to make the request. It's all in the timing of making sure that the customer has a favorable experience, the employee has a favorable experience, and that nothing is scripted out of fear.

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