(This is the first in the Tales from the Trenches series, a new semi-regular blog feature sharing specific insights & observations from site visits to retailers around North America)
In this first installment of Tales from the Trenches, I’m pleased to report that Spring is finally here! (or almost over, depending where you are in the country.) A time of excitement and promise, and in the retail garden business, a time for new employees hoping that no one asks them a question. You will see this in all retail channels, from the oldest exclusive nursery to the newest “pop-up” facility. I was that person myself once, long ago and far away: pushing a cart of plants to re-stock a bench or washing celery on a farmer’s market stall. I kept my head down, worked hard and tried to look invisible, silently willing customers to keep moving past me. Now that I am a little bit (!) older I can understand what they are going through, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable in today’s highly competitive lawn and garden market.
During one garden center observation session, I watched a younger employee ringing up customers for at least three hours without a noticeable smile, without an audible “thank you” – in fact, without an impromptu action of any sort. Robotic, almost: it might as well have been a self-checkout station for all the interaction there was. After watching a $170 sale with zero human reaction from the employee I wanted to say, “That lady just bought about 17 hours of your wages, it’s OK to smile…”
Why are these people so unprepared for what awaits them? Who interviewed, selected, hired, oriented, trained and placed them in such an unforgiving environment? All retail work can be demanding, but the spring season in lawn and garden must rank up there with the best of them. We have a short 8 weeks to make enough money to pay a year’s bills, selling to a consumer that might not have set foot in the place since last June. Customers now have less time and less tolerance for failure than ever before.
Retail staff are supposed to magically make all this right in 20 minutes and smile all the way through? Yep, garden retail can be intense and unforgiving.
But as they say, that’s not the customer’s problem. They are volunteering to come to our stores and spend their valuable spare time, gas and wages to pay our wages. Hmmm, now you put it that way….
It’s the fear. I am convinced that the main reason for this lack of confidence to look up, engage customers and see where the conversation leads, is the employee’s fear. Fear of being asked a question he cannot answer. Obviously, it is the job of management to train these employees, to orient them with answers to as many of the common, predictable questions as possible. It is our job to infuse confidence in them through product knowledge (“PK”).
But orientation and training must go way beyond that. New people will never know enough to face every inquiry, so they will still avoid eye contact. It is essential that managers equip their employees with a way to cope with any question – whether they know the answer or not. Just a few minutes on how to handle this potentially awkward situation might be the most productive training session of the year. Only then can managers expect employees to have the confidence to look up and engage customers.
Employees need to be assured it is OK to not know every answer, but they can be the first responders and find someone who can provide the information. Customers would welcome an employee who has the confidence to say “That’s a great question and I wish I knew all this stuff but I am still learning myself! Let me get Jenny on the radio so she can get the answer for both of us!”
So the mantra to your staff in the next few weeks might be: “It’s OK to not know the answer, but it’s NOT OK to ignore or avoid customers because you don’t know.”
Yes, it’s Spring. So heads up everyone, here come your wages!
Photo Credit: An Armstrongs Garden Center (CA) team member engaging a customer with a respectful but non-invasive stance